Speculation and social media (2)

Some further coverage of this issue, which I was pleased to contribute to:

Twitter worries police (ITV Anglia News)
Facebook and Twitter ‘double-edged sword’ for police (BBC News website)

Getting it wrong

Understandably, discussing ‘the media’ on television or radio can be quite difficult – in practice, the producers and presenters will find themselves discussing their own owners and colleagues on a regular basis. (Editors and reporters on media sections of print publications face similar difficulties, of course). The format can be particularly useful (discussing TV techniques or editorial choices by showing clips and discussing them is an obvious example), but can also be limiting.

I think that there are two tests that a broadcast programme on media affairs must meet:

(a) does it address the activities of its own channel (or corporate/organisational) group in a frank and fair way, and
(b) does it present enough information through extracts (clips from the programmes or services being discussed, etc) to inform the audience, without being a fig-leaf for shock value.

The programmes I particular admire are, unsurprisingly, on the radio: I regularly listen to the new Media Show on BBC Radio 4, NPR’s On The Media and the Guardian’s Media Podcast, each platform perhaps representing a different era of radio history. A good example of ‘new media criticism’ comes from two services of the CBC that I have mentioned in these pages before: Search Engine and Spark – using podcasting and blogging in a very effective fashion (although occasionally the enthusiasm for new services and playing down of ‘old media’ is a bit much for my sceptical ears). Their respective presenters – Jesse Brown and Nora Young – are pioneers in an emerging form of blended, wide-ranging media analysis, and I find the programmes both influential and provocative.

I was very disappointed to see ITV’s ‘Tonight: Is TV Too Rude?‘, broadcast in January but only watched by me a few days ago. Based on my entirely arbitrary rules, it failed. The hook of the programme was presenting seven ‘clips’ to a focus group, and allowing them to discuss. However, of the seven, four were from the BBC, two from Channel 4 and one from ITV itself. The clips were heavily censored for broadcast (the show went out at 8.30pm), including lengthy cuts and bleeping. It was not sensible to broadcast the show in this slot – it made the criticism meaningless and they may as well have not bothered with the clips at all. Anyway, see for yourself – UK users should be able to watch it via ITV Player, for a limited period.

I have higher hopes for a new BBC2 series that starts this week, a three-part special edition of the Money Programme, Media Revolutions, presented by Janet Street-Porter. All things going well, I’ll blog about it once it gets going. Airing on Thursdays and available online after broadcast. The Channel 4 TV Show is due back on air next month, too.

Putting Viewers Somewhere: Part 2

Part 1: (Thursday) General
Part 2 (Friday): Regional/local broadcasting
Part 3 (Monday): Looking forward to Digital Britain

Ofcom has approved some changes to ITV’s news commitments, varying from region to region but all in the downward direction. Worth reading both the relevant sections of the report and the short-term document (and responses are sought so get writing!). Here’s a few quick thoughts.

In the report, the comments on regional and local broadcasting are, in the first instance, depressing. We see from the intervention of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Culture, Arts & Leisure committee that Ofcom tells them (wait for it) that the reduced obligations for regional programmes is ‘a floor, not a ceiling’. I don’t know how anyone kept a straight face through that – given the persistent requests from ITV licencees for reducing the obligations, can we really expect that when Ofcom grants them their wish, they’ll turn around and deliver more than the bare minimum? On the other hand, there’s a very open-minded analysis of the possibilities of a network of (very) local programming in section 10, though the conclusion is limited to further research being required.

There is some astonishing focus group work that I really hope Ofcom didn’t rely upon, where groups of about 25 people in a given region were asked to vote on whether they approved of reducing regional news quotas and changing sub-regional obligations. Now I’m prepared to accept that leaving Parliament in charge of broadcast micro-management has its problems, and that independent regulation provides important democratic safeguards, but seriously – if the independence comes through giving 25 people (whether random or oh-so-carefully chosen) a hearing on how much local news should be on TV, I’d rather go back to a committee of 25 MPs and take my chances with that. Not to mention that, to take the area I live in as an example, they picked 25 people in Bedford (and only Bedford) and asked them whether merging the sub-region that Bedford is in (Anglia West) with Anglia East (Norfolk, Suffolk & Essex) was a good idea – at least if we got the MPs from the region there’d at least be some balance! I don’t have a direct interest in this matter, being merely a blow-in, but it’s hard to see how any conclusions can be drawn from the study. Whatever about the quality of the research, this is no way to form public policy.

And one thing for the future: Ofcom responds to (but without reaching firm conclusions on) the outcome of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, in section 10 of its (Ofcom’s) report. The excellent SBC report has been overlooked somewhat in the media summaries so it’s good to see Ofcom dealing with it. The idea of a Scottish digital network/channel is certainly worth exploring. At some stage, I do hope to post in more detail about another quiet Scottish development, the launch of the BBC ALBA channel last year.

It’s hard to summarise Ofcom’s approach to these issues, and perhaps that’s the point – there’s no single, pithy answer, but a package of answers that perhaps contradict each other. I don’t agree with all parts of the solutions they are proposing (or not proposing) but it’s good to see the matter being given some attention, and also encouraging to see how many individuals and small organisations have taken the time to argue in favour of good quality local, regional and (devolved-) national broadcasting.

Putting Viewers Somewhere: Part 1

Part 1: (Thursday) General
Part 2 (Friday): Regional/local broadcasting
Part 3 (Monday): Looking forward to Digital Britain

This is the little moment of (relative) peace and quiet in between two major publications relating to public service broadcasting in the UK. The first is specifically about PSB, and comes from regulator Ofcom, and was published on Wednesday. There’s a snappy summary here. Ofcom has completed ‘phase 2′ of its PSB review, and issued a detailed report, Putting Viewers First, regarding the long term future for public service broadcasting (TV) in the UK. It also set out some short-term decisions, which, in essence, allow ITV franchisees to do some further scaling back on non-national content (I didn’t think that was possible, but apparently it is. Good thing we’ve got the ever-doomed local newspapers and the BBC’s expanding local services to fall back on). Lots to read here and the report is going to keep all of us busy for some time. One of the highlights of the process has been the PSB blog, which brought together a lot of interesting comments and links, including controversial and off-message ones. Hopefully that will be used in the future. The index of all the relevant documents can be found right here.

So as I say, it’s all quite interesting, but Ofcom’s work may well be overshadowed by the publication of Digital Britain next week (steered by former Ofcom chief exec Stephen Carter with help from a who’s who of report writers!), which is a report to Government prepared by a steering group. I’m not too uncomfortable about that though, as Ofcom’s report would, in reality, require a significant revision of the relevant areas of the Communications Act and various other broadcasting statutes – and having this process taken seriously by Government is not just more likely to succeed, but carries with it appropriate legitimacy (with a parliamentary process somewhat more democratic than the type of opinion polling that Ofcom is increasingly favouring). Of course, Ofcom has a statutory mandate (section 264 Communications Act 2003) to carry out this review and has carried out its job diligently – but the focus of discussion and consultation should, in my view, now shift to elected representatives and central government.

I’ve found quite a few interesting references to online delivery scattered throughout the report (and I love these slides – although I don’t think any major conclusions are drawn from it, other than a general point that online public service content is A Good Thing but not The Alternative. Just as a sidenote, it’s quite intriguing to see the shift in the report from talking about public service broadcasting to public service content – in some chapters. This is worth welcoming (in that it recognises that ‘content’ deserves a public service element), but only in part – a focus on content alone disregards the total package of media, which (whether traditional, linear, CRT ‘broadcasting’ or anything else) is more than the accumulated ‘content’, considering things like governance, cultural activities, IP, advertising systems, access policies, etc. .

There’s also a stream of interesting comments summarised in the Responses document (at 2.185-2.190) in relation to language issues, particularly Irish (and Ulster-Scots) in Northern Ireland. Again I’m not sure how well placed Ofcom is to deal with this, but it will be interesting to watch that particular situation develop. Ofcom’s response is a not-very-illuminating ‘we do recommend that further consideration be given to appropriate delivery of indigenous language broadcasting services across the UK.’

I’m deliberately not getting into the ‘future of Channel 4′ thing for now, as everyone else is doing that. Let’s look at something more audacious, the ITV requests for (in essence) radical deregulation of the Channel 3 service. What ITV’s asking for is, even to my cynical eyes, quite astonishing. ITV ask for virtually all aspects of its regulation to be substantially relaxed or removed entirely, in return for not handing back its licence. It’s hard to respond to that, really. It is a most remarkable shopping list, including everything from reducing current affairs quotas to allowing product placement. Much of this is outside of Ofcom’s powers, and that is clearly pointed out, but it is decided, provisionally, to allow a range of reductions related to regional news and current affairs – and this is a good example of where the ‘audience research’ starts to fall apart, as it’s in direct contradiction to the preferences expressed through the survey results. More on that in the next post, though let’s not forget that ITV is already disobeying the rules and being fined for it. Hmmm.

And not forgetting that hanging over it all is the EU Commission’s almost-completed revisions to the control of state aid and public broadcasting. But that’s enough for one post.

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