The media snowball effect: Strictly Come Dancing isn't being scrapped

A valuable lesson on truth and reporting can be learnt from this episode

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On Sunday 23rd it was simply quotes from two BBC Executives in an academic tome, by Friday 28th the BBC was having to deny the death of two of its biggest hits-Strictly Come Dancing and Top Gear. This ‘story’ is an object lesson in how rumour becomes fact and the media pack follow each other, whatever the truth.

In the beginning, Danny Cohen, the BBC Director of Television and Ed Williams, the Corporation’s former head of communications - their head PR man - gave interviews to Tara Conlan for a book which I have co-edited called Is the BBC in Crisis?.

Serious book, serious remarks. Here’s what Cohen actually said:

‘…we need to keep looking at how we incentivise people…A great idea can come from someone in their early 20s as well as 30s. We have to make some of our own heroes: you get young people who come in who have good ideas and they are very proud to work at the BBC.  We’ve got to take some bets on new people and we’ve got to work on incentivisation as well…. If you come up with a global hit, you should in some way benefit from that beyond your basic wage,’

In short, BBC staff members who invent a hit show might get some reward for their valuable intellectual property.

Having left the BBC for new pastures in PR land (now CEO of Edelman) Williams was more forthcoming:

‘I think there’s a series of very popular formats which over the next five to ten years will reach the end of their natural lives such as Strictly Come Dancing, The Apprentice, Dragons’ Den, Top Gear, The One Show. These are all programmes currently very popular that reach large parts of the audience. But they will not be able to go on for ever and I think there’s potentially an issue around revitalising and managing the portfolio… What I think is particularly challenging for the BBC is how can they make the case to get the best creative people at the BBC coming up with these ideas when actually if you’ve got a great idea why take it to the BBC, particularly if it’s a format you could internationalise – why give away your own intellectual property?’

Now remember Williams did not have any commissioning power in the BBC so no power to de-commission either. He was a PR suit. That did not stop the papers…

Both the Independent and Broadcast on Monday 24th centred their stories on Cohen and how to reward staff who created hit shows. In the parlance of the media they said Cohen wanted to give them a ‘bonus’ round.  Next day, BBC News online reported it from the same angle. So too the Daily Mirror.

Fair Enough.

Then the tabloids took over the tale. On Wednesday 26th the Sun in its TV Biz section filleted Williams and announced  ‘The Last Dance for Strictly?’ according to a former ‘BBC high-flier’ in a ‘major new book’.  BBC staff, the Sun says, are struggling to come up with new winners to replace the ageing warhorses like Strictly and Top Gear and what’s more it was difficult to get and keep staff at the badly paid Corporation.

Nearly true.

Then truth went out the window. Metro, the national giveaway reported the same day that ‘BBC bigwigs are planning to Axe Strictly, Top Gear and the One Show ..’. No ifs, no buts and no reflection that Williams was head of PR not a TV suit. That became the trope for others to follow. Next day The Daily Express and the Daily Mail asked  ‘Is Strictly on its last legs?’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing over’ both using our book and the Metro from the day before as their sources. Double but one wrong.

Truth conflated.

Then the locals joined in with the Grimsby Telegraph - where one of the Strictly dancers Kevin Clifton hails from - enlisting his father Keith to call for Strictly not to be scrapped ‘it would be a dreadful move. Bruce (Forsyth) has already signed up for another year..’ he intoned. So too the Gloucestershire Echo recruiting local girl and Strictly contestant Fiona Fullerton to keep the BBC axe at bay.

So, long term organic programme change had become medium term near certainty and then had become the BBC axeman cometh tomorrow.

The internet took over and changed the authors. According to Click online on February 26th ‘the sensational claims in ED’s new book’ and to Yahoo TV on February 27th ‘Williams made the remarks in HIS new book’.

So story changed to suit the agenda and intellectual property taken away from Tara Conlan and I.

The ‘story’ went international too with African car blogs running stories about the ‘axing’ of Top Gear one of the Corporation’s biggest sellers worldwide. Something had to be done so the BBC announced in the trade magazine Broadcast on Friday 28th that they were to open talks with the three Top Gear presenters over another long term deal. One fire out but as far as the reading public is concerned Strictly Come Dancing is still in the Knackers yard of TV programmes waiting for a saviour! Millions of viewers await.

Pleasing as it has been to see our book and its title credited (usually correctly) in unlikely places (does the Sun count as a citation?) it has been an object lesson in media studies. A whisper in White City can become a fact  in Wellington in no time at all thanks to the modern media. The only casualty is the truth, sadly.

John Mair is co-editor (with Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble) of ‘Is the BBC In Crisis published by Abramis on March Ist)