Monday, February 8, 2010

A news deal for the North

On Friday I spent the day pitching what I thought were some pretty revolutionary ideas for transforming the content of our local ITV news coverage. It’s a privilege to have been invited to join the consortium of The Journal’s owners and its partners Ten Alps and The Press Association in their bid to win the independently funded news consortium pilot for the North East. I’ve watched the local news here since the first day of Tyne Tees Television and, frankly, I don’t think much has changed in those fifty years. Now we have a chance to do something about it.

This experiment, to be paid for by an unspent part of the BBC licence fee (because what could be more relevant to public service broadcasting than improving our vitally important regional service?) is an opportunity to try out something completely new: England’s first local multi-media news.

There are three million licence payers in our region who currently receive not a single locally produced network programme, so it’s only fair that we should be given the best regional news service. And, as Sir John Hall correctly pointed out in a public meeting on Friday afternoon, over the years we’ve allowed ITV to strip us of virtually all our much-loved local programmes. Now, with the aid of a substantial newspaper resource and a layered multi-platform approach, we could begin to turn the tide.

But first we had to convince the panel, led by former Radio Authority chairman Richard Hooper. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting them: they are not only extremely experienced, but are clearly committed to giving our region something special.

Certainly it’s been a more pleasant experience putting this bid together than the last time I tried for a regional television franchise. That was back in the nineties, when I put my company Mentorn up against the might of Greg Dyke’s London Weekend Television.

We didn’t win, despite fielding a team that included film producers Working Title and media giant Polygram. Greg dubbed us the Groucho Bid, because we planned the whole thing in a tiny room in the London club, toiling for two months with little sleep to produce a document hundreds of pages long. Our final task, 24 hours before the deadline, was the most important: a compulsory 8-page summary, outlining all our plans. It was the first thing the judges would read.

With addled brains, surrounded by a phalanx of lawyers verifying every word, we set about the task. At 1am, one hour before our print deadline, I typed in the last sentence. Everyone in the room applauded and a junior lawyer offered to go and make us all a cup of tea. On his way out he squeezed past the line of chairs and tripped over the cable connected to my laptop. The plug came out; the screen went blank.

We watched frozen as the machine rebooted. Not one word of the summary had been saved. It had taken 24 hours to write and needed to be at the printers within the hour or we’d be disqualified. The young lawyer burst into tears.

In desperation I rang the MD of Polygram to tell him the grim news. He was at a post-premiere party – you could hear champagne corks popping in the background. But this is where, even through an alcoholic haze, the class of a top executive really shows.

“The rules say it must be exactly 8 pages and contain a summary of our entire bid, but does it specify how many words on each page?” “Er, not exactly.”

So, over the phone, he calmly dictated a list of bullet points, each to be typed in large print across the document. It took him just ten minutes to fill 8 pages – and he listed every key fact.

When he finished he wished me goodnight, adding, “This time please don’t forget to save it.”

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