Raymond Snoddy on Broadcasting What's the point of live television if absolutely nothing is happening?

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The Independent Online

Now that BBC News 24 has reached its 10th anniversary and Sky News is a strapping 18 year-old, it is more than time to ask what exactly is the purpose of 24-hour television news.

The charge is that there is a growing tendency to show vacuous live coverage just because you can, backed up by helicopter news shots that add very little to a story. Aerial shots of the McCanns' car coming home from the airport is a good example of the genre.

Is live television, almost for its own sake, squeezing out more important stories? And as a result could the "built", considered, television story become an endangered species story?

A couple of TV stories last week were particularly instructive. When a large black plume of smoke spread over London it was a big story for both the UK's rolling television news services, Sky News and BBC News 24. The BBC " broke" the story and Sky, as is often its wont, initially went far too far. The Sky ticker informed viewers "large explosion seen and heard in East London". And to add to the sense of panic, presenter Julie Etchingham talked of "extremely disturbing pictures" and told viewers that "what looks like a huge explosion of fire has taken place".

The BBC was more cautious and avoided the word explosion, though the fact that there might have been one was very much in the minds of BBC editors. It felt like a 9/11 sort of a day with the dramatic black smoke set against the clearest of blue skies. It was the capital and the fire was close to, if not actually on, the Olympic site in East London.

Then it was the BBC's turn to go that bit too far. The police said they thought the incident was a normal fire but obviously they would look to see whether there was any terrorist link. In the compressed world of Breaking News headlines it came out as: "Police Investigating Terrorist Link".

The story of the plume of smoke over London is very instructive about the nature of 24-hour television news. When a story breaks, "live" is where it's at, even when none of those involved have the faintest idea of what is happening. In such circumstances the temptation to speculate can be overwhelming and few resist.

The fact that broadcasters have dramatic pictures and no competing big news means they will often stay longer than the story merits, particularly if the news helicopter is up there broadcasting live pictures.

And that is why in the case of the BBC there was one hour 17 minutes of continuous live coverage of a fire in a derelict warehouse that was about to be demolished anyway and in which no one was injured. A daft use of resources by Sky and the BBC? A perversion of what 24-hour television news could and arguably should be? Indeed, but it's not quite as simple as that as BBC News 24 revealed entertainingly the very next day.

The old Frontier hotel and casino was coming down in Las Vegas and everybody likes good live demolition pictures. There was a slight problem. Unknown to the editors an extensive fireworks display was planned before the demolition, an exhibition which went on and on. What to do? The presenters wailed, correctly, that they would all end up in a training video.

Duty editor Simon Waldman decided to ask the viewers to text whether they wanted to stay with the Frontier hotel or move to another story.

While some called it Drop The Dead Donkey television and others wrote unprintable things, the overwhelming majority said they absolutely wanted to stay with the live pictures, and after the demolition had actually happened, some asked to see it again.

There is an uncomfortable truth here for fans of serious news. Many viewers like to watch live vacuous "news" pictures where virtually nothing is happening – the news equivalent of Big Brother.

Black smoke and Las Vegas firework displays are not isolated events. There are many examples of the vacuous live "news" genre, often involving sports teams arriving or departing. It took more than an hour of live runway shots at Heathrow recently before viewers saw a returning England rugby team which hadn't quite managed to win the World Cup.

In the summer there was the plane transporting the England football team all the way to Germany as the wretched live reporter told us that the team would enjoy salmon and cucumber sandwiches on the way. Some of the live coverage is beyond parody although it would be an unfair caricature to suggest it happens all the time. On News 24 Huw Edwards adds weight to a decent hour of news at 5pm.

But the lapses are too frequent to ignore. Sky can do what it likes within the law and broadcasting regulations. It has already hopelessly lost the ratings battle with the BBC not least because it is no longer in Virgin Media cable homes. For News 24 the internal reference point is still Sky when it no longer needs to be. It really is time to ask what rolling television news is for.

The answer for the BBC has to be more stories, better journalism and less frequent live nonsense that is an insult to the intelligence of viewers.

Bebo should be the final wake-up call for ITV

By any standards last week was a bad one for ITV. The share price hit a new low of 85p and they couldn't even handle the BBC's Children in Need campaign properly. Their X Factor man Simon Cowell was first "banned" from appearing. Then they moved into a rapid reverse ferret situation by backing down when the penny dropped.

But maybe when the dust has settled it is the launch of social networking site Bebo's new Open Media policy which could cause the greatest long-term damage. Some of those over the age of 20 may need reminding that Bebo has 40 million members worldwide with nearly 11 million users in the UK. In July, Bebo launched KateModern, the UK's first interactive web series set in the East End of London. It has, so far, attracted 25 million views.

The Open Media plan is a smart one. Media groups such as CBS, Channel 4, the BBC and BSkyB can have their own content sites on Bebo. The media groups get to keep all of the advertising revenue and Bebo users can select their favourite clips to grace their personal profiles. Bebo wins by attracting more traffic to the central site and the surrounding advertising.

ITV loses because more of its potential viewers and advertising is otherwise engaged – until Facebook comes along and dumps Bebo.

Raymond Snoddy presents the BBC television feedback programme Newswatch

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