Monday, October 27, 2008


I love elections, particularly those that bring real political change. Next Tuesday night I’ll be glued to the box till the early hours with my American future-wife and future-mother-in-law, expecting Palin to be consigned to Alaskan obscurity and the accession of the first black president of the United States.

I think my fascination for the democratic process began in San Francisco when I was 20 and marching for George McGovern behind Jane Fonda. Quite a way behind in fact: there were about 20,000 of us. I guess the sight of so many hippies protesting against the Vietnam War was too much to bear for conservative Middle America; McGovern lost by a landslide.

Two years later I was a trainee journalist in the vast BBC election studio, sitting just behind Robert McKenzie and his Swingometer. I’ll never forget the excitement of the first result, with Robin Day growling at his guests and David Dimbleby calmly in control. I was in the producers’ room of that same studio in May 1979 when Thatcher came to power. And in 1983 I directed the whole of the BBC’s election coverage as Thatcher romped to her second term.

However I think my most memorable election was in the winter of 1979. Regular readers of this blog may recall how I left my job on Panorama and drove east in an old campervan in search of love and the Dalai Lama. I ended up marrying my first wife in a Tibetan ceremony in the Himalayas, but on our way to Nirvana, we completely ran out of money, largely because we had to ship our VW campervan on a tiny Chinese wooden dhow across the Arabian Sea.

We arrived in Delhi stony broke, and resigned ourselves to selling the van and hitching home. Luckily we were befriended by the BBC’s Bureau Chief Mark Tully. One day he announced over lunch that the Indian Prime Minister, Choudhary Charan Singh, had resigned. Indira Gandhi, ousted in disgrace just two years before, was hot favourite to return to power. When Mark told us the date of the election, I realised that in Britain the result would be announced at 8pm on a Monday evening, just as Panorama was going on air. I telexed my old boss in London, and an hour later the machine clattered back with the command: “Hire crew and start filming. Get interviews with Mrs Gandhi, the Prime Minister and the President.”

Our financial troubles were over. However Jilly and I had been on the road for three months; I had long hair and a scruffy beard; we wore ripped jeans and were living in the Tourist Camp, surrounded by vegetarians and clouds of marijuana. It wasn’t quite the image for the BBC’s flagship programme.

With gritted teeth, I went to Connaught Circle and ordered a baggy cream linen suit; a printer ran up some BBC business cards. But Jilly and I were determined not give up our lifestyle altogether, so we spurned the BBC’s offer of moving into the Imperial Hotel. Instead, every morning, a white stretch Mercedes slipped past the rainbow vans in the Tourist Camp to take us to the Presidential Palace. Eventually the urge for a hot shower got the better of us and we persuaded the manager of the Imperial to let us stay in the hotel car park and use the facilities.

For six weeks we followed the Gandhis: Indira, the most charismatic woman I have ever met, and her scary playboy son, Sanjay. On January 15th we sat in our van and heard Mrs Gandhi’s victory speech on the World Service. Her opponent, a man in his seventies, hadn’t stood a chance. Hopefully next Wednesday we’ll be celebrating the defeat of another septuagenarian, and the dawn of a new era in world politics.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Zeitgeist Surfing

I’m giving up television production and learning brick-laying. If I read Alistair Darling’s “spend our way out of the recession” plans correctly, soon the only jobs going will be on building sites. After the Olympic site, Crossrail and Heathrow’s third runway, the odds on getting the A1 north of Morpeth “dualised” have risen dramatically.

This return to Keynesian-style economics is predictable. The worst thing the Government could do is sit and wait for unemployment to hit three million and the recession to walk right into Middle England’s living rooms; especially with an election due in 2010.

We all mocked when Darling predicted the scale of the crisis. Now, with Brown the Hero of the Western World, the Chancellor is preparing us for the second phase of the drama. The stock market was eerily calm last Friday, but we’re really only in the eye of the hurricane. There’s worse to come.

One surprising outcome of this maelstrom has been the lack of any constructive response from the Conservatives. Apart, that is, from David Cameron’s ludicrous assertion on Friday that the crisis is Gordon Brown’s fault. A claim so hypocritical it’s almost breathtaking. Apart from the fact that it was Cameron’s city cronies who were the lead architects of the malaise, if any single political leader is to blame for the events that have engulfed us it’s Margaret Thatcher, whose policies started the process that led directly to the current crisis.

Actually I don’t actually blame Thatcher at all. For this would give politicians far more credit than they deserve. Thatcher didn’t invent the economic revolution; like all great politicians, she sensed a swing in public mood and then ran with the flow. Thatcher’s legacy served us pretty well for the subsequent twenty years, so could anyone seriously expect Brown to suddenly shout out “Hang on a minute, let’s stop people spending so much”? Even though the signs of impending doom have been there for years, you can’t really blame him for not putting on the brakes. Let’s be honest, we’re the ones who ran up the credit card bills and extended our mortgages, not him.

This month the tide has caught up with Brown. He’s the right man at the right time, and it’s making the Cameron/Osborne duo look like irritable schoolboys. Brown’s problem is that this performance will only run for a limited season. When we come out of the eye of the hurricane, when manufacturing shuts down and service industries go bust, it’s everyone to the lifeboats. So spending our way out of the problem is, for him, the only solution. If he can avoid a deep recession, my hunch is that we’ll see an election by next Spring.

If I’m wrong, and Brown hangs on for the inevitable economic upturn in 2010, then it’s anyone’s guess who’ll come out on top. Brown’s public image is perfect for these dour, gloomy times. But the trick for both parties will be to predict the future. I’ve written in this blog before that television producers try to predict national mood swings – a colleague of mine called it “zeitgeist surfing”. We create ideas that we hope will hit a popular nerve by the time they become programmes. Likewise with politics. The leaders who go down in history are those, like Churchill, Thatcher and Blair, who successfully match their policies to the mood of the nation.

So what will be our frame of mind in 2010? I foresee two possibilities. One is we’ll all need a jolly good party; shares in Mothercare and breweries will go up, and the Tories could do a lot worse than installing Boris as leader. Alternatively, we might just crave a new era of social responsibility. In which case, Brown needs to learn how to smile, and Cameron will have the uphill task of creating a new, caring persona.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Grey TV

My thanks to Angus Long, Director of Embryonyx Ltd, for sending me this email regarding my previous entry:

"I found your column on the subject most entertaining. However perhaps you could lightly inform the TV buyers and advertisers that they are wasting their time on the 18 – 49 year olds.

Apart from the fact, they’ve never got much disposable income, this demographic group it is on the wane.

What they should be looking at is targeting the older viewer and attracting the grey pound. It is estimated that Europes senior citizens are set to grow by 60% over the next 40 years to 103 million.

In the UK alone

  • There are 20 Million over 50 today
  • More people are over 65 than under 16
  • By 2021 over 65s will account for 50% of the population
  • 25% of the online population
  • Over the next 20 years the over 50s market will grow by more than 30%
  • A collective spending power of £196 Billion
  • 80% of the nations wealth & 60% of all savings
  • Each month 50,000 people turn 50

How many will be watching TV and what do they like to see? Not big brother that’s for sure."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Battle For Regional News

Today marks the 35th anniversary of my first day at the BBC. In 1973 I walked into Broadcasting House as a news trainee. Today I’ll be in Cannes, inside the enticingly named Palais des Festivals.

It’s far from palatial: a stifling conference centre set over a multi-storey car park. I’ll be in the basement with 13,000 international television executives. It’s basically a giant farmers market, except that some of the sellers have spent millions promoting their wares with extravagant advertising and lavish parties in the seafront hotels. I’ll be carrying a few DVDs of the show we’ve spent the last fortnight editing in Newcastle, and staying in a self-catering apartment behind the main drag. At least I can save the cost of drinks in the bars on the Croisette, where a tonic water can set you back ten pounds.

Television sales markets are dispiriting places for producers. The programmes that we’ve spent months or years crafting are dismissed as mere “product”, counted in hours and bundled up to be sold to broadcasters for you, the viewers. Well, not all of you, only those in the ratings charts.

I passed out of America’s “key demographic” on my 50th birthday. There the charts only count people aged between 18 and 49; three quarters of the population may as well not exist. Television isn’t about producers, or viewers; it’s about advertising revenue and demos and survival in a world where a new channel launches every day. How the industry has changed since my first day in 1973.

There were six of us trainees. We were given staff numbers and our first lecture. We were told we were destined for the top, Director-General even, and would be guaranteed senior jobs in the Corporation for life. That is, provided we didn’t commit either of two cardinal crimes: bounce a cheque at the BBC cash office, or forget to pay our licence fees. Three of the six must have toed the line, for they stayed for most of their careers. Tony Hall was runner-up when Greg Dyke became Director-General a few years back, and Chris Graham eventually left to run the Advertising Standards Authority; Bill Rogers is still there in charge of Radio News. Broadcast journalism was indeed a career for life. As secure as banking.

Last week, ITV announced that more than 400 jobs in regional news would have to go. The kind of television made locally up here in Newcastle has little connection with the television sold in Cannes. That market is about canned products produced to fill the schedules; regional programming is about what people really want to watch.

The writing’s been on the wall for our regional structure for some time. In four years our analogue transmitters will be switched off: we’ll only have digital television, so ITV will have no more command of the airwaves than Dave or Living. We viewers will be in control and by then one of the most popular parts of the schedule, our regional news, will have gone forever.

Which is why we need to join the battle to keep it now: not on ITV – its path to become a solely commercial broadcaster is already set. We need ITV to supply us with big expensive family shows like The X-Factor, so commercial sense dictates it should be relieved of the regional burden. But if you, like me, believe that local programming is important, we need to start lobbying now for an alternative to the BBC offering. If Channel Four really wants a slice of our licence fee, it should use it to axe Big Brother, stop targeting the same youth audience that every other network is courting, and instead offer a service for the rest of us. Starting with local news and regional programming made for the people who pay for it, not for the salesmen in Cannes.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Up Close and a Bit Too Personal

“The scenery needs ironing”, I said as I watched the playback in our edit suite in Newcastle. “Look, there are creases all over the curtain – and you can see footmarks on the floor at the back”.

This week for the first time I saw the world in high definition. We’ve just shot the pilot episode of Loveland, our new Cilla Black dating show, and because Sky One broadcasts in “Hi-Def”, we’ve had to film the whole thing in this shiny new format. The problem is, it’s a brand new system, and it’s not easy to get right. It’s a bit like putting on a new pair of glasses – somehow the world doesn’t look quite the same.

I don’t want to burden you with my problems, or blind you with science (largely because I haven’t got beyond the beginner’s class myself), but in conventional television, all black is, well, black. So when you build scenery for an entertainment show you pull a black cloth, called a cyclorama, round the back of the studio, paint the floor black, and when the lights are on, all the paraphernalia of the production process is instantly hidden.

We’ve relied on this trick for years. Put some lights on in front of a black background, and through the camera lens even the smallest studio looks enormous; like smoke and mirrors, the scenery sort of floats in space, a technique that’s part of the magic of television entertainment. Watch the X-Factor and you’ll see what I mean. Film the same studio in high definition, and you’ll see every cable and flaw – even the stitching in the black cloth. Thankfully Cilla still looks radiant, whatever format we film her in.

Yesterday three separate brochures were stuffed through my front door offering bargains on “Hi-Def Ready” television sets. This is, of course, the real reason why high definition has been developed: to make us buy more televisions (and also, presumably, to contribute to the credit crunch by adding to the burden on our credit cards). Now we’ve all gone widescreen and digital, do we really need this extra accessory?

Allow me to offer a word of professional caution to anyone thinking of buying one of these. Don’t imagine that it’ll give you a “better” picture. New technology may produce a sharper, more revealing image, but it isn’t necessarily the right picture, and it may well not be what the director intended you to see. Take feature films: some new televisions offer something called “100MHz”, which means they produce images twice as fast as a normal television. That’s not always a good thing, because it’s twice as fast as the television station is broadcasting the pictures, so the television set has to “invent” every other frame you see. As a result, it can turn a beautifully crafted, Oscar-winning multi million dollar feature film, shot at 24 frames per second, into something which looks like cheap video*.

However Hi-Def is great for some subjects. Sport, for example. I’m writing this with half an eye on glamour model Nell McAndrew running as Wonderwoman in the Great North Run; later this afternoon I’ll be trying to read Joe Kinnear’s lips as he rants at the players during Newcastle’s match against Everton. Both experiences would be transformed by Hi-Def technology. Reality programmes look freakily real, and wildlife programmes come alive: you can see every drop of blood as the lion gets its gazelle.

And speaking of bloodletting, I can’t wait for the Newsnight studio to start using high definition. If there’s one subject that deserves closer scrutiny, it’s politics. There’ll be no hiding place for Peter Mandelson when Paxo starts attacking. However thick they pile on his studio makeup, the Hi-Def cameras will expose every piece of spin, every back-track, every nasty little innuendo, right up close in the whites of his eyes.

[* Here's a more detailed explanation for those who don't believe me:

TVs run at 50MHz, but television is "filmed" at 25 frames per second. So there are two "fields" per frame. Each field is half a picture - odd lines in one field, even lines in the next. Because of the speed of the process, the human brain combines the two fields into one picture, which changes 25 times per second. However, sometimes you can notice a slight flickering out of the corner of your eye (when you see a tv screen from the side, for example). Having a TV at 100MHz gets rid of that because it combines the two fields (i.e. odd and even lines) into one picture, or scan. The downside of this is that with a moving picture, you can get jagged lines on the screen. You notice it a lot when there are closing credits running from right to left across the bottom of the screen. The odd and even images don't line up because the scrolling credits are moving too fast. Some TVs get over this with a kind of "Advanced" mode, which gets the TV to predict what the picture is going to do. This sorts out the credits problem, and makes pans more smooth - though sometimes the tv predicts the movement incorrectly and it can make it all look very weird.

But in a feature film, which was originally shot at 24 frames per second (I know, it should be 25, but it's always been 24 - movies on telly are speeded up ever so slightly to allow for the extra frame), when the TV predicts the frames, or when it smooths out the pans, this isn't the image the director and cinematographer intended. It effectively makes film look like video. Yuk.

My solution: disable the 100MHz facility!]