Is it really only 10 years since 1999?
No Facebook. No Freeview. No ‘X Factor’. Jonathan Ross on a fraction of his current pay. Ian Burrell looks back one decade and finds that it seems like a century ago...
Monday 28 December 2009
Not so very long ago, before the turn of the millennium, the expression "Nineteen ninety-nine" sounded so futuristic. It was a year with a space-age feel to it. Now, for those who work in media, it seems almost paleolithic.
Looking back at media stories from the final weeks of the last century is an eye-opener. It was a time when the term "social networking" was virtually invisible, except in the context of Soho's Groucho Club. Friends Reunited would not be launched until the following July, gaining 3,000 adherents by the end of the year. The pioneering Friendster was three years away, MySpace four and Facebook five. In fact, the venture named best "Surf 'n' Chat website" of 1999 was something called Getgooey.com. No, me neither.
This was still an era when paid-for morning newspapers, though in gradual decline, were mighty, and Associated Newspapers's national freesheet Metro was an experiment just nine months old. Two-thirds of British households had access only to five television channels (assuming they could even get a signal for the two-year old Channel 5) and the Internet was being widely referred to, rather vaguely, as "cyberspace". It was also a time when political public relations chiefs advised Tory leaders to shave their heads and boast about their Guinness intake, rather than ride an eco-friendly bicycle around town; when the political leaders were not themselves PR professionals.
Carlton – a name that may mean nothing to younger readers – was then much in the news. It says something about the new media ecology of the time that London's commercial television broadcaster called its website Jamba (the domain is now owned by a fruit juice company), while the other big commercial broadcaster Granada (which four years later would merge with Carlton to form ITV plc) had come up with the excruciating online brand of G-Wizz.net.
When media writers wanted information about Carlton they called someone by the name of David Cameron, the corporate affairs director. When, at the end of 1999, this telly company spokesman threw his hat into the ring as a prospective Tory MP for Kensington & Chelsea, Andrew Pierce, writing in The Times, commented of the PR man: "Clever, well-spoken and with friends in high places – Cameron would appeal to urban toffs."
Others would have been more sceptical, judging by an earlier media diary story in The Independent complaining that, when Carlton was embroiled in a fake documentary scandal, Cameron had been dodging calls from reporters. One journalist who managed to get through on his direct line "was confronted with the amazing sound of someone who sounded a lot like David Cameron maintaining that he was called 'John Smith' and just happened to be walking past the phone".
So much has changed since 1999, the year when Google emerged to define the search-engine market. In December of that year, Carlton and Granada placed their chips elsewhere, choosing to sink £20m into a British version of the rival AskJeeves.com (six years before the merged ITV's gross overspend in buying Friends Reunited).
Keeping Mr Cameron busy, Carlton was also in talks to merge with Labour peer Lord Hollick's United News & Media, which then owned the Daily Express and Sunday Express as well as television interests. The deal was blocked by the government and within a year those famous papers were sold to a little-known publisher called Richard Desmond, who then had a portfolio that included such prestigious titles as Asian Babes, Big Ones and Nude Wives.
But some things always seem to be with us. The BBC's finances were a boiling cauldron of controversy then, just as they are now. At the end of 1999, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, published a report on BBC funding that rejected the corporation's demands for a vast handout of extra money to fund its digital ambitions. The BBC had already been given a 13 per cent increase in the licence fee to help pay for the introduction of digital television (BBC Four would not be launched until 2002) but the BBC's executives said it needed £700m more.
The chairman of the Select Committee, Gerald Kaufman, was furious, saying that the BBC "could not explain what it planned to do with £400m of that sum".
Jonathan Ross, who had just succeeded Barry Norman as presenter of The Film Programme was paid a fraction of what he earns now. But Lord Puttnam was even then accusing the BBC of distorting the market by over-paying its presenters. "What the corporation absolutely should not be doing is engaging in a bidding war for financially aggressive, mature talent, whose natural home has become the commercial sector," the film producer told MPs.
The BBC senior management now likes to imply that the secrecy surrounding the salaries paid to its talent is a matter of national security, but back in 1999, when the commercial sector had more money to splash, it was less sympathetic to its stars.
In a fit of pique, it went public with the demands of Frank Skinner's agents, who wanted £25m for the Black Country comedian to commit to a new BBC deal. Before Christmas, Skinner migrated to ITV for less money. The BBC also complained bitterly when the smoothest man in television sports presenting, Des Lynam, walked off to ITV, as did Ross Kemp, who had starred in EastEnders.
No wonder the corporation wanted an extra £700m to cheer itself up. It had the likes of Alan Bennett and Dame Judi Dench leading a public campaign for the BBC to be given "significantly greater funds", perhaps encouraged by the then BBC2 controller Jane Root's promise to focus more heavily on the arts (a pledge still repeatedly made yet rarely fulfilled across the broadcasting sector).
The most disturbing talent-related development of 1999 was the murder of the BBC's Jill Dando on her London doorstep, prompting fears of a rising threat to presenters from stalkers, though a decade later this has not materialised.
Meanwhile Channel 4 – so quick these days to remind us of its financial instability – was so stuffed with cash that it paid out a record $200m (£125m) to Warner Brothers for exclusive rights to Friends and ER. In doing so, it blew rival bidder BSkyB out of the water; their managing director Elisabeth Murdoch, complained that the price was simply "too high".
But BSkyB was spending its money elsewhere, as Elisabeth's father Rupert pursued his policy of using sport as a battering ram to force his way into a dominant position within the satellite television market. So BSkyB controversially acquired shares in high-profile football clubs, as it built up its influence on the Premier League. In December the broadcaster took a five per cent stake in Sunderland, having previously invested in Manchester United, Leeds United and Manchester City. The Competition Commission stepped in to block the broadcaster taking complete control of the Old Trafford club.
Sports media was going through a period of great upheaval, with the BBC sport department struggling to maintain its credibility after losing the rights to the FA Cup final, Formula One racing, Test cricket and Twickenham rugby in quick succession.
But perhaps the most significant change at the corporation in 1999 was at the top of its management tree. After a tortuous appointment process that lasted much of the year, the director-general's job went to Greg Dyke, in spite of the revelation that he had donated £50,000 to the Labour party, then enjoying a huge majority in parliament. It would be the start of a four-year rollercoaster for the corporation, during which the new D-G's policy of "cut the crap" saw BBC administration costs reduced in favour of spending on programming, leading to a brief rise in staff morale until the Hutton inquiry of 2004 ended the Dyke era.
There was also a changing of the guard at ITN, which needed a replacement for Michael Brunson, an institution as political editor for 14 years. His shoes would briefly be filled by John Sergeant – now best-known to younger viewers for his ballroom dancing – until the arrival of a new star, Nick Robinson, two years later.
Nineteen ninety-nine was also the year that ITN committed a pivotal strategy blunder from which it has never recovered, dropping its flagship News at Ten bulletin for the first time in 32 years. Though the famous bongs returned to 10pm early last year, the damage had been done, leaving BBC News in control of the field.
Relations between the media and politicians were quite different a decade ago, two years into the first New Labour administration. Alastair Campbell felt confident enough at the end of 1999 to announce provocatively that Labour would be "monitoring" the output of its nemesis, the Daily Mail. The government was so strong that Menzies Campbell felt the need to demand more aggression in political interviews. "Governments want to manage news, not be obliged to explain themselves," he warned. "When political broadcasters become part of the management of government, or the burnishing of its image, they have failed. There is no substitute for courage in broadcasting."
That's all rather unlike 2009, when press scrutiny of Westminster expenses fiddling has left MPs feeling intimidated by the power of the Fourth Estate, and where politicians complain that cynical interviewers prevent them from having their say.
One story that has spanned the last decade is that of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Debuting in September 1998, it became a national obsession, made a rich man of Chris Tarrant and rescued the ITV schedule. Within months it crossed the Atlantic and was being described by The New York Times as "the most significant development in American television in the last 10 years". A decade later, the show might have run its course for ITV but has inspired a book that prompted a movie – Slumdog Millionaire - that swept the board at the 2009 Academy Awards, winning eight Oscars, including one for the director, Danny Boyle.
Nineteen ninety-nine was also the year that saw the emergence of Popstars, the New Zealand-based TV talent show that would pave the way for Pop Idol, X Factor and American Idol, ultimately making Simon Cowell the richest man on today's American primetime television.
Another decade-long story is the conundrum that has dogged successive secretaries of state at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport: namely, what to with Trafalgar Square's empty plinth. In 1999, an advisory group was set up under John Mortimer to ask the people what they wanted. The superhero Batman and the former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin were among those nominated. Perhaps chastened by that feedback, the government has this year allowed 2,400 members of the public to stand on the plinth, in a project headed by sculptor Antony Gormley. Another of those recommended as a permanent statue in 1999 was David Beckham who, with his wife Victoria, was the favourite subject of the tabloid media that year. The couple's departure for foreign climes created space now filled by Katie Price and Cheryl Cole.
Many of the other predictions of 1999 were a little premature. "The death knell for the personal computer sounded last night," ran an article in The Guardian on 9 December 1999, following Microsoft's announcement of "a major investment in the next generation of mobile phones". The same article noted that Microsoft founder Bill Gates regarded the Psion organiser, made by a British company, as "one of the biggest threats to his empire".
Of course, the mobile revolution – after many false dawns – has now well and truly arrived, but with Microsoft's great rival Apple to the fore. Though we now await the arrival of the all-conquering handheld Tablet, again made by Apple, Microsoft, in spite of the predicted demise of the personal computer, is still advertising itself globally around the slogan "I am a PC".
Much as the Internet has changed the way most of us live, it isn't quite as ubiquitous in this country as some were forecasting a decade ago. The economics consultancy Business Strategies, for example, published a report at the end of 1999 saying that 80 per cent of British homes would have access to the Internet by 2010. The actual figure is 70 per cent.
As some of us headed more rapidly online, the British press saw the direction of travel and invested accordingly. But even in 1999, Peter Williams, finance director of the Daily Mail & General Trust, warned: "The only part of the Internet we're making money from right now is display advertising from dot coms in our newspapers." Last month at a media conference in Barcelona, Williams was still cautious. Even though the Mail Online website has amassed a monthly audience of 30m, he admitted the great difficulty was persuading people to pay for its content.
And yet that must happen if written journalism is to survive, says Rupert Murdoch today. Ten years ago in 1999, when many thought the most famous industry mogul of them all was, at 68, getting ready for his retirement, he shocked the world by getting divorced and, 17 days later, marrying a woman 30 years his junior. Thereupon he began a new phase of expansion, accruing businesses from MySpace to the Wall Street Journal. At the start of a new decade, eyes are once again upon Murdoch. Will a 78-year-old have the vision to determine the future direction of the sector? We might not have to wait another ten years to find out.
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