Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Campaign For Live Television

For two weeks, Channel 4’s daytime gameshow Deal or No Deal is broadcasting live for the first time in its history. As a result, it’s audience has increased substantially.

I’m not surprised: viewers can really sense the tension and peril of live television. So much of what we watch these days is manufactured, edited and homogenized. From reality shows to talent competitions, producers do their best to artificially inject tension and jeopardy into the safely pre-recorded mix, but it’s rarely convincing. There’s something about the security of recording that saps suspense, and I’m sure our relentlessly vacuous daytime output really benefited from the thrill of potential disaster. Noel Edmonds, probably the best live entertainment presenter Britain has ever had, is the ideal host for the experiment.

As a producer, nothing quite matches the thrill of live TV. For the first dozen years of my career, I was a studio director, sitting in a darkened control room facing banks of monitors, calling the shots and trying to hold it all together. All too often the fragile bubble burst and the show descended into chaos.

That embarrassing episode of Panorama, where David Dimbleby sits alone in front of a solitary camera with nothing to say for 11 minutes because the film has broken down? That was me at the end of the telephone helpfully telling him to “just keep talking”. That live Nationwide episode when a lady judge keeled over in a dying faint and the presenter just stepped over her recumbent body? I was directing that night, too. Grace Jones hitting Russell Harty? It was my voice in his earpiece, foolishly telling him to ignore her.

Yet the more things go wrong, the more audiences seems to enjoy it. It makes the viewing experience somehow more real and the viewers more connected.

Nowadays viewers can turn even pre-recorded programmes into live viewing experiences by texting or tweeting their friends with comments about the content. I reckon that around 80% of all young people use phones or iPads while they are watching television, often to communicate with each other about what they’re watching. Channel 4 News positively encourages viewers to debate the issues on the programme using Twitter.

Next Wednesday I’ll be speaking at a conference in Leeds about “second screen technology”, where viewers will be able to have a live, parallel, two-way experience with a television programme, using their mobile phones. I guarantee it’s the next big thing for our industry, and I’m proud that our Newcastle-based company, ScreenReach, has developed world-beating technology to facilitate it.

The problem is, actual live television, what we in the trade call “event” television, still costs a great deal of money. Now that high definition cameras and cheap editing software are on sale in any high street electronics store, anyone can become a television producer. Yet it still takes guts and a very large outside broadcast unit to go live.

I do hope that, following the publication of its long-awaited strategy review “Delivering Quality First”, the BBC remembers to include plenty of live shows for the nation to enjoy. Most of its other recommendations seem pretty spot on.

I would say that, though, wouldn’t I? In January I gave a speech at a media conference where I proposed five key changes for the BBC. These were: move BBC Three to Salford; replace original daytime programming on BBC2 with repeats; transfer childrens programmes from BBC1 to CBBC; use BBC3 and BBC4 as experimental feeder networks for BBC1 and BBC2; and reduce the evening output of BBC local radio, which almost nobody listens to.

I’m pleased to say that all these suggestions are now BBC policy. I hasten to add that this is not because I had any influence whatsoever, but because they are blindingly obvious solutions to the BBC’s economic plight. I’m now regretting I didn’t add a request to preserve risk-taking through live programmes. As the darkest phase of this recession starts to bite, we need more laughs. And what better way achieve that than to encourage television producers, presenters and performers to make fools of themselves for us, live in our own living rooms.


Unknown said...

I'm intrigued by the BBC 3 and BBC4 as 'experimental feeder networks' for BBC 1 and BBC 2 policy. How does that work and isn't it a bit of an expensive experiment?

Tom Gutteridge said...

It's already happening, to a certain extent. Getting On, Little Britain, The Thick Of It, Gavin & Stacey, Miranda and Our War are among several shows that have successfully transferred from 3/4 to 1/2. There'll be a lot more of this kind of thing in the future and, crucially, I suspect BBC Three will lose its exclusively 16-30 target age group.

Of course, the logical thing to do would be to have one commissioning structure for 1&3 and another for 2&4, however that isn't going to happen anytime soon, as BBC Three is moving to Salford. But I guess some commissioning decisions will be taken jointly. It means all the risky, edgy, fun entertainment ideas will go through BBC North, which is a good thing for producers like me who live up north and want to be different.

Tom Gutteridge said...

Also, it's interesting to see that BBC Entertainment announced the day after this post that it was bringing back The Magicians as a live series - the first live magic on television for 30 years. The campaign is working!