Nick Pollard on broadcasting

Online papers could become the competition for 24-hour TV news
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The Independent Online

'Wonvergence' seemed destined to be a word that passed swiftly into history after the false dawn at the turn of the century. The idea that the internet would swiftly merge into television with one screen and indistinguishable content died along with billions of start-up pounds and dollars because of painfully slow download speeds (and mad business plans).

Now it's back and all news organisations are desperate to make sure they don't miss out. Convergence this time round means using every possible platform, or delivery system, to supply your customers with news and information, and it's fascinating to see the newspapers and broadcasters each trying to get a crucial edge over their rivals.

The 24-hour broadcasters start with a major asset - lots of video. Before the broadband boom, this wasn't much of an advantage. Slow dial-up connections meant that watching video online was laborious and frustrating. The more people who watched, the slower it became. So the BBC and Sky sites were mainly text and simple visuals. Now that's all changed and both newsrooms are busy pouring as much video as possible on to their sites, all of it easily playable for those with broadband.

Some ITN veterans harbour hopes that Michael Grade's return to ITV will mean a revival of the ITN Newschannel, and maybe even News at Ten too, but both seem unlikely. That means that for ITN to become a real round-the-clock player again, it will have to shift more of its lean resources into the online world, where it looks to be running third behind its two broadcast rivals.

Dramatic video and breaking news are, of course, the big selling points for the broadcast sites. The past few days have seen a fascinating battle between News 24 and Sky News on the Ipswich murders story. Both news teams have pulled out all the stops, with Sky, in time-honoured fashion, clearing the decks to the exclusion of almost all other news and sending its big gun presenters to anchor on location.

The news channels' ratings figures for the first three days of this gruesome tale show Sky just ahead on viewing share, with BBC leading on reach. Put simply, this means that more people are viewing News 24 but they watch for longer on Sky.

But the story has also demonstrated at the same time how both organisations, and all newspapers, are trying to attract their customers' attention wherever they are, in any way they can. The broadcasters lean heavily on video, with specially tailored packages being devised for broadband customers, and news reports viewable on mobile phones and hand-held devices. Perfect video-quality news genuinely on demand via the TV set top box isn't far away either. But the newspapers are determined not to be outdone. The broadsheets, as they were, are becoming rolling news outlets, even if not yet genuinely 24-hour operations. As well as the main news stories, updated through the day, they offer a dizzying array of desktop alerts, RSS feeds, podcasts and e-mailed editions - but little or no video.

I wonder whether the time isn't right for one of the big papers to raise its online sights and become truly multi-media by embracing video. Foreign news shouldn't be a problem, with video feeds available, pretty cheaply I would suspect, from Reuters, APTN and others. UK footage looks to be the sticking point, though The Times could surely draw on its News Corporation connection to Sky to steal a march and the Press Association still has a fledgling UK video service. And how about a tie-up between ITN and one of the papers - maybe the Daily Mail, which still has a 20% shareholding in the company?

Of course, the internet is busy changing the definition of "news", with aggregators like Google and Yahoo, and specialist video sites like Blinkx and YouTube but it's clear that, even so, the vast majority of genuine news video (as opposed to social networking footage and user-generated content) will continue to come from the world's big news organisations. None of them can afford to make a false step now.

An EU channel would get the smallest audience of all time

I heard an interesting new phrase the other day: "issue placement". It was coined at a conference I attended in Helsinki to discuss the EU's laborious progress towards devising a communications policy. It was an earnest affair with plenty of leftish academics and not a few EU officials pushing the idea that the EU should set up its own 24-hour TV channel with news, films, documentaries, quiz shows and even a soap opera, all on the theme of "Europe is a Good Thing".

Some of us pointed out that such a plan would be a colossal waste of (taxpayers') money, and would stand an excellent chance of being the least-watched channel of the estimated 5,000 that can be picked up across the EU's soon-to-be-27 states. Fortunately, the EU Commissioner in charge, Margot Wallström, wasn't keen on the idea, though a coherent policy still looks no nearer.

In the course of the conference, it emerged that plenty of broadcasters represented there took EU money to make programmes on the general issue of Europe, among them Euronews, Deutsche Welle (the German equivalent of the BBC World Service), Radio France Internationale and SIC, the main commercial broadcaster in Portugal. I suspect the full number of companies taking such funds runs into dozens.

These broadcasters were at pains to stress they retained editorial control over the broadcasts, and indeed their contracts specifically state this, but the point is that money is only available for programmes about European affairs, and all the broadcasters admitted that without the funding they wouldn't be making the programmes at all. This, said a German broadcaster opposed to the whole idea, was "issue placement" and a dubious journalistic practice. Not surprisingly, the Commission and those in receipt of the cash disagreed but it's something I assume all UK broadcasters would shun. Wouldn't they?

Nick Pollard is the former head of Sky News