Dominic Crossley-Holland On Broadcasting
If the world's in your pocket, then what's left to watch on your TV?
Monday 18 September 2006
magine this: by 2020 we will be able to carry every word every written, every picture or video ever taken and every music track every recorded - in fact the entire world's content - on a small device in our pocket. That's when scientists recently estimated that storage will be so advanced that the world's digitised content might fit onto what will no doubt be the must-have present for Christmas 2020 - the and new and oh-so-achingly hip googlepod.
OK, so we'll theoretically have unlimited access to the world in our pockets, fantastically useful and fun for bite-sized information and entertainment but perhaps unlikely to be a huge draw for extended viewing, or say, viewing a digitised version of The Independent on its tiny screen.
So what's next in the dizzying scramble for new-media real estate? Well, last week one answer came from the iPod-inventor, Apple, which unveiled its vision of our future viewing. Its chief executive, Steve Jobs, announced the launch of a download service that means that a range of films can either be watched on the move or through Apple's new device, iTV, that will transmit video from your computer to your TV.
There's no doubting the public appetite for video over the internet, and that downloading Mission Impossible or episodes of Desperate Housewives will be highly popular. But where does it leave important and vulnerable television programme-areas such as news and current affairs and arts? These have depended either on government subsidy or, increasingly, being sandwiched between more popular shows in the schedule.
So pressing is this problem that, in what amounted to his exit interview, Stephen Carter, Ofcom's former chief executive, told Broadcast magazine that one of his principal regrets was that he should have pushed his plans further and faster. This could have been done, he argued, by being bolder about reducing ITV's public-service broadcasting (PSB) obligations, so "sharpening" the debate.
Then, over the long, hot summer, Ofcom slipped out an issues-paper looking at the future of this type of programming after the digital switch-over in 2012. The 40-page document received little attention, which was perhaps just as well since, when the regulator had first floated its new concept two years ago it was greeted with a range of reactions from bafflement to worse.
You'll be forgiven for not having followed every jot and comma of this acronym-laden debate but (take a deep breath), in a nutshell, Ofcom is suggesting that because of the huge changes in the way we will consume content in the future "we need to re-imagine" the delivery of PSB. This would be achieved through the creation of a new publicly funded public service publisher (or PSP) which would commission content to provide competition to the BBC across a range of platforms, rather than just on regular TV.
A huge amount of bunk is spoken about the current state of health of these types of programmes but, perhaps strangely as a former controller of ITV's current affairs, arts and religion, I tend to agree with Carter. The current system that holds commercial broadcasters to wildly out-of-date licence-requirements in return for access to the airwaves has all but broken down. It's plain to many of us who work in the field that the sort of box-ticking quotas system became self-defeating and contributed to almost killing off the genres it sought to nurture. Within broadcasters these programmes were perceived to some degree as being produced under forbearance, leading to a mentality that "worthy" programmes could rarely deliver viable ratings or be commercially successful.
So what changed? At least part of the answer is that increased competition came to the rescue, inspiring a new creativity. Multiple channels, the web, broadband, blogs and chat-forums have allowed us far greater access than ever and helped refresh and refocus traditional programming. The Web 2.0 revolution promises to take this further, with media-rich interactivity and user-generated content.
Back on old-fashioned TV and radio, the reality is that at least some of these programme-types are thriving. The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence, an inspiring recent BBC investigation, delivered 3.9 million viewers and a 20-per-cent share at 9pm. Tonight with Trevor McDonald consistently achieves 3.5 to 4 million viewers at 8pm, up against EastEnders, and Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time, from Radio 4, is hugely successful as a podcast. And whether or not you agree with the outgoing ITV boss Charles Allen, the excellent Channel 4 News, Dispatches and much else besides are hardly emblematic of Channel 4's failure to deliver on its public service remit. Yet, while all this reflects the creativity of producers and a healthy public appetite for such programming, most of these are underpinned by public money.
So, as the analogue clock counts down, there are increasingly pressing questions about the viability of the full range of subject matter that we've come to enjoy, and how it will translate to a diverse range of platforms. This is why the regulator's plan should be welcomed, but with a number of caveats: it needs far more detail and a firm timetable; lessons must be learnt from the now all-but-defunct commercial PSB system; if the new plan is to be successful it mustn't be a straitjacket of prescriptive quotas and stop-watched minutes; above all it must be a flexible evolving and reactive concept.
Ed Richards, currently Ofcom's dynamic chief operating officer, is widely tipped to be about to step up to the chief-executive role, with Ofcom saying that the announcement on who gets the job will be made next month. It would be good news if it is Richards, as the former Downing Street adviser, BBC strategist, and researcher for Diverse Productions (where he worked on programmes for Channel 4) is a strong advocate of the new PSP. Let's just hope that this means the issue will be at the top of his in-tray - or whatever new media gadget he has.
The BBC sends Little, not Large, to the party conferences
First Andrew Neil and his This Week team massacred "Is this the way to Amarillo", and now his other BBC show, The Daily Politics, is resorting to sending "a Little Andrew Neil and a Little Jenny Scott" to the party conferences, after a team brainstorm, in an attempt to find ways of "refreshing" their coverage.
"You may say it's a straight rip-off of Little Ant and Little Dec on ITV," says Jamie Donald, the editor of the BBC's live political programmes, "but Little Ant and Little Dec got to interview the Prime Minister, and put to him some very challenging questions. For four years, Mr Blair and Mr Brown have consistently refused to be interviewed for the BBC's conference coverage, believing it doesn't reach the people they want to speak to. Maybe now they'll change their minds".
Today Little Andrew and Little Jenny are making a start by grilling Sir Menzies Campbell at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. However, not all the programme's fans seem content - one has replied to Donald's explanation of the stunt on a blog with: "I felt like shooting myself when I read your observations".
When I rang Big Andrew's office he didn't want to comment.
Dominic Crossley-Holland was ITV's last controller of current affairs, arts, and religion
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