Endless debates about TV debates

Surprise move: David Cameron appointed Craig Oliver

I’m not going to rehearse the debate about TV election debates; I’ve made clear I think they should happen and will happen in the short campaign.

But I think it’s worth noting that in trying to do David Cameron’s bidding in scuppering the debates, Craig OIiver seems to have managed to achieve the worst of all worlds.

Cameron consistently said he thought they sucked the life out of the 2010 campaign – although politicians are always likely to say this about debates they haven’t won.

Still, the Prime Minister’s determination not to let them take place again has led to a confrontation with the broadcasters at precisely the wrong point in the electoral calendar.

I know Craig from ITN and he’s a smart operator. But it’s clear he thought the broadcasters would back down when faced with a point-blank refusal from No 10.

That strategy has blown up in his face because of a surprisingly firm response from the broadcasters.

Now Labour’s chicken charge is sticking, it’s getting traction with the public, and that can only get worse from now on.

If Cameron doesn’t take part in the debates, he’s a chicken. If he does take part, he’s a flip-flop chicken.

Downing Street’s only hope for a way out of the impasse is a failure of nerve and splits among the broadcasters to emerge. Cue Lord Grade.

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UK election leaders’ debates to go ahead

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We’re doing it with or without you is the threat from the broadcasters.

ITV, BBC, Sky and Channel 4 have offered a new formula for the televised leaders’ debates. One debate with the Prime Minister and Leader of Opposition alone; and two debates with the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the SNP, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru.

The debates would take place during the General Election campaign – with proposed dates of 2,16 and 30 April.

That sounds like a tough couple of programmes to produce. Presumably we’re now into the formal realms of “You have a minute to state your position on the NHS”.

But equally, it’s very hard to see how David Cameron can continue to refuse to take part without the “frit” allegation sticking. He wanted the minor parties, he’s got the minor parties.

Expect complaints from the DUP, Respect and others though.

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.

New deputy editor for ITV News

A quick post on the appointment today of the excellent Richard Zackheim as Deputy Editor of ITV News. I worked with Zackers on a number of ITN services, most notably at the ITV News Channel where he was a talented programme editor. He’s personable, decisive with an acerbic wit. I think he’ll do well back at ITV.

I think it’s fair to say his appointment was a surprise. Even ITN seem to have managed to put out a press release without a photograph of Zackers. Hopefully it’ll manage to rectify that for the Media Guardian article.

So, Geoff Hill begins to reshape ITV News in his image, bringing across a trusted lieutenant from Channel 5 News. I’ve no inside scoop on who else was in the running for the role, but I suspect the changes at ITV sparked by Geoff’s appointment still have some way to run. There’s a number of people who will feel Zackers has leap-frogged them and may decide to go. His predecessor, Jonathan Munro, now over at BBC News may be about to take some calls.

Five predictions for 2014

Trying to predict the future is a mug’s game.

No matter how right you think you might be, you’re always going  to be wrong about something. Nothing ever turns out quite as you might expect.

And publishing predictions on the internet is particularly foolish. Every sceptic from now on can come back here and say “Well, you were wrong about this, so you’re almost certainly wrong about that.”

So, what better way to start a new blog than five predictions for 2014….

1. TV journalism old guard to retire.

On first sight that might not seem like much of a prediction. After all, people retire all the time. But 2014 marks a change point for TV journalism. The BBC’s new Director of News, James Harding, is getting into his stride, outlining his vision of a scoop orientated BBC. While over at ITV new Editor Geoff Hill is still dealing with the fallout from his generation skipping appointment. Behind the scenes there’s been movement among the newsroom big beasts but, so far, that’s not been reflected in on-screen talent.

Expect that to change.

The biggest set-piece event for any British newsroom is a General Election. For the BBC and ITV it’s the product of months of planning, with senior staff seconded to deliver comprehensive, fast and reliable results programmes and, perhaps more importantly, to shaft the opposition.

Get it right and barely anyone notices. Get it wrong and expect it to be endlessly dredged up by the press and your rivals.

So, with new boys in charge at ITN and the BBC what’s it going to mean for the on-screen talent? Well, the easiest way to put your new and improved stamp on a broadcaster is to shake up the presentation teams.

First up the BBC. David Dimbleby is, of course, a broadcasting institution having presented the BBC’s election coverage since 1979. However, by 2015 he will be in his late seventies and, despite the new tattoo, his on-screen performances have started to look a little doddery. During the seemingly never-ending coverage of the 2010 election and coalition negotiations he appeared increasingly exhausted.

It’s time for Harding to bite the bullet and bring in a new presenter. Naturally, Huw Edwards is the Dimbleby in waiting, although it’s clear Jeremy Paxman would like to bring a more abrasive style to the cosy election programmes. But perhaps the time has come for a bolder choice: both Martha Kearney and Emily Maitlis would make interesting appointments.

For ITV it’s a tougher decision. Political presenter of choice Alastair Stewart is still going strong. Bringing encyclopedic knowledge and a high level of professionalism to the role, he’d be a difficult presenter to leave on the subs bench. But the fact remains that during the 2010 programme, the grey haired Alastair, sat on a grey set, in a charcoal grey suit, interviewing a succession of grey pundits.

This is not the image ITV wants to present.

The obvious replacement is Political Editor Tom Bradby. Already performing well on his own mini-me Question Time, The Agenda, Tom’s cut his presenting teeth. But if he’s still more needed as pundit than presenter then it’s time to give Julie Etchingham a shot at the top job.

2. A national daily newspaper announces it’s going weekly.

The long, inexorable decline of the printed press has continued through 2013. Although proving more resilient than some of the Noughties’ digital evangelists had expected, the fact remains that even the most ardent supporter can see the current status quo at the newsagents can’t last. Even some of the big regional newspapers are being wiped out.

At first sight, it appears logical to predict that at some point newspapers will go entirely digital. That’s almost certainly the case in the medium to long term. But the savings that could be made by axing the legacy elements, such as printing and transporting newspapers, haven’t yet outweighed the big commercial problem: digital advertising just isn’t worth as much as selling adverts in newsprint.

So, my guess is that one of the national newspapers will announce it’s going weekly. The means that it will keep a premium product in newsagents, but cut some of the costs of daily printing and production. It’s a model which is already being trialled by Variety in the United States. It doesn’t mean an end to daily journalism. But the output will truly be digital first.

Who will it be? The Independent’s position looks the most precarious of the serious press. And its owner has shown himself to be willing to take risks. Will he be the first to stop daily printing?

3. NBC news to get a shiny new website.

The imminent departure of Chief Digital Officer Vivian Schiller for Twitter has given new NBC News President Deborah Turness a chance to make some changes.  Deborah is a creative dynamo, brought into NBC to shake it up and make it more competitive with it’s traditional TV rivals and the new digital upstarts. It’s a tough challenge. And her recent appointments show she’s not afraid to cherry-pick former colleagues from ITN to help her do it.

Chief among them is ITV’s Director of Online, Julian March, soon to be NBC’s Senior Vice President of Editorial and Innovation. Quite a title.

Jules is a smart, resourceful editorial leader who has turned ITV from a digital zero to, if not quite a hero, at least to a something. He’s put ITV’s VOD strategy on the right path, got the commercial and editorial teams working together to try and innovate their way towards a commercially sustainable future.

And he built his reputation at ITV by relaunching the moribund news website as a digital stream of live, rolling digital news. Expect to see something similar happen at NBC.

4. Twitter and linear television drive more “event” programming.

Why, ask the digerati, hasn’t the commercial disruption wrought upon newspapers by the internet been replicated in television? The imminent end of linear TV has been predicted many times, so why does it still seem to be surviving in rude health?

Some of the reasons are pretty obvious. Linear TV still produces content people want to watch in a way that they want to watch it. Viewers prefer the experience of switching on the TV to watch Eastenders to wading through quirky cat videos on YouTube.

Plus, there’s also the fact that broadcasters have been smart about making sure that their content is consumed online in a way which hasn’t cannibalised the core product.

But the main reason that linear TV is till the mass medium product of choice is that it’s brilliant at creating and broadcasting live events and has learnt to create instant communities around them.

Take a look at Twitter when the X-Factor final is underway. People like to watch a live unveiling drama and to share that experience with others. The fabled water-cooler is still delivering it’s moments, but they’re happening simultaneously with the broadcast rather than the next day at work or school.

Broadcasters want more of this. They’d also like it if they could capture that interaction on a platform where they could monetise it too. So, expect Twitter to try and kill that idea at birth and to find ways of sharing the love, and the revenue, with broadcasters. The live events drive the traffic on Twitter, which drives the audiences to the live events. What’s not to like?  Could Twitter be the X-Factor series sponsor in 2014? Stranger things have happened….

5. TV debates announced for 2015 general election.

The difficult thing about genies is that once they’re out of the bottle, it’s hard to get them to go back in again. During the 2010 General Election, the campaign was dominated by the televised debates. “I agree with Nick” became the catchphrase of both Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

But the debates had some big issues. Firstly, there were too many of them. Three leaders’ debates for the BBC, ITV and Sky, plus a Chancellors’ debate for Channel 4 was overkill for a three week long campaign. Secondly, the format owed too much to the United States’s Presidential Debates and wasn’t engaging enough for viewers. We’re more used to the cut-and-thrust of Question Time, rather than the formalised minute long answers of American television.

And for a lot of politicians the debates over-shadowed the election. It became more Presidential, less about getting the message out in the constituencies. The media event seemed to be sharing equal footing with the political event. And no-one likes to share the spot-light.

So, that’s the end of that then, right?

Not so fast. Yes, the format needs some work and yes there’s always a feeling that incumbents don’t need to do it. But it’s hard to give up those three hours of primetime coverage, hard to give up the feeling that you’re making connections in a way that speeches and events never do, hard to give up the sense that you’re going to make mincemeat of the opposition.

Now the question the media will ask is “why do you want to stop holding TV debates”, not whether you’ll allow them. And no-one wants to appear frit. So, expect some changes, but expect an announcement.