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The BBC ruins the UK’s chances at Eurovision

Tonight, it’s the grand final of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest. As long-time readers will know, I really enjoy watching Eurovision – I even live blogged the UK selection programme once. There are a few reasons I really enjoy it.

Firstly, of course, the music. If I had to choose a favourite radio station, it would undoubtedly be Monocle 24. There’s quite an overlap in the Venn diagram of international music Monocle 24 would play and the sort of music that does well at Eurovision. In fact, most years, they’ve already had quite a bit of air-play of the big-hitting songs by the time the contest comes around.

Secondly, there is something so joyful about seeing so many different countries and cultures come together for a single peaceful purpose. In that regard, Eurovison is a little like the Olympics – only moreso, because the countries are peacefully scoring one another. More of this in the world would be a good thing.

Thirdly, there are bits of it which are undeniably batshit crazy. I’m not that entertained by the stuff which is out-and-out mad, but the unexpected crossovers been madness and talent which occur from time to time are quite something: take this year’s entry from Israel, which is crazy, brilliant and catchy all at the same time.

It’s this third point which makes me feel a little glum about the UK’s entries, which are typically standard, uninspiring pop fare (look at this year’s entry from SuRie). We seem to have an astounding capacity for moaning about the poor scores the UK entry receives even when the middle-of-the-road pop numbers rarely perform well even in the UK chart, despite the considerable Eurovision following. It would be really nice to have a UK entry that was quirky, whether that’s through outright craziness or just having great execution of something which is very ‘on trend’: look at this year’s entry from Sweden.

But I think the BBC lacks the boldness and creativity to find or inspire that sort of song. Whenever the BBC tries to do ‘zany’ in its programming, it tends to come off as ‘crazy by committee’ and spectacularly flops. This is even more so the case since the budget cuts at BBC Three, which was their outlet for experimental material. The best they seem able to come up with these days is crap like Don’t Scare the Hare or 101 Ways to Leave a Gameshow, which is a shame given the BBC’s lustrous history of the surreal.

The UK public vote rarely tallies with the most popular songs across Europe, even in an approximate way, so a publicly voted selection show (which the BBC has returned to using in the past couple of years) doesn’t seem like a logical way to go. Similarly, the UK jury seems permanently out of touch with the views of the rest of Europe, so professional selection doesn’t seem ideal either. I think the BBC needs to divest itself from song selection, and outsource it to people who have a chance of selecting something half decent.

The question is… who can provide that? I’d put it in the hands of the curators of the Monocle 24 playlist. They know a good song when they hear is – and have a definition of “good song” that at least approximates that of viewers across Europe.

Of course, I suspect such a system could never work in practice: I’m sure Monocle wouldn’t want to sully their upmarket brand, and the BBC wouldn’t want to lose control. But I think it’s an interesting idea!


The logo at the top is the official one for this year’s contest, taken from the press pack.

This 2,444th post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, , , , , .

Thoughts on the restoration of ex-BBC Television Centre

I’m writing this in the courtyard of Television Centre in West London, which I happened to be passing today. I’m gazing up at the newly restored statue of Helios and watching the repaired fountains dance as they never have on any previous visit.

I think for most British people of my age, Television Centre is the home of Going Live, Live & Kicking, Blue Peter, Ed the Duck, Otis the Aardvark, and Philip Schofield and Andi Peters’s broom cupboard. After the BBC moved off the site in 2013, it has been closed for restoration and redevelopment, with luxury apartments the order of the day—albeit with three television studios remaining. It seems ironic that two-thirds of the studios in a location so closely associated with the BBC are to become the new standing home of iconic ITV programmes like This Morning any day now.

I last visited Television Centre with Wendy, a few months before it closed.

We were lucky enough to secure a place on one of the final tours of the building and were fascinated to get an understanding of the mechanics of production of TV shows (and especially news programmes). This aspect was far more interesting to both of us than the celebrity anecdotes, tour of the Match of the Day set, or inevitable visit to the gift shop.

We both felt a little uncomfortable at the tour of the ‘celebrity’ dressing rooms, knowing that they were the settings for sexual abuse: our visit coincided with a 12-month period in which horrific historical examples of abuse at the BBC were being recalled almost daily on the front pages of newspapers. The fabric of the building was also falling apart at the seams, the sense of magic ebbing away with the physical as much as the moral dilapidation.

Towards the end of the tour, we were press-ganged into making up the numbers for the studio audience of a recording of a truly terrible daytime game show which we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of since. In a high-pressured time-limited trivia finale, the host fluffed the reading of almost every question. He then got to record ‘pick-ups’, having a second (and occasionally third) go at reading them correctly. The contestant didn’t get a second go at answering them, and so presumably ended up appearing inexplicably flummoxed by perfectly simple questions, through no fault of her own. “TV magic”, it seems, still favours the “talent”.

This afternoon, Television Centre is quiet. In fact, as I tap away, I’m the only person in the courtyard. At least from the outside, the restoration appears sympathetic. The front of the site looks all the better for the landscaping that has replaced the exterior car park, which also has the effect of making the Centre seem smaller and more intimate.

I expected to feel a certain sense of melancholy from coming to a place to which I once felt such a close connection, knowing that a part of our collective cultural heritage had been auctioned off to the highest bidder and converted into apartments I could never hope to afford. And yet, that is not how I feel.

Perhaps incongruously, I feel a strange sense of satisfaction at seeing the building sympathetically restored. The impression is of quality and accessible historical grandeur, and it feels strangely as though the hope for the future inherent in redevelopment has frightened away the collected ghosts of the past.

It doesn’t feel like a wonderous “TV factory” any more, as it did from a distance in my childhood; but nor does it feel like a tainted crime scene, as it did on my last visit. It feels like a housing development sympathetically built around a listed building—which is, I suppose, exactly what it is.

This 2,423rd post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

BBC’s Eurovision vote seems misleading

Mea culpa (13/05/2014) – Having sat down with a pen and paper, I now realise that I’m wrong on the below. The fact that the televote is used to decide between entries with a tied ranking means there are extreme results in which a country placed bottom with the jury can still score. I regret my mathematical error.

– – –

In 2008, the BBC had to dramatically halt the voting in the semifinal of Strictly Come Dancing. They realised that the judges’ scores meant that Tom Chambers’s position in the competition could not be affected by the phone vote. No matter how many votes he received, he’d still be in the dance off. They stopped the vote as it was deemed to be unfair.

Last weekend, the BBC repeated the error on a much larger scale. The judges’ scores in the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final meant that Poland could not receive points from the UK, no matter how many votes they received from the public.

Asking people to vote when they have no chance of affecting the outcome is clearly wrong. Will they be issuing refunds to the thousands who voted for Poland – the UK public’s top choice?

This 2,235th post was filed under: Headliner, Tweeted, , .

Six reasons Sambrook is wrong about 24-hour news

Earlier in the year, Richard Sambrook (the former director of BBC News) wrote an article for The Guardian in which he argued that 24-hour news channels were no longer relevant in the modern world. This week, with news reaching The Independent that his thoughts are being taken seriously inside the BBC, I feel like it's time to put across an alternate point of view.

Here are six reasons I believe Sambrook is wrong.

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1. News channels don't need to break news first

Cable news established the 24-hour news habit, but today social media and mobile phones fulfill the instant news needs of consumers better than any TV channel can. Twitter – and increasingly live blogs of breaking news events – consistently beat 24-hour TV channels. Being first – the primary criterion for 24-hour news channels – is increasingly the least interesting and effective value they offer.

Sambrook is right to say that the ability of television channels to deliver lines of breaking news at high speed is limited in comparison to online sources, whether accessed through mobile phones or social media. But most online and social media outlets are poor at putting those lines of breaking news into context. Indeed, at present, news channels are equally poor at this.

In my vision of a news channel, a line of breaking news would appear on screen, in much the same way as it appears online. Perhaps, "Valco supermarket chain in administration". I don't need the channel to break away from whatever it is reporting to bring me this news – it can simply appear on screen. That is the benefit of the visual medium.

Then, within a short period (say within fifteen minutes or half an hour), the BBC can put one of its expert business correspondents on the air to discuss that news in context. They can tell me the relevance of this to the City, to individuals, and perhaps even bring a degree of response from their journalistic contacts.

There is no need to discuss the news immediately and constantly repeat a single line accompanied with endless speculation. Instead, the channel should wait until there is something to report, and report it in a detailed and intelligent way.

 

2. News channels needn’t conform to expensive norms

The infrastructure behind a 24-hour news channel is impressive – and formidably expensive. The biggest cost comes from having created a machine that has to be fed. Every 15 minutes we go back to our reporter in the field for an update on what's happened since the last time we visited them. Most of the time the answer is "nothing".

Going back to a reporter in the field every fifteen minutes is not only expensively, it's also irritating. There is no need to do this. There are two reasons news channels do this: to fill time, and to follow the structure of a conventional network news bulletin every half hour.

We'll return to the former, but the latter is simply farcical. There is no reason (beyond "it's what we've always done") for 24-hour news channels to follow the structure of a conventional news bulletin. There is no reason why we have to return to the same correspondent to repeat the same news every hour. This is a problem of the format, not of the medium. A much more open-ended structure is possible.

 

3. News channels needn’t carry everything live

Newsgathering becomes a sausage machine, dedicated to filling airtime. Hours a day are spent on live feeds waiting for something, anything, to happen. The editor can't risk broadcasting a different report or going live somewhere else in case he misses the start and a rival channel can claim to be "first".

Of course, there is no reason to do this other than it being what rivals do. Every Wednesday, I cringe as presenters on television and radio fill in anticipation of Prime Minister's Questions, which starts a variable number of minutes after midday. Every Wednesday, I wonder why no broadcaster has had the bright idea of scheduling a five-minute discussion previewing the content, and then starting the coverage, cleanly and professionally at 12.05, through the simple use of a few minutes' delay.

The number of people who are insistent on watching Prime Ministers' Questions absolutely live is probably tiny. I know that I, for one, would prefer to watch a slick production with informed commentary and analysis rather than an unedifying scramble every week.

 

4. News channels needn’t uselessly fill time

The need to fill airtime – and particularly the need to be seen to be live – means that in the heat of the moment questionable editorial judgments can be made. Everything seems to be "breaking news". In the last 12 months we've seen the BBC showing live pictures of an empty courtroom in the US, eagerly anticipating the sentencing of already convicted kidnapper Ariel Castro – a story of interest to few if any in the UK.

There is a need to fill airtime. There is not a need to fill airtime with live content. With 24-hours at their disposal, and with less of an emphasis on a presenter reading a single headline every time news breaks, there is much greater scope for in-depth reporting and interviews with newsmakers. Watch an hour of any 24-hour news channel, and you'll almost certainly see an interview cut short, often for no good reason. Allow these to be much more open ended, and repeat them (in edited form, with expert analysis) and much of the airtime will be filled. As with Prime Minister's Questions, make much more extensive use of live delays and on-the-fly editing to increase the standard of presentation, and to allow the programme to naturally flow.

Similarly, I can see no reason why these channels don't make the most of the available air time to show more "explainers". I think an occasional airing of an updated 15 minute background package on what's actually happening in Ukraine would be a valuable service a news channel could offer. And it would fill time at low cost.

 

5. News channels can show pre-recorded packages

The number of stories that are conveyed by live "as it happens" pictures is vanishingly small. Many stories – the economy, climate change – aren't best served by pictures; others (inside Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Zimbabwe) often don't have pictures available until days after the event; many more work better with a well crafted, tightly edited package rather than a live feed.

There is no reason for 24-hour news channels to be so focused on live pictures. Well-crafted, tightly-edited packages would be welcomed by viewers over somebody standing in the rain reporting nothing.

 

6. Sambrook's vision doesn't fulfill the BBC’s purpose

What might a reconfigured on-demand news service look like?

Sambrook's suggested on-demand news service (I haven't quoted his whole plan, for it is far too long) involves people actively participating in creating their own bulletin. This is precisely the opposite of what I believe the BBC should be doing.

We, the people, have terrible news values. The more the BBC tries to align itself with our values, the more it degrades its worth. We need to be told what we need to be told. We need experts to fight for coverage of their areas. We need to know what matters, not what we want to know. And we place our trust in the BBC to make those decisions for us.

If the BBC won't make those decisions, but will defer to us, then there is no point in the BBC existing. I can ferret out news that interests me from a wide variety of sources without the Beeb's help. And in the areas in which I have a particular interest, that's exactly what I do.

But the BBC, and its news channel, should be about expert contextualisation. It should be the outlet which says "actually, this isn't an important story, so we're not covering it in depth" more often that it says "sit up and pay attention, this is boring but important".

It should make the most of genuine experts in their field – including fields it currently covers with a laughable level of credibility, like science and technology. The BBC news channel should be the "news channel of record". It should cover things in depth and intelligently. It should not chase ratings, and it should not be in a race to read out lines of news with no context. It should not be obsessed with live coverage. It should edit, curate, and analyse.

 

 

In his analysis, Sambrook conflates the current output of news channels with the medium of news channels itself. He uses the argument that current output is poor to suggest that there should be no output. I disagree.

I think that news channels can be done better – particularly the BBC News channel, which doesn't have to answer to shareholders, and doesn't have to chase ratings. It should be held to a higher standard, and should drive the quality of 24-hour news up. The BBC should not abandon it altogether.



A version of this post also appears on Medium.

The image in this post was posted on Flickr by Ian Wright, and is used under Creative Commons licence.

This 2,229th post was filed under: Headliner, Media, News and Comment, Responses, Tweeted, , , , .

Photo-a-day 205: Television Centre

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This is, of course, BBC Television Centre. Wendy and I were here for a tour today, and also got roped in to being in the audience of a daytime quiz show!

It’s very much a building of its time. It now has a slightly eerie deserted feeling to it – for me, it was a bit reminiscent of working in Newcastle General Hospital right before it closed down. That said, it was a great tour, and I’m glad we took the chance to do it while we could!

This 1,737th post was filed under: Media, Photo-a-day 2012, .

Diary for 24th July 2008

Eddie Mair’s masterful pasting of the News of the World’s lawyer on PM today was the best bit of interviewing I’ve heard in ages. «

It’s testament to Richard Whiteley’s work ethic that two supposedly more experienced presenters – Lynan & O’Connor – couldn’t hack the load. «

This 1,359th post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, , , , , , , , .

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