Making TV news more open

what a marker system for TV news production might look for

Channel 5’s proposal to make TV news more honest should become a standard for transparency in media production.

David Kermode announced that Channel 5 news is banning ‘noddies’ and some of the other artefacts of old school news production. This is a big deal. Channel 5’s been trying to shake up news for a while – user-contributed content is a big part of their offer already. This is the proper role of a third or fourth ranking player: keep shaking things up, keep provoking the big boys.

Kermode’s announcement is clever and provocative. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and I find myself getting a bit overexcited about the potential for Channel 5’s bold self-denying ordnance.

What if Kermode’s idea turned into a new framework for editing and presenting news on TV? What if his promise not to hide edits – not to fake the passage of time, not to wrap stories in phoney context – became a kind of standard for honesty in factual video?

Noddies, among other things, conceal edits. Once the noddies are gone, what are we going to do with the edits? Kermode’s idea is to use simple dissolves. We’ll get used to them. We’ll learn this new grammar. We’ll absorb the idea that a dissolve indicates a gap, a discontinuity.

But that’s hardly an improvement is it? Dump one (admittedly cheesy) telly convention and replace it with another? Not what I’d call a radical response to the collapse of trust in TV.

Why not take it all a bit further? Take Kermode’s proposal and beef it up: formalise it. In the spirit of openness why not make those edits visible: mark them so we can see them as they go by. Let’s invent a set of visible markers for video edits: a red band for an edit that deletes material. A green band for an edit that changes the order of events. A blue band for an edit that changes the sense of a sequence. A horizontal ten-frame bar could warn of an upcoming edit, a discreet on-screen red dot could indicate that sound and pictures were not recorded at the same time (maybe a wild track was used), another that library footage has been used.

Sounds strange I guess, and maybe news producers would find it restrictive but I think our expectations have been so altered by the web that only this kind of explicit acknowledgement of process – of the artificial nature of edited video – can give factual TV back some of its lost moral authority. It would also throw down the gauntlet for online pretenders, setting a standard for openness that would be difficult to match.

If something like this caught on it would quickly be adopted by manufacturers: edit suites would transparently mark edits, a layer of metadata would be generated automatically: there’d probably be an XML schema. There’d be hardly any extra work and all the time burnt filming those phoney sequences would be won back for real news gathering.

The industry could really achieve something here: inventing a rich descriptive vocabulary for the process of news production, taking control of the agenda again and moving telly news into a new and more honest phase. I like this idea a lot. I hope Kermode has the guts and the managerial support to take it all the way.

The pic is an attempt to visualise how it might work. Click the little pic for a bigger one.

Categorized as tv

Pope Idol 265, day two

Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the day of his appointment by the conclave, 19 April 2005
The second day of Pope Idol 265 saw the first eviction and… er… a winner. Not sure if I understand these rules (and not very happy with the TV coverage either. As far as I can tell there were precisely no cameras at all in the house the entire time, despite the killer interior).

Anyway, the winner, it says here, is the first German for a thousand years and his stage name is going to be Benedict, which is a bit 1970s but has to be better than ‘Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’. Luckily he’s only 78 so the Catholics won’t have to do this again for a while (hopefully they can improve on the ‘light a fire and produce some nice white smoke’ task a bit in the meantime: the housemates cocked it up again and loads of people thought they’d selected a new Pope hours before the final decision).

Categorized as tv

How to throw away a natural advantage

The UK cable TV business is a uniquely dysfunctional family, managing to marry epic individual clumsiness with the kind of domestic chaos that continually threatens to bring the whole family down. Having (nearly) overcome the decades of forced disarray produced by its origin in dozens of separate, local companies, the industry’s getting ready for another gigantic misstep – this time into Video on Demand (VoD).

I suppose, when you own a broadband pipe into every one of your customer’s homes, the logic of VoD must be pretty compelling. It must also be immensely frustrating that, so long after Sky‘s arrival in the UK, the satellite firm still owns the multichannel marketplace despite the complete absence of a return path, no way of delivering Internet access or a phone line and the unavoidable requirement to fix a nasty wart to the side of every home covered.

Cable’s response to Sky’s continued dominance, perhaps understandably, is to push ahead with the medium’s natural advantage and try to make a go of VoD (you can’t do VoD without a network infrastructure and a proper return path so Sky just can’t play). There is, presumably, a point some time in the future when owning a fast, two-way data path into every home finally pays off and cable comes into its own but, as far as I can see, you’d need to be criminally naive to think that that time has arrived. This is still very much Sky’s market and the service of the moment is not VoD (or even NVoD – Near Video on Demand – which is a big hit on both Sky and3 cable) but Sky Plus.

The complete failure of the cable firms to roll out their own Personal Video Recorder (PVR) is perhaps partially explained by the announcement of their VoD plans but VoD won’t come close to competing with Sky Plus (or even my five year-old Tivo) any time soon. By contrast, building a PVR for cable would have been a piece of cake – the technology is straightforward, the manufacturers ready and waiting and the kit cheaper than it’s ever been. Rolling out PVRs into the cable network would be no more difficult than distributing, say, a new generation of remote controls. There’d be no impact on the infrastructure and hardly any CapEx – just a marketing and admin cost plus maybe some investment in an improved EPG (although I’m sure the Tivo people would be quite happy to share theirs). Sky has even done half the marketing job already – everyone knows what a PVR is now (“you know, the thing that lets you rewind live telly”).

So, instead of taking the easy win and, not incidentally, boosting ARPU by taking an extra couple of hundred quid a year from PVR subscribers, the cable industry has, once again, chosen the rocky road of rolling out a new and expensive technology into a resistant marketplace while Sky continues to sell PVRs like ice creams in August. Oy.

The contemporary British family revealed

Our friend Fiona Kenneth has made two wonderful programmes in a series of programmes about modern relationships, called Mr & Mrs. This is great documentary making in an important British tradition – a steady eye and some amazingly revealing material. I hope someone is planning to keep this stuff for future historians. The programmes are on BBC2, Wednesdays at 9:50 pm for the next three weeks.

Categorized as tv