Sunday, August 31, 2008

Larkin on the Future of Broadcasting

Post popping my Edinburgh TV festival cherry last weekend, I was left under an oppressive cloud of thoughts about convergence, fragmentation, HD and series stacking (amongst other things). I was surprised and relieved, therefore, to have a slightly depressing Larkin poem come to mind mid week to offer some clarity and solace to my web/tv tension headache.

For those of you who don't remember your O-level English Lit. or equivalent, the following are a few lines from Dockery and Son where Larkin decries his ex-schoolmate (Dockery)'s perceived insistence on having kids (the son of the title),

"Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding
meant increase? To me it was dilution."

After spending a weekend with a bunch of telly folks, I'd say there are slightly more Larkins than Dockerys in tv still pondering a similar question; are new platforms and technologies adding to tv or are they just diluting attention spans, budgets and audiences?

The idealistic and more vocal Dockerys will cry that of course new ways of receiving programmes mean we can reach new audiences in new ways, "look at the iplayer!" their rallying cry. And Peter Fincham's MacTaggart lecture was enormously comforting - pointing out the enduring popularity of Saturday night shows like X Factor, and containing views about TV's vitality I largely concur with (as well as one of my gags),

"The experience of new mediums is that they don’t usually displace the existing ones. Everybody has to move up a bit, but there’s more room on the bench than you thought. Cinema didn’t kill theatre, television didn’t do for cinema, video didn’t even kill the radio stars."

Back to Larkin on such potent positivity, however,

" ...Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors."

Well no one exposed themselves as an out and out Larkin (ok, I did hear one tv poppet drunkenly shouting "The Long Tail is shit!" at about 2 am on Sunday morning). Most accept that the future is here - content is already on demand, attention is already fragmented - so we may as well make a fist of it.

My own inner Larkin came out, however, during a session that I should have been inspired by, The Viral Grand Prix. Peter Bazalgette - a TV Dockery if ever there was one given his involvement in - ended up giving an example of how a production company might be able to make literally pennies (his word) from plundering their archives for clips of frogs shagging (seriously, also his example). It was at that point the real problem that should have been tackled during the conference was highlighted for me (although I must say the panel's po-faced nodding in agreement about the money to be made from copulating amphibians was an unexpected highlight).

Pennies? How do we make programmes like The Qur'an with pennies? A clip of frogs shagging? Is that what Life in Cold Blood is reduced to on the world wide web? Bazalgette was making a sound point about small amounts of money from small amounts of content adding up to make something that could help generate cash, but it felt more like a storecard points system than a serious revenue stream.

When later in the same session the Viral Grand Prix winner was also revealed to have been voted by a landslide of clicks and views to be a man repeatedly asking to be - and getting - kicked in the nuts, you do start to question rather than want to embrace the wisdom of crowds, don't you?

Enabling and harnessing the potential creativity of the world to fuel, fund, create and share innovative audio-visual content in a rapidly changing media landscape is the challenge. The fear remains, however, that whilst the old order crumbles, the new order is building a solution based on fucking frogs and bollock baiting.

Clay Shirky went some way to address these fears during his Futureview address (great explanation from Matt on the 4iP blog), explaining that content creation can be faster, cheaper, more authentic and differently filtered by using principles inherent to the web. I'm with him all the way, but I still think that this doesn't necessarily cover making high-quality compelling audio-visual content for a long while yet - and what programme makers are struggling with is shrinking budgets and the demands of commercial returns right now.

I do believe the question of how we continue to make the serious and sometimes seriously expensive documentaries, experimental films and high-end dramas remains. Or how we fund taking risks on new comedy talent in order to find the next Peter Kay or Ricky Gervais. Large scale popular channels are less able to commission them, and the Internet isn't yet providing them - or will require similar levels of risk and investment to find them. This is why Channel 4's banging on about funding - however hard we're trying in all these new platforms the sums just aren't adding up.

And that's what I hoped would be more of a focus. Are there ways that we can cut costs in production without crippling indies? How are production companies and talent using web principles to fuel their creativity? What is TV's live event revenue stream? How do audiences compare on Bebo for Kate Modern to BBC 3 or E4? How does the advertising revenue compare? What do we think about the dreaded product placement? Are we looking for a short-term fix to a long-term solution that is already playing out? Can you crowd-source a documentary or at the very least its funding? And are there any examples of authentic, high quality content created cost effectively by individuals that do not contain the words "geek" "star wars" or "linux"?

And who on earth is going to answer all these questions? Not a dead, anti-semitic poet, that's for sure.

Later note 01/09: Last night's post was sponsored by nicotine withdrawal. Also cheered up today realising that I think it might be me trying to answer these questions - and it's fun trying (any ideas? - you know where to find me).

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