Axe the BBC World Service not BBC3

Lord Hall’s comments to the Oxford Media Convention that salami-slicing of budgets would have to end has prompted this take from The Daily Mail, suggesting BBC3 or BBC4 will be axed.

Poor BBC3. It’s never been loved by decision-makers. It just doesn’t make programmes that they like, obsessed as it is with subjects like Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents or Snog Marry Avoid?.

But it’s not going anywhere. It serves an audience that’s hard to reach for other BBC TV output and has a decent track record of innovation, especially in comedy. Little Britain, The Mighty Boosh and Gavin and Stacey all started out there. It’s also hard to see Director of Television Danny Cohen axing his old alma mater.

And poor BBC4. Loved by the middle-aged and middle-class, it could have become the TV version of Radio 4. But the budgets were never quite big enough, the ambition wasn’t quite large enough and it never really defined itself as anything other than what BBC2 used to be before endless series of Masterchef.

If the Mail is right and a channel is going, and I’d say it’s still a pretty big if, BBC4 is probably the one in the firing line. Although whether the savings are big enough is a reasonable question. BBC4’s budget in 2012/13 stood at £50 million, BBC3’s at £89.9 million. Both of those figures are already being reduced as part of the DQF process.

So, here’s a modest proposal: axe the BBC world Service instead.

Part of the reason why the BBC is having to make savings is the insistence by the government that the World Service’s budget is met from the licence fee rather than direct grant from the Foreign Office. In the next financial year, the first under the new funding arrangement, that will cost £245 million pounds. That’s almost exactly £10 for every licence fee payer. Money that’s spent on producing content for audiences outside the UK. Is that equitable?

People who work at the BBC will insist that the World Service IS the BBC. The keeper of the sacred Reithian flame. But in these days of reduced funding and greater value for money for licence fee-payers is it really justifiable to spend a quarter of a billion pounds on services for audiences who don’t have to pay while cutting services for those who do? I think that’s becoming an increasingly tough position to defend.

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David Dimbleby to present BBC Election 2015

David Dimbleby (credit BBC)

The BBC have announced the presenters for next year’s election programme – The Guardian has a write up here.

So, can I have that as a near-miss? Senior Dimbleby stays on for last curtain call with Huw Edwards, the junior Dimbleby, no longer in the wings but sharing the stage.

Still I think it’s an opportunity lost. James Harding could have used the moment to mark a definitive break from the past. Instead this is the future shuffling, blinking into the limelight. And hopefully they’ll make better use of some of the other talent than last time around – Emily Maitlis deserves better than crunching results on a touch-screen.

So, not-scaring the psephological horses over at the BBC. Adam Boulton will presumably host Sky News’s election coverage as an anchor rather than political editor. Your move ITV…

 

The future for TV news channels

Cardiff University’s Richard Sambrook and Sean McGuire of Oliver Ohlbaum argue here that the 24 hour TV news channel has had its day.

Why, they ask, pay for studios, presenters, crews and reporters to hang around waiting for news when audiences can get it instantly online? TV news can’t beat digital, so why not get rid of some of that costly infrastructure and rethink broadcast news as an on-demand service?

At first sight it’s a compelling argument. TV news is locked into formats developed decades ago, change has been slow to show on-screen as disruption has happened all around it. In my own experience I know that between 2006 and 2012, when I worked predominantly in digital news, it felt like there was wave after wave of disruption and innovation – podcasts, web video, social media, broadband uptake, personalisation – each one forcing us to reexamine our assumptions.

When I returned to television in 2013 it felt like nothing had changed. That’s not quite true – the ability to use broadband in newsgathering had reduced the reliance on satellites, but aside from that, I got straight back on the bike.

But….

The trouble with this kind of argument is that it presupposes an active viewer. Someone who wants to take the time to create their own personalised bulletins, that’s interested in watching a raw feed of video of an event, that has no interest in the context and analysis added by reporters and guests – but still wants the high quality newsgathering that Sambrook and McGuire think they’ve freed their reporters to conduct.

Some people are like that. But I’d suggest most are not.

Sometimes people just want to watch the news. Yes, that needs to be made easier to consume when I want to consume it – but that seems to me to suggest more infrastructure built around a TV news channel not the abolition of the channel itself. Yes, live news needs to cover better stories, to reduce its reliance on balcony two-ways with journalists far from the story. In my opinion, Al Jazeera English has a good track record in this. But I can’t see that a reduction in competition is likely to improve the quality of coverage for the viewer.

And, yes, people make mistakes. But I think viewers can forgive that. Just as they can also forgive the mistakes that happen online in the wake of disasters. 

TV news needs to change to keep itself relevant. It needs to lose its complacency, to embrace online and the digital revolution, but the idea of an output spine which keeps newsgathering motoring 24-hours a day is still relevant, and long may it continue to be so.

Internet Secret Sauce – why the digital tortoise may yet beat the hare

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Proving that I don’t just read The Guardian, I saw this interesting take in the NYT on Ezra Klein moving to Vox Media from The Washington Post.

Veteran media commentator David Carr uses it to dismiss the argument there’s a bubble building in digital content. That’s the view of some commentators as Buzzfeed, Vox and Business Insider et al attract funding and the new kids on the block show the squares in legacy media how it’s done.

Fair enough. As David Carr points out, the short history of online publishing is marked by radical change but at some point sustainable commercial models will emerge.

But there’s that Internet Secret Sauce argument too. Want to be big in digital? Invent technology. Be different. Change the world. Attract big money investment and sell up fast.

Look at the thinking behind Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media. The stated aim to build a challenging journalistic endeavour supported by licensing the underlying technology.

Good luck to them. I hope it works.

But why do old media companies such as newspapers seem slow to become digital oil wells? It’s not because they employ stupid people, or those who don’t get the internet. They employ some of the best brains in the business. So what’s the problem?

1. Digital advertising isn’t worth much. Unless you’re Google, selling advertising online isn’t a route to big money. And Google already has that Google space pretty well filled.

2. Print advertising is still worth lots. It might be shrinking, but a sector worth £2bn a year in the UK is still worth having.

3. Because the print advertising market is mature, publishers efficiently set-off costs against income leading to relatively predictable profits. With digital, publishers have to iterate towards new business models – that means soaking up losses.

4. In order to continue to service the print market, legacy media operations have had to maintain large numbers of staff. Cut staff and reduce the flow of original content, increasing the rate of audience loss and revenue.

5. Owners want results. And they want them now – just ask Tony Gallagher.

This all adds up to something of a conundrum for publishers. How do you cut costs, without damaging your audience, while encouraging innovation that doesn’t eat your business model?

And the answer? Go slowly. Innovate and iterate, but don’t kill the golden goose. And that strategy shows no sign of changing, Jill Abramson is still talking about a print editon of the New York Times existing in twenty years time.

Maybe.

The trouble is with the slow but sure model is that it has a tipping point. Eventually, the costs of producing and distributing the paper will outweigh the benefits of the advertising income. And that’s where the new kids on the block have the edge.

But I don’t think that the digital native media companies have reinvented journalism or publishing. They’re doing what successful media businesses have always done. Identify a market, serve its needs and establish a cost base low enough to make money.

The successful ones have done it with verve, imagination, wit and ability – that’s what sets them apart from the crowd – but I’m not sure that they’ve invented new models for publishing. Unlike, say, Twitter who have created something genuinely revolutionary.

The legacy media might move slowly but it still brings huge levels of brand recognition. If they can continue to capitalise on it, it has value. Just look at the leading global digital news destinations. Not one is a digital native. At least not yet.

I’m afraid, for me, it’s still meet the new boss. Just like the old boss.

Why Al Jazeera English needs to think again about digital news

The Guardian has published an interesting interview with Al Anstey, Managing Director of Al Jazeera English.

It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the disgusting behaviour of the Egyptian government in arresting Al Jazeera journalists on trumped up terrorism charges through to the network’s expansion plans.

I’ve worked with Al at ITN and Al Jazeera. There’s no question in my mind that he’s one of the sharpest people in TV news. Highly intelligent and thoughtful about the role of international TV news, he’s robust in defending Al Jazeera’s reporting and has a comprehensive vision for its development.

Which is why I found this quote so disappointing:

“We already have the highest quality content gathered by a fantastically diverse team around the world. If you break up the constituent parts that go into a two-minute television package, what you have that hits the cutting room floor is gold dust,” he says. That “gold dust” – longer interviews, more informal chats with the correspondent, explainers – can be “tailored to different platforms and provide a much richer resource depending on which platform you are looking at”, adds Anstey. “It’s about changing the mindset.”

The idea of digital news as DVD box-set extras is very old-fashioned. It’s the same kind of thinking that saw TV companies early attempts at digital include behind the scenes video-diaries or cross-promoted longer versions of broadcast interviews.

The reason it’s so disappointing is that it starts from the wrong premise. Rather than looking at what the audience wants and needs from a news service, it starts from the point of view of “we have this unused stuff, let’s shove that up online”. It’s the antithesis of providing a user-focused news service.

Put crudely, journalists have made editorial decisions about cutting material to emphasise the key lines – if they thought there was value in using the stuff on the cutting room floor, they’d have already used it. Why would anyone think that time poor digital users want to sit through the extended cut?

But change is needed.

Al Jazeera English’s website needs over-hauling. The navigation is based on inheritance from the TV channel’s structure and its reporting looks divergent from the core news operation. It also needs to continue to break new ground using digital media to report from around the world and to engage with an increasingly digitally literate global audience.

I’d also like to see put more focus on its eye-witness reporting, rather than the less interesting opinion pieces which, for me, sit oddly with the channel’s desire to provide impartial coverage of complex situations.

I applaud Al’s desire to bring greater convergence between the digital and broadcast sides of his operation, but I hope he will bring change that will see more digital innovation based on satisfying audience needs rather than on making more of costly newsgathering at the expense of user experience.

And just as I was thinking about this blog, I spotted this piece from Buzzfeed on innovative short-form video. It may work, it may not – but it seems to me to be a sophisticated attempt to engage with a tough to reach audience.

ITV’s special pleading to parliament

Interesting story on The Guardian about ITV calling for top slicing of the licence fee.

ITV wants a fund set up, allowing broadcasters to bid for funds to support their news operations.

It’s an interesting argument – the actual submission to parliament is very interesting.

ITV points out it spends £100 million a year on news. Sounds like a lot, but it’s trifling compared to the BBC.

As anyone who’s looked into this knows, there’s very little publicly available information about how much the BBC spends on news. The £45 million figure is often quoted – but that’s merely the operational costs of the BBC News Channel. You also need to add in newsgathering, BBC World, and Nations and Regions plus the costs of the bulletins, Newsnight and BBC Breakfast. And that’s just TV – what about radio new, 5 Live and the World Service?

The actual figure for news could easily be ten times what’s spent on the news channel.

But the really stand out stat for me was the BARB quote:

each adult watched an average of around 114 hours of national or international news on television in 2012, of which around 80% was on the BBC. The next closest is ITV with 13% share of viewing, with Sky News in third place with 6%.

 

That is a disaster for ITV.

Forget the comparison with the BBC for a moment, ITV is only recording twice as much news viewing as Sky News.  Sky News is a brilliant product – but it doesn’t deliver mass audiences and the viewership is notoriously fickle. It may well be that there’s more to that stat than meets the eye, and I’m going to have a look into it. But on first reading, it’s hard to under-estimate how badly it suggests ITV has mismanaged its news brand.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have canned the ITV News Channel.

Who will replace Adam Boulton as Sky News’s Political Editor?

I admit it. The headline’s a come on. I’ve no inside scoop – although I do have some thoughts on who it should be.

Whoever it is will have big shoes to fill. Boulton has been a big part of the success of Sky News. For 25 years he’s provided the latest analysis on the political story of the day. Unflappably for the most part, although some have rather uncharitably focused on his on-screen arguments.

He obviously wanted a change and I’d argue that in reality the post of political editor has been filled by Joey Jones for the last year or so anyway. Adam’s time has been spent on his lunchtime show, Boulton and Co. But, for me, he’s a much more interesting reporter than presenter.

If it was me making the appointment, I’d be looking for a big name, with a lobby background who can provide instant analysis of politics and policy. It would also be good to try and break the mould of white, middle-aged man as political editor. Being political editor of Sky News you have to have an appetite for politics, be a nerd about the policy, understand the context and the history – and still be able to make it understandable to the man in the street.

I’d say the runners and riders are heir apparent Joey Jones, Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman, Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis, ITV’s Lucy Manning and, as a lobby curveball, The Times’s Roland Watson. That would be my personal interview list. There’s already been some speculation about Tom Bradby or James Lansdale too. Can’t see either of those being tempted from their current berths though.

No doubt Ladbrooke’s will have a book open soon.

And if you want to know why Adam Boulton will be such a hard act to follow, take a look at this video of an old two-way in atrocious weather. There’s not many that would put up with this.