Friday, 7 March 2014

What's this 'channel' thing anyway?

That decision to shift BBC3 to iPlayer is one of the most important DG Tony Hall has made.
Possibly, the most important he'll make in his time at the top of the BBC.
Why? After all, BBC3 is a niche channel - though, according to BARB's February figures, it's no small niche, outperforming Sky 1 for example.
Nor is it especially cheap - an all-up cost of around £120m. Slightly less than the cost of all Local Radio.
It's had question marks over it since its launch 11 years ago. Some were justified - should the BBC really be commissioning programmes called 'F*ck off, I'm fat/ginger/a hairy woman' many of us wondered. And what about those Eastenders repeats? Did 16-35 year olds really not watch the soap first time round on BBC1?
It was easy for the BBC's many detractors to dismiss it as Auntie's metro-yuff g-string. A 'look-at-me' come charter renewal.
So why's it such an important decision? Who cares whether yuff have to watch the shows they want on their iPads? When they want? How they want?
Pipes and stuff
It's important because it's the the first sizeable wedge the BBC has driven into the whole idea of 'channels'.
That decision a while ago to put some content on iPlayer before it went out on the 'telly' was a tentative tap on the same wedge. So was the, frankly, amazing Olympics service.
But moving a whole channel is the first big hammer blow. It won't be the last.
Tony Hall knows - and it's something the BBC has been saying to itself and to anyone who cared to listen for over two decades - that the corporation's value lies in its content, the stuff it makes, the stuff it commissions and the stuff it chooses to buy. Not in 'channels'.
Now it's true that most of us still watch our programmes live and on a 'channel'. But fewer of us and fewer of them. And the trend is in one direction only.
Who are you?
Channels made sense when there was only a handful. When we were schedulers' more or less happy prisoners. Viewers in my generation part-identified themselves by the channel their family watched most on the single TV set in their home.
Were you Blue Peter or Magpie? Grandstand or World of Sport? 
And when BBC2 came along, did you tweak your set to watch it or, like my parents, not bother because it wasn't "for people like us".
We still see vestiges of this kind of thinking now. The debate over Scandidramas - should The Bridge and The Killing have been on BBC2 or BBC4? Or those angry blasts in the TV pages during the 2012 Olympics that this or that event - usually where a Brit was heading for a medal - should have been switched to BBC1.
Yet it's hard to see what it is about Line of Duty that makes it obviously BBC2 and what it is about Shetland that makes it equally obviously BBC1. Nor where the dividing line comes between BBC2 and BBC4 commissions.
But then, these questions only matter if you believe 'channels' do.
In and out of the box
If there's anyone still alive who turns the TV onto "their" channel at six-thirty and watches it and only it 'til bedtime, they're very few in number and more likely to be my generation than younger.
As it happens, I've seen most of the BBC3 landmark programmes - Gavin and Stacey, Boosh, Good News etc etc ... but not one of them as they went out live on that channel. Nor the first time around.
The length of a programme's tail is key these days and where/when you watch is as important as you want to make it.
And we're more and more used to vertical viewing - binging on box sets. That's how I watched West Wing and Family Guy. I'm still watching House of Cards via Netflix - a box set by other means. And recorded the Scandidramas and watched them on successive days not successive weeks - a kind of home made box set. Oh, and it annoys the hell out of me that I'm having to defer to the BBC2 scheduler and wait seven days for the next episode of Line of Duty.
But that's me.
The point is, though, we all have increasingly personal viewing habits which are an increasingly poor fit with the idea of the traditional 'channel'.
The BBC3 move came earlier than Tony Hall would have liked. And under pressure to save yet another £100m or so ... which, incidentally, the move will not do.
But it's not a move he was reluctant to make in principle. Nor, if it's well managed, will it be the last.
It makes sense to tackle BBC3 first. The target audience is the one that's already most adjusted to multiple devices. The one that's most likely to be able to navigate different ways of finding the content it wants. And, of course, the one that'll grow up with those new habits as second nature.
The language, though, is limiting.
Inevitably, it's a 'channel' being downgraded to 'online'. Auntie abandoning its kids. And that leads inevitably to the fear that none of the type of content made and bought for BBC3 will now see the light of day.
Tony Hall knows that if that happens it will be a disaster. Not just for the lost talent - which is a loss of quality by other means - but because it would sink or at least delay and make more hazardous the corporation's medium-term strategy.
It's vital the new BBC3's commissioning and buying is a success and is seen to be a success - and that means holding onto the channel's identity as a fast-track to the mainstream for new talent with new ideas.
Numbers will matter too. And that's why getting iPlayer audiences measured properly and in a way that can be compared sensibly with traditional viewing is so important.
It's not impossible to foresee a time when an iPlayer like 'homepage' will be the main route into BBC programmes and content. If you've never seen the current iPlayer landing page, it's worth a visit to look at the possibilities. And, incidentally, where the 'channels' are positioned on that page.
It doesn't take much imagination to see that there are many, many more ways of bundling programmes and other content together than a handful of 'channels' none of which is as defining as some would like to argue.
And in those bundles, whether and when a programme or a series or whatever went out for the first time on TV will matter not at all.
That's where the BBC has to go. Whether it will be able to at its own pace and in its own way depends on that BBC3 wedge.
Whether it opens up the possibilities Tony Hall hopes. Or cracks the whole bloody edifice.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The wrong people in the room?

This Chatham House paper by James de Waal published today, 21 November, is worth reading. And thinking about.
DeWaal is no lightweight - he's a visiting fellow at the RIIA and has a distinguished background in the MoD and the Diplomatic Service. His short paper is a study not of the political decisions to get involved in Afghanistan and Iraq – we know that the first of those was spasm, the second a deception – but how the Blair government managed to make such a Horlicks of military deployments both during and in the long years after the conflicts.
At its most political, it condemns Tony Blair’s Downing Street and its ‘sofa government’:
“Blair’s tenure as prime minister was noted for the practice of decision-making in small circles of selected (and therefore supposedly tight-lipped) advisers – an approach condemned by, among others, the Butler Review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.” 
A style that Blair’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, defended as a system that produced good decisions so long as you had “the right people in the room” - from which deWaal takes his title.
The problem was, de Waal argues, that “the right people” didn’t have quite the right attitude to managing the military:
“Politicians and civil servants did not wish to be accused of interfering with military planning, and so did little to ensure that military action supported political aims.” 
And Downing Street’s infamous obsession with the next day’s headlines led to astonishing recklessness:
“In 2002–03, Britain decided to make a ground force contribution to the invasion of Iraq …" 
That’s to say, the decision on the type of intervention, ‘boots on the ground’ not the decision per se to oust Saddam by military force – that had already been taken on the false premise we now know it to have been:
 “… with implicit responsibility for post-war security in that country’s southern provinces, primarily because politicians feared they would have problems with the British army if it was left out, and that these problems would find their way into the media.” 
Later, in another part of the forest:
“In 2009, Downing Street was not convinced of the military need to send reinforcements to Afghanistan, but agreed to do so because it wanted to prevent hostile press briefings by the military.”
The explanation? Well, the obvious. But also the …
 “incoherence, inconsistency and opacity …” 
 … of Downing Street’s “model” for working with the military. No10 was:
“apprehensive of the close relationship between the armed forces and the media, and were therefore reluctant to challenge military opinion.” 
And as a result, did nothing at all to query the plans of those senior officers who:
“felt their role was principally to support the institutional interests of their branch of the armed forces.”
"Poor judgment"
De Waal’s main focus isn’t to explain, condemn or excuse political decisions - though some Blair apologists read it as such. That's odd. In measured language - ever the diplomat, perhaps - his judgment is scathing:
“It seems reasonable to accuse Blair of poor judgment – at the very least – in overestimating both the threat from Saddam Hussein’s regime and the prospects of installing a viable replacement in Iraq.” 
And he recalls the admission of political misjudgment that Sir David Omand shared with the Chilcot inquiry. The admission that the immediate pre-war political strategy failed catastrophically in the case of Iraq:
“He cited the chess concept of Zugzwang, ‘where you force your opponent into a position where they have to move and every move they can make will worsen their position’, and showed how ‘instead of putting Saddam in that position, we turned out to be in that position ourselves because we were forced to […] get the [UN] inspectors to look for the smoking gun in double quick time before the window for invasion closed’.” 
Makes you wonder how serious the UN/weapons inspectors’ route really was – and how much Blair was, contrary to his assertions at the time, wholly governed by the military timetable.
De Waal ends recommending a new code to circumscribe governments’ decision making on the use of force – not a bad idea since that decision, peace or war, is the most grave a democratic government can take.
And the code’s aim - he suggests it should be approved by parliament - wouldn't be to constrain a government's proper and legal use of force. It would be to ensure that political and military decisions were aligned and supported each other - as they self-evidently did not in the first decade of this century.
He draws on the American model where:
“the stronger tradition of political-military debate and a clear legislative framework give the United States assets in this area that are not yet available to the United Kingdom.”
Like I say. Worth reading - the paper itself, that is, and not the gloss Tony Blair's apologists would like to put on it.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Choose your mammal

Rat or ferret - you choose
I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about the letter I got on Friday. 
I don’t know because a few days before I left the BBC back in March 2011, I signed a confidentiality agreement. And I've no intention of breaching it. Here or anywhere else.
Funny how things turn out, though. 
What I think I can say is that none of the former BBC colleagues I’ve spoken to in the past 48 hours is prepared to agree to the details of his or her severance package being passed on to the MPs on the Public Accounts Committee.
"Why are we being dragged into this?" one said.
There’s talk of lawyers, actions for breach of confidence and judicial reviews.
The whole BBC pay-off story has been bloody. And whether your preferred mammal-in-a-sack is rat or ferret expect it to get bloodier.
Buried rot
It’s not entirely clear why the MPs want name, rank and numbers of the 150 or so ‘senior managers’ who took redundancy or some other form of severance between 2010 and 2012. "Surely anonymous data will do the job" one former 'senior manager' told me.  
But perhaps they believe that the National Audit Office report and their own inquiries back in July revealed only the tip of some vast rot, buried deep in the corporation. And that a bit of naming and shaming is now in order.
Certainly the BBC’s performance at the committee can’t have given them confidence that public money had been carefully and judiciously spent.
The niff of something not quite wholesome is there in that NAO report. They looked at a sample of 60 deals between December 2009 and December 2010. And their inquiries threw up any number of anomalies in the severance deals of a handful of executives on stratospheric salaries.
Payments in lieu of notice … even when the executive worked the notice period. Payments for unused leave … even though leave policy in the BBC is ‘use it or lose it’. Discretionary payments and sweetheart deals.  
Worse, rules had been broken; procedures hadn’t been followed; paperwork wasn’t complete; deals were signed off in a way that left the BBC unable to show that it had handled public money wisely.
“The BBC has breached its own policies on severance too often without good reason. This has resulted in payments that have not served the best interests of licence fee payers. Weak governance arrangements have led to payments that exceeded contractual entitlements and put public trust at risk. The severance payments for senior BBC managers have, therefore, provided poor value for money for licence fee payers.”
It wouldn't be surprising, then, if MPs thought that was the story with all the BBC's redundancy and severance deals. Cronyism, snouts in the trough etc etc.
They'd be wrong to think that. Here’s why.
The phrases ‘senior managers’ and ‘executives’ don't quite mean what they seem. They conjure up ranks of pampered desk pilots on annual salaries approaching sums that many licence-fee payers won’t earn in a decade or more.
That’s way off the mark.
It’s true that during the 2000s, pay at the very top of the BBC went crazy. And that craziness is at the heart of this severance row.
That’s not without irony, incidentally. The very people who were so essential to the BBC in the early 2000s that they had to be attracted and motivated by boggling amounts of cash became, by the second half of the decade, among the most easily disposable. Though they had to be motivated once again by boggling amounts of cash. This time to go away.  
As former Newsnight reporter Liz McKean told the Edinburgh TV festival, those inflated salaries at the very top of the BBC created an …
“officer class … that seems to fly in the face of the principles of public service broadcasting … the corporation has been treated as a get-rich scheme …”
But those crazy salaries never reached very far down the corporation. And that created at the time something more than dismay in the BBC’s production offices, regional stations and newsrooms.
Wide range
‘Senior managers’ in the BBC means a very wide range of staff on a very wide range of salaries. 
At the apex, the five ‘executive directors’. 
Below that, team leaders, newsroom editors, programme editors and so on, all on two grades called SMS; the higher, SMS1, the lower, SMS2.
At the top end, heads of this and controllers of that on those £300k, £400k salaries.
At the other end, men and women at the BBC’s sharp end – in charge of projects or putting programmes and news bulletins on air – often on salaries around £60k-70k. Not shabby by any means. But not extravagant riches either.
Many of the 150 ‘senior managers’ whose details the PAC is now demanding are in the latter category. Broadcasters with twenty or thirty years experience, overseeing programmes or editing strands of the News Channel or TV and radio news bulletins with audiences of three or four million. 
And who, when they were told their jobs were closing, were offered the minimum deal their contracts allowed: a month’s salary for every year of service, capped at 24 months; no payment in lieu of notice – many, I understand, were asked to sign away the right even when they were expected to be out of the door within days; no sweeteners, no cash for annual leave not taken years ago.
Fishing trips
All the former colleagues I’ve spoken to have no complaint about their severance deals. None went beyond their contractual entitlement. None feels hard done by, even in the light of those NAO revelations.
None joined the BBC to get rich, either. But of course, a redundancy package of, say, £150k looks a lot of money – even though it’s entirely within the rules for someone leaving on a salary of £70k after twenty-five years.
“The tabloids will just go on fishing trips” a former current affairs editor told me. “They’ll try to make us all look greedy bastards.”
One former news editor added another worry: “We don’t know how they’re going to use this information … we know they’ll stitch us up.” It wasn’t clear who the ‘they’ were in that sentence. “I thought all this was supposed to be confidential” he went on.
Indeed so.
Big beasts
Something else, though, something rather more important sticks in the craw of many former colleagues - including those who are still working for the corporation.
That the cage-fight to the death between former DG Mark Thompson and Trust chairman Lord Patten is yet another gift to those who just don't get public service let alone public service broadcasting.
Precisely who knew what and when about a handful of extravagant pay-offs is slightly beside the point. What really matters is that they could happen at all. That, for a few years, a culture and mindset existed at the very top that thought it was OK.
Former colleagues, including those who've found their current salaries and future prospects capped by the current DG Tony Hall, welcome the way he's rooting out that culture and mindset. And want him to continue. Clearing up the mistakes of the past, like the DMI fiasco. Trying to lead the BBC back to the public service values it aspired to before misguided voices persuaded it to look more like a business ... with executive pay and boardroom habits to match.
It's turning out to be a dirty business - some of the dirt splashing over Hall himself. It'll no doubt get muckier.
But one thing matters more than anything else. Once this is over, Hall is left to finish what he started.