Posts Tagged ‘bbc’

Goodbye, Fwiends: Wossy’s Legacy

February 1, 2010

Restor­ing the old magic between Jonathan Ross and the BBC has proved immensely difficult since the scandals that beset the long standing partnership. So difficult, in fact, that the two will soon part ways completely.

Recently, the controversial presenter announced without warning that he would not renegotiate his substantial contract of two weekly television programmes and a weekend radio show after 13 years with the corporation.

For the BBC, the departure of one of its highest paid and most recognisable stars removes a £17 million rod from its back, a symbolic figure that was repeated endlessly in discussions over the organisation’s dealings with ratings-winning stars.

Nevertheless, in his statement, Ross commented that his decision “was not financially motivated. I signed my cur­rent contract with the BBC having turned down more lucrative offers from other channels because it was where I wanted to be and – as I have said before – would happily have stayed there for any fee they cared to offer, but there were other considerations.”

To observers, it appears that the 2008 Sachsgate furore, where Ross joined Russell Brand in graphically taunting the actor Andrew Sachs on his answer machine during Brand’s radio show, has had a poisonous effect on the relationship between the presenter and the corporation.

As a TV producer summarised, “Sachsgate was a symptom of the general malaise that was already present. The most stupid thing he did was his remark about being worth 1,000 BBC journalists. He took the money and it was the beginning of a lengthy and slow death in his current BBC career.”

Since the Sachs event, BBC compliance managers have stifled Ross’s ‘mind to mouth’ antics by transferring Ross’s Radio 2 show from a live to a pre-recorded programme and numerous lawyers are on hand to double-check off-the-cuff comments that step over the line on all of his broadcasts.

The observable result is a Friday-night chat show that borders on sycophancy towards celebrity guests and visible censorship of his more vulgar comments – a far cry from the extravagant and outrageous escape it used to be. Ratings evidence, too, shows that audiences are unimpressed by the lacklustre nature of the ‘new and improved’ Ross. However, with the benefit of hindsight, surely the BBC knew that taking Ross on board would mean his programmes would tip close to the edge of broadcasting acceptability?

Ever since his rise from researcher to presenter, Ross’s style has been consistently punctuated by sexual references, expletives and controversial behaviour. His shenanigans provided a convenient focus for the BBC’s enemies, as well as his own. The inflated salary; the rude language; and the lewd interviews provided evidence of BBC profligacy, lack of moral standards and incapacity of regulators. Al­though the most ardent detractors will doubtless find other sticks with which to beat both parties, the departure of Ross from BBC programmes removes resonant weapons, especially crucial with a general election approaching.

Perhaps Ross will do better once he is out of the publicly funded spotlight for some time. He certainly has enough to busy himself with – his production company, called Hot Sauce, produces acclaimed television shows in the UK. An avid graphic novel enthusiast, Ross has also created his own comic book and is rumoured to be looking to turn the plotline into a feature film. Moreover, while his controversial talent is no longer welcome at the BBC, it is possible that he may express himself freely again on a commercial channel at some point in the future. The offers are doubtless arriving thick and fast.

As for the BBC, this departure meant that the broadcaster lost its second big popular entertainer – after Terry Wogan – in under a month. Whereas replacements for Wogan were lined up well before he left, Ross’s exit leaves three programmes without a presenter and no clear successors have yet materialised.

In 2006, Ross was an “irreplaceable asset”, according to Alan Yentob, the BBC creative director. Just over three years later, after a BBC Trust review of talent salaries, Sachsgate and the introduction of a new Editorial Policy, it appears that Ross is an asset the corporation can now afford to live without.

The deepest problem remaining – what will the BBC now offer in terms of successful, popular chat-show entertainment? One of the strengths of the corporation is its appeal across multiple audiences and demographics; with­out this, one of the central elements of the BBC’s existence is erased. Although the removal of Ross may have been a desired outcome, with the presenter only surviving until now due to contractual technicalities, the larger-than-life star leaves a gaping hole in the BBC’s entertainment repertoire.

Somehow the BBC needs to draw on its world class production talent, rather than giving mil­lions away to fly-by-night presenters, whilst simultaneously sustaining programmes with broad appeal and rebalancing its moral compass. That would require managers to rely on imagination rather than the draw of big names. In today’s celeb-saturated society, is this possible?


Has Top Gear Run Out Of Gas?

January 30, 2010

The now longstanding staple of Sunday night television, Top Gear, began its fourteenth series several weeks ago to somewhat subdued acclaim.

Having been forced to reschedule the motoring show to 9pm – rather than its traditional 8pm slot – due to what Executive Producer Andy Wilman calls ‘Simon Cowell and the X-Factor on storming form’, the programme continues to showcase three middle-aged men acting out their boyhood dreams on a weekly basis.  With international locations, expensive supercars and celebrity guests as the foundation of the BBC show, the transparent Top Gear fantasy world continues to expand exponentially, transfixing over 350 million viewers in over 100 countries worldwide.

There is seemingly universal adulation over the two words ‘Top Gear’ among young and old, male and female.  It is the show that everyone seems to love; the show that is everyone’s guilty secret.  For many, it is a drug in broadcasting form.  Once you give in to its simple charms, its indulgent nature, you are hooked.

But is the show, slowly but surely, running out of gas?

Everyone is by now aware that vast components of the show are scripted, the dialogue being frequently punctuated with cleverly constructed word play, innuendos and quips.

Now that the show is in its seventh year, and having broadcast over 120 episodes, it is clearly becoming harder and harder for the programme to maintain the spontaneous, enthralling banter that the greying triumvirate of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond so fluidly established at the beginning of their presenting era.

The secrets of the production itself are also loosing their lustre.  The Stig, once a magnetic attraction of the show, has now become so omnipresent in the Top Gear enterprise that the man-machine’s exclusivity and unique appeal is constantly diminishing.  ‘Who is the Stig?’ was for a long time the cry from a captivated and somewhat confused audience; yet it is now difficult not to believe the substantial rumours and mounting evidence surrounding the character’s true identity.

Equally the never-changing format of challenges and reviews, while differently arranged and with varying content in each new episode, is fundamentally the same as it was in the very first series.  While the phrase ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ is valuable gospel here, it is nevertheless incredibly difficult to tell the difference between a new episode of Top Gear and a 2004 repeat.

That features and stories have to be even more extreme in their content, even more unusual in their location (Romania, Bolivia, anyone?), only fuels the argument that Top Gear producers are scraping the barrel to keep the broad viewing demographic largely contented.  Will the ideas pot run out soon?

Additionally, there is only so much that a BBC programme, restricted by health and safety, recessionary budgets and editorial policy, can do with cars and car-related activities.  But, perhaps, Top Gear surpassed that niche and honest content a long time ago.

This leads critics to another issue.  The show is frequently under investigation by the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, due to its provocative – often offensive – content, language and opinion.

Within the past month the regulator deemed the last episode of the thirteenth series, which was shown on BBC2 in late July, to be offensive and inappropriate for the time and audience (the show featured a ‘home-made’ car advertisement showing a man commit suicide).  This show also came under fire from Polish authorities after its World War II-related joke that a car could travel from ‘Berlin to Warsaw on one tank’.

Other incidents to come under severe scrutiny have included presenters May and Clarkson drinking a gin and tonic while driving to the North Pole; naming lorry drivers’ chief occupation as murdering prostitutes; and setting fire to a caravan on a camping holiday.

In attempting to push the boundaries of the show, has the increasing frequency of complaints and issues regarding the programme finally overstepped a line?  Has even Top Gear, notorious for its ignorance of editorial rules, now gone too far?

Others take offense at the current show’s co-creator and chief presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, and his left-field delivery and comments that frequently test the limits of responsible and acceptable television.  Many argue that his politically incorrect, patriarchal and off-kilter presenting style is infusible with twenty-first century society.

How ironic it is that the BBC’s greatest money-spinner is a politically incorrect, independent, free-spirited, gas-guzzling automotive show.  Will there be a time when executives take a stand?

But, on the other hand, it is precisely this politically incorrect, escapist and exotic world that makes the show so unrelentingly alluring to its millions of avid viewers.

From the frozen Arctic to America’s Mid-West, from making amphibious cars to denouncing car manufacturers, there is nowhere, nor no subject, that Top Gear and its producers are afraid to penetrate.  This freedom permits the show to experiment, innovate and evolve in a way that no other show can, thus maintaining its prime slot in the hearts and minds of its obsequious fans.

There is clearly unpretentious precision, planning and intelligence beneath the surface of the production that keeps the show ticking over, and more often than not, teetering on the acceptable edge of broadcasting.

Crucially, that the presenters, and producers, don’t give a damn about saying the wrong thing any more – listen to the nationwide sharp intake of breath when Clarkson makes awful jokes about Gordon Brown – ensures the show is always entertaining, always cutting edge and always brave enough to ignore the critics.

Arguably, we need the honesty and freedom of Clarkson, May and Hammond now more than ever.

Published December 2009

The BBC and Editorial Standards: Where To Draw The Line

November 18, 2009

In a recent BBC meeting, Director-General Mark Thompson has urged presenters and executives to continue their creativity and not feel stifled by the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines.

In the high profile meeting, which was attended by the likes of Bruce Forsyth, Jeremy Clarkson and John Humphrys, Thompson stressed that the recent taste and decency rows should not limit the BBC’s innovation in other areas.  It is believed that the meeting’s aim was to act as a ‘moral boost’ to the corporation’s talent following the recent intensification of politically correct programme content.

The decision to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question TIme and airing the political satire ‘The Thick of It’ shows that the public service broadcaster was not afraid of controversy.

According to Thompson, the BBC should not be afraid to ‘push boundaries’ and make risque jokes for the good of a programme, intoning that there is a ‘freedom at the BBC to take risks’.

This is in direct contrast to the ‘climate of fear’ that has seemingly been induced among the corporation, where comedians, presenters and producers are constantly aware of breaking strict editorial guidelines.

Recently, a furore broke out over the ‘unjust’ content of ‘Mock the Week’, where Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington’s appearance was criticised; in the political programme’ This Week’, Andrew Neil’s comments about a black MP were erased from the iPlayer edition after they prompted complaints from viewers.

Now, it appears that the atmosphere is one of retrenchment.  However, with new Editorial Guidelines due for release in early 2010, many key individuals remain unclear as to where they stand and to what extent current policy will intervene in programme production and content.

Equally, it is unclear whether comedy, entertainment or political programmes will suffer as a result of the misty circumstances.  Nonetheless, all parties hope that 2010 will bring more clarity to the tangled mess of 2009 legislation and broadcasting.

Top Gear: The Boys Are Back

November 15, 2009

I was never a big fan of Top Gear.  Yes, I may have watched every so often, when I happened to be sat in front of the television at 8pm on a Sunday night, or when friends suggested it was worth a look, but I had never really given in to the seemingly universal adulation that the two words ‘Top Gear’ appear to generate among young and old, male and female.  The show that everyone seems to love never really did it for me.  Until now.

Curious events in my summer notwithstanding, I now cannot bear to miss a minute of any connotation of Top Gear hype, drama, excitement and the show’s unique, but utterly believable, style of ‘cocking about’.

The bizarrely hypnotic presenting trio of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond seem to seduce even the most discerning viewer to their fun, enthralling, ambitious and often obnoxious banter, challenges and features that are the fundamentals of the escapist Top Gear hour.  This trio of middle-aged men, that (they agree) could so easily belong to ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, are the twenty-first century equivalent of comforting, British Sunday-night television.

Attempting, and sometimes achieving, tasks that only a little boy could dream of, the programme strikes the perfect balance between fun and excitement with the precision, planning and intelligence that is so evidently beneath the surface of the show’s jokes.  It takes a lot of skill and talent to make a niche motoring show so appealing to the broadest demographic, and it is clear the the presenters and production team have these qualities in spades.

I am not alone in feeling this way.  Each new episode of BBC2 attracts over 7 million viewers, often acquiring a 25% audience share.  The show is frequently the most watched show on BBC iPlayer, the online programme playback website.

Its appeal is not limited to the UK.  Over 350 million viewers worldwide watch the BBC production; broadcast in over 100 countries, with spin-offs in places as obscure as Romania and Russia, as well as magazines, live shows and every merchandise under the sun, it seems that the world and his dog cannot get enough of the Top Gear juggernaut.

The Top Gear phenomenon is the one of the most lucrative arms of BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the public service broadcaster; with one quarter of Top Gear’s Worldwide profits being delivered straight back to the programme, it is no wonder that the show can consistently pull off daring and dramatic stunts that other shows could only dream of.

The main pull of Top Gear is simple – it is fun.  Pure, unadulterated fun.  It is a seductive world, where there is no need for politeness, consideration, duty or cultural engagement.  Each presenter offers a different spin on proceedings, while all maintaining the addictive undercurrent of amusement, delight and naughtiness.

It is a drug in broadcasting form.  Once you give in to its simple charms, its indulgent nature, you are hooked.

Of course, there are critics.  The show is frequently under investigation by the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, due to its risque content, language and opinions.  Only this past week has the regulator deemed the last episode of the most recent series to be offensive and inappropriate for the time and audience (the show showed a ‘home-made’ car advertisement showing a man commit suicide).

Other incidents have included drinking a gin and tonic on the way to the North Pole, naming lorry drivers’ chief occupation as murdering prostitutes, and setting fire to a caravan on a camping holiday.  All events have incurred the wrath of the regulators and generated considerable newspaper column inches, but none have done so much as dent the show’s immense popularity.

Others take offense at the current show’s co-creator and chief presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, and his left-field delivery and comments that frequently push the boundaries of responsible and acceptable television.  Yet for others, this politically incorrect, patriarchal and off-kilter presenting style is the principal reason why the show remains so popular and alluring to the majority.  The show is escapist, giving viewers the opportunity to untie themselves from the shackles of restrictive and oppressive daily life, with Clarkson as prophetic leader of this image.

It is clear that Top Gear is Clarkson’s vehicle, his baby; his personality, enthusiasm and driving runs through every vein of the production.

How ironic it is, then, that the BBC’s greatest money-spinner is a politically incorrect, independent, free-spirited, gas-guzzling automotive show.

The fourteenth series of the show begins in earnest this weekend, at 9pm rather the traditional 8pm, due to what Executive Producer Andy Wilman calls the ‘Simon Cowell and the X-Factor on storming form’.  The boys know when to surrender to other children, then.  The first episode will show all three presenters take expensive cars to Romania, with what will surely be side-splitting consequences.  I, for one, can’t wait.

Top Gear Live at Earl’s Court 2009: The Wheels Are Still Turning

November 12, 2009

You would think that the audience would be tired of it by now.  The same format of automobile-based stunts, with the same three middle-aged men acting like big children with their favourite toys.  Yet after 8 years of the multi-award winning BBC Entertainment show, and three years of the live show, Top Gear is still going strong.

Back for its third outing as the showpiece of MPH Live at Earl’s Court – which moves to the Birmingham NEC this week – Top Gear Live 2009 is fronted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May and contains even more outrageous and daring stunts than ever before.  With acts involving an indoor loop-the-loop and car doughnut, Executive Producer Rowland French aims to ‘push the boundaries of theatre’ – and while this is a fairly ambitious statement, for Top Gear fans, the show does not disappoint.

Full of fire, loud explosions, stunts and racing from the word go, with a crowd-pleasing mixture of luxury and reasonably priced cars on display, the show aims to please all of its demographic, from young to old, rich to not so wealthy.  The audience interaction features – an interactive ‘Cool Wall’ and race around the Top Gear Test Track – add to the crowd pleasing equation of fast cars and tomfoolery in equal measure.

The fact that nothing has gone wrong with the daring performances, and the clear indication that nothing has been left to chance, only proves that tomfoolery takes a lot of intelligence to get right, a testament to the strong team behind the light-hearted Top Gear facade.

Of course, for the majority of the audience, the main draw of the show is not the opportunity to view car stunts and fire; the attraction of seeing the three presenters, Clarkson, Hammond and May, live and personal, is the key selling point, especially when tickets for the BBC production reportedly have a 4 year waiting list.

In this respect, the show does not disappoint.  The 90 minute performance was punctuated by many typical interactions between the three famous presenters, including Clarkson making a continuous joke of Hammond’s recent advertisement for Morrison’s, the national supermarket chain.  Seeing the three performers at their best, with no room for re-take or error, reinforced the notion that the men truly are one of the key reasons why their niche motoring show has made it so big on the world stage.

With the fourteenth series of Top Gear due to commence on BBC2 this coming Sunday, plus the continuation of the Top Gear Live World Tour in December and January, it seems like the Top Gear phenomenon shows no sign of abating.

The BBC and New Editorial Policy: One Step Too Far?

October 26, 2009

The BBC is currently reviewing its Editorial Guidelines, with the updated rules and regulations due for release and implementation in 2010.  Focusing on the BBC’s values of reputation, trust and respect, the Editorial Policy ensures that the BBC’s output consists of no excessive strong language, violence or overt sexuality or harassment, contains due accuracy and impartiality,    The rules aim to make it clear for programme makers and regulators what can and cannot be accepted in the recording or transmission of a broadcast.

The key, here, is to maintain a balance between restriction and a free-for-all, in order that all programmes are of the highest quality yet do not offend in any way.

There is no doubt that these rules are in place in order to ensure that the BBC remains as a respected public service broadcaster – particularly in the wake of recent scandals, including phone vote scams, manipulation of filmed content and ‘Sachsgate’, where an inappropriate, pre-recorded conversation between comedians Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand concerning the granddaughter of actor Andrew Sachs was allowed to air on BBC Radio 2.  The latter event, in particular, set the continuing tone of ‘heavy-handed’ editorial restrictions in the BBC and the media as a whole, in order to ensure that another polemicizing affair does not materialize.

However, there are already worries that the new guidelines will be too restrictive for programme makers.  Combined with aggressive Health and Safety measures, it is thought that innovative, dynamic and forward-thinking comedy, factual and current affairs programmes may disappear from local and national broadcast schedules.

Editorial Policy ‘Post Sachsgate’ was a key issue at this year’s Guardian Media Festival, highlighting the ongoing importance of the issue and profound impact that it could have on the whole of the media industry.

Speaking to a large audience, Top Gear Executive Producer Andy Wilman spoke with hesitation about the forthcoming policy changes.

While it is true that in general, the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines and Editorial Policy are correctly tuned for the benefit of both the BBC’s comprehensive and diverse output and the average viewer, it is nonetheless hoped that the impending Editorial Policy will remain as a series of Guidelines, rather than a Nazi-esque doctrine of necessary precautions and/or omissions to content.

It is natural – and critically important – for key media policies to come under review in order to maintain relevance and increase innovation and modernisation within the dynamic, ever-changing media environment.

However, no matter the detrimental effects of previous events, many within the industry feel that individual ‘appeals’ or checks must be viewed in the context of each individual programme, presenter, time or content.

There have been too many instances when the necessarily strict Guidelines have ruined the atmosphere or the content of certain established ‘laid-back’ BBC programmes, the likes of which have continuously proved themselves to be successful in what they achieve to a wide audience and over a long period, without any serious issues.

It is imperative that care must be taken to avoid too much censorship in these instances, and why, therefore, the review of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines should be viewed from the side of the programme makers, rather than the over-regulatory monitoring agencies.

British Tennis Coverage Review: Is It Really All About Andy Murray?

May 17, 2009

2008 was the year of the bull. 

Now that Nadal has closed down and overtaken Federer for the coveted No. 1 spot, not to mention the Wimbledon and Australian Open titles to add to his four French Open crowns, all—and I mean all—the talk, hype and analysis on British TV, radio and on-line has turned to Murray with full intensity.  

Of course, Murray, despite not having the softly spoken, self- deprecating persona of a certain Tim Henman, has been the darling of British tennis coverage for many years. Many commentators and insiders have been urging him to tone down the temper tantrums and fulfill his huge potential.  

Now that is coming to fruition with extreme speed and ferocity, Sky Sports, the UK’s premium tennis coverage provider, cannot (or will not) mask their undying devotion to the young Scot and his televised matches. When Murray plays, the world stops. Nothing else matters.  

Marcus Buckland, the chief presenter-anchor of the tennis show, together with commentator Mark Petchey, are especially vocal in their ardor for Nadal and Murray.  ‘Only a few hours until Murray walks on to court,’… ‘mark your schedules now,’… ‘let’s look forward to another great display,’ are his frequent cries. 

For the ardent Murray fans (although how many are there in Britain, really?  Do they really hold a huge majority?), of course, this is a delight.  But come on Buckland… there are other players out there!  

You get the feeling the other commentators are positive about Murray because they are told to be…  

Nevertheless, the majority of viewers put up with this slight inconvenience. After all—and I do not write such things lightly—I believe British tennis viewers have it good.  

In order for Buckland to provide us with unlimited Murray love, the coverage of the best events is second to none.

From Sky Sports, one gets unrivalled live and highlights coverage (day and night) of all ATP Masters 1000 events and the World Tour Finals, several prestigious Masters 500 events and the jewel in the crown—unlimited live, interactive and highlights coverage of the US Open. 

To add to this excellent foundation, we get to listen, admire and laugh with insightful, entertaining and engaging commentators from the team of Mark Petchey, Barry Milns, Barry Cowan, Leif Shiras and Peter Fleming. 

The latter, in particular, keeps me coming back to the coverage again and again with his witty and informative banter, peppered with technical analysis and personal reminiscing in equal measure.

More recently, Sky Sports has introduced a viewer interaction element, via text and email. A gimmick, a fluke, some may say – but certainly so far, tennis broadcasts this year have been jam-packed with insightful and interesting questions and comments from knowledgeable viewers.

It remains to be seen whether this will continue… 

Finally, and perhaps I save the best until last – we should not forget the delights (and quirks) of the BBC’s free, outstanding and extensive coverage of the remaining slams—the Australian Open, the French Open and most importantly, the illustrious and flagship tournament of Wimbledon.  

Every year—and I anticipate that this year will be no exception—I wait eagerly for uninterrupted and extensive coverage on two terrestrial television channels, as well as radio and on-line, of what seems like every court, every match (present and past when rain stops play), not to mention expert analysis and humour from tennis greats such as John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Jimmy Connors.  

A delight.  

Will Murray Mania burn deep into Wimbledon coverage, too? Of course. But that won’t stop anybody enjoying what hopefully will be a wonderful summer of tennis for the British audience.

(Published on Bleacher Report; May 3rd 2009)