Peter Dale on Broadcasting
There's nothing to stop digital TV coming up with daring content
Monday 02 October 2006
So, I'm standing in the Channel 4 garden looking down the barrel of a news camera and here's the first question:
By pretending to assassinate George Bush, don't you think you've been offensive to the office of the President?
Isn't this likely to inspire a copycat killing?
Are you going to pull the programme?
Are you going to resign?
[A pause that's slightly too long while I contemplate saying something facetious. But the interview is to be pooled across the US and, given the Americans' tenuous grasp of irony, I think better of it.] No.
Just 24 hours earlier we'd had the press launch of More 4's Death of a President. Invariably for small digital channels, press launches are low-key affairs with the media-pack sucking their pens waiting for something, anything, to write about. But this shiny new drama, which imagines what might happen if someone took a gun to George Bush, had them scribbling away.
Before I got back to my desk it was the lead story on several media websites, and by the end of the day there'd been millions of hits on US news sites. The White House refused to comment and Hillary Clinton and Kevin Costner readily pronounced their disapproval. More worryingly, Floyd from Kansas let me know that he was very, very unhappy with me personally, and I was not looking forward to my next encounter with the US immigration department. Buttock-clenching doesn't do it justice.
For a digital channel barely a year old, it's rare to get this kind of attention. And it's a different kind of attention from the sort you get with, say, celebrities being intimate with pigs. It springs from a clever, thought-provoking piece of film-making that addresses one of the most urgent issues of the modern world: what is the war on terror doing to our civil societies?
It's the kind of programme that you'd be delighted to find on any terrestrial channel, but for something as noisy as this to come from digital television is, I'd say, unprecedented. Why so? What's to stop digital channels coming up with daring, original, new programming? Why do we associate digital with bland, repetitive mush?
It's partly to do with the origins of digital channels and partly to do with their purpose. The terrestrials, apart from Five, have all grown out of a publicly acknowledged requirement to fill a gap in the range of British broadcasting, whether they are licence-fee funded, purely commercial or, in the case of Channel 4, commercial and publicly owned. Each has clearly stated tasks, and they all, more or less, have a streak of public service running through them.
Digitals, on the other hand, have grown out of the less ennobling impulse to land-grab valuable deregulated advertising space. Most are low-cost side-channels that squeeze the value from old programmes without investing in new ones. Their task is to lure as many eyeballs for advertisers as they can at the lowest possible cost in order to remunerate fidgety shareholders. And that's the reason why, with the notable exception of the BBC and Channel 4's digital channels, they never put anything back into the broadcasting culture.
The hardest thing in television is to find programme ideas that trust the taste and intelligence of the audience. It's one of the problems that has dogged ITV recently. The scarce resources of a digital channel make it even tougher. If your targets are short-term and financial then you have to fall back on the things you know will win an audience - and you know they'll win an audience because they're ideas that other people have taken a risk on.
Take makeover shows. Most now seem bland and predictable, the pale, repetitive stuff that many digital channels churn out hour after hour. But it was Channel 4 and BBC2 that first had the imagination to try them out. It's difficult to imagine now, but seven years ago Big Brother was a huge risk for Channel 4. The best television comes about through creative and financial investment with a good helping of risk.
The biggest threats to these new channels and our broadcasting culture are short-termism and risk aversion - and they're inextricably linked. With More4 we decided to build a channel that reflected the tastes and values of its chosen audience - as E4 has so successfully done. This meant not relying on proven formulas or genres, but rather on daring to know the values of our audience. We also decided to speak to that audience in a particular way - witty, clever, thoughtful and enjoyable. We then commissioned programmes that embodied those values and qualities. No certainties in that.
And we had to invest in our belief. More 4 won't break even for several years; E4 is only just starting to pay its way because of sustained increases to the programme budget. But it's the most popular young-skewed digital channel in the country, so without question it's undoubtedly been worth the money and the wait. We have the same aspirations for More 4.
In six years' time, all channels will be digital. Unless we start to think differently about how to change the digital mind-set, the inherent short-term thinking and risk aversion in today's television will diminish the value of our broadcasting culture permanently.
Death of a President is perhaps unusual, but it makes a valuable point: digital doesn't have to be small, repetitive and bland. With proper investment and a healthy appetite for the unknown, it can originate programmes that get people talking. Even if it is Floyd from Kansas and Kevin Costner.
'Death of a President' is on More4 at 9pm next Monday
Will Kirsty rush in and out like Roy and Sue did?
Meanwhile, over on digital radio, old habits die harder. Notably yesterday's edition of Desert Island Discs, the first under the stewardship of Kirsty Young. Things move fast in television. But now, it seems, in radio too.
Roy Plomley (he of the bow-tie and questions such as: "Did you enjoy running the country, Prime Minister?") ran Britain's favourite list show for a solid, if slightly abbreviated 43 years. Sue Lawley dashed in and out in just 18. What then for Kirsty?
After the kind of PR flurry that can only accompany such a high-profile BBC signing, Kirsty's first gig was a bit low-key. She seemed unusually restrained but did her elegant best to cajole some genuine humour out of her first guest, Quentin Blake.
I listened patiently but my mind wandered. Instead of Quentin, I thought, what would Kirsty have chosen? What was the worst bit of launching Channel Five News? Or what's it like being Gordon Brown's favourite Scottish news-anchor friend? Instead we duly sat through Janacek, Ravel, Britten, Dowland - and Marvin Gaye.
So how long for Kirsty? Well, she's cut from distinctly more show-biz cloth than her predecessors so my guess is she won't humour this dinosaur of a format for too long. Next to YouTube and podcasts, DID is feeling less like required listening every week. Despite the legacy of Roy and Sue, I'd say two years at best. Then with the digital revolution roaring in our radio ears, I nominate Peaches Geldof - for a five-week contract.
Peter Dale is head of More4
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