Archive for the ‘Broadcast’ Category

woodWhat other broadcaster in the world would commission films in which there was no dialogue, no music, no camera movement and a stipulation from the director that shots should last a minimum of 10 seconds instead of the usual two or three?

Welcome to Handmade, three lovingly-made gems from the BBC that enter the workshops of three master craftsmen to separately follow the process of the creation of a glass jug, a kitchen knife and a Windsor chair.

This is slow television that reveres its subjects in a back-to-the-future style of filmmaking where the action comes to the frame rather than being pursued by the camera.

For modern audiences accustomed to frenetic delivery and torrents of supplementary detail it requires some adjustment. Lingering shots focus attention on what’s happening but there’s no commentary to explain the process.

These aren’t meant to be ‘How To’ films that will equip you with skills, they’re about appreciating the aesthetic, and the gentle pace reinforces the time and effort invested by the makers. The world may be rushed but some things can’t be hurried.

Framing of events in the workshops is exquisite: long shots, close-ups, mid-shots – if the artist Jean-Francois Millet had been asked to storyboard video scenes this is how he would have done it.

If the visuals are a delight then the audio is an especial treat, augmenting the notion that you’re there, watching and listening, but invisible to the workers.

Picking up the subtleties of natural sound doesn’t come easy: Metalworker Owen Bush has tiny microphones taped to his shirt and his turn-ups. You hear his boots scrunch through scraps of metal shavings and grunts of effort as he pounds away at his anvil.

The apparent ease with which you hear these aural embellishments belies the technical complexity of their capture and the skills of post-production editing – master craftsmen at work with master craftsmen.

There’s no ‘performance’ requirement of any of the three experts featured, they’re doing what they normally do, and the fact that they don’t speak helps concentrate the viewer on the task rather than the individual.

Each film is self-contained and lasts less than 30-minutes; together they are a serendipitous delight.

On the X/Y crosshairs of an audience data graph the series would fit the upper left hand quadrant: small audience, high appreciation, yet it’s not the kind of program-making that comes from focus groups or ask-the-audience sessions.

Handmade captures the uniquely creative essence of public-service broadcasting – a license to experiment, a chance to be original and the opportunity to tell a story free from the burdens of commercial pressure.

Ciudad Juarez lies on the border between Mexic...

Image via Wikipedia

The cult of celebrity is firmly established in journalism and whether you like the idea or not it’s producing compelling television.

Ross Kemp’s Extreme World programme about the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez is the latest from the Bafta award-winning reporter formerly known as Grant Mitchell.

I haven’t seen any of journalism’s big beasts popping up in this part of the world but there’s the former soap actor hardman poking his unwelcome nose into cartel atrocities that have made Juarez the most dangerous city on earth.

At least 28,000 people have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon’s campaign against organised crime, according to the country’s national security agency.

In the few days of Kemp’s visit to Juarez more than 40 people were murdered, casually, in cold blood, and often in full view of the population; this, despite 11,000 police and troops patrolling the meanest streets.

It’s a war in all but name and Kemp risked life and limb to shine a light on a place so violent that your survival choices can come down to a simple question of silver or lead – you take a bribe to comply with the gangs or they kill you.

In a place where the homicide clear-up rate is around 5%, Kemp chatted with gang-member teens, rode with a first-on-scene paramedic, visited a maximum security prison to quiz a cartel hitman and even interviewed a senior figure in the organised crime scene.

Was there enough intellectual rigour to his questions? Probably not. Could his report have been more layered, more detailed, more journalistic? Absolutely.  (And Sky’s website could, and should, have made so much more of his trip).

But there he was, in harm’s way, and tugging at the threads of much bigger issues; extreme wealth and extreme poverty, venal politicians and the exercise of power, the lure of drugs and the gravitational pull of the US as the biggest cocaine market in the world,

It’s one of the great strengths of the BBC website that it’s possible to track back through consistent coverage of topics that register on your radar.

A quick search of the site reveals more than 180 news results for Ciudad Juarez including one-off reports like a particularly violent weekend last month, as well as more feature-led pieces such as Tale of the Border from 2009 or this graphic audio-slideshow which ends prophetically with the words that the violence “will keep getting worse”

It’s a perilous place to report from and, according to Mike O’Connor of the Committee to Protect Journalists, it’s a country which is losing its territorial sovereignty to the cartels.

“Every day, Felipe Calderon wakes up and thinks he’s president of Mexico,” says O’Connor, who is critical of superficial American press coverage.

Incidents are reported but there’s very little on the causes and consequences of what is happening in “our backyard”.

You can read a fuller account of his thoughts in Joseph J Kolb’s Editor & Publisher article Losing the war on reporting the Mexico narco violence and when you have take your hat off to Kemp, and ask yourself why mainstream news organisations aren’t doing a better job of reporting this bloody conflict and the wider issues it raises.

Footnote: Hat tip too to Aljazeera’s Chris Arsenault for his feature on the city’s murdered and missing women which ran on International Women’s Day.

oscarsFor the past few days I’ve been watching the clock count down on ABC’s Oscars Backstage Pass app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod, with the promise that Sunday’s event will be “the most interactive Oscars ever.”

Billed as “the ultimate insider’s view of Hollywood’s biggest night“, it incorporates second screen viewing options by adding live camera streams controlled by the user and accessible while the broadcast plays out.

For UK audiences used to red button options or Sky’s tracker cam with alternate commentaries, it’s maybe not so new but it is evidence of a major broadcaster incorporating options for secondary activity and acknowledgement that giving more choice and control is a good thing.

Once the show is over you’re invited to go to the governor’s ball for “after party action”, though watching live as statues are engraved with winners’ names comes under Paint Drying Cam as far I’m concerned.

It’ll be interesting to see how social media is incorporated into the mix, if at all, since there’s no hint of that in the promo. Sharing the experience in a bigger conversation through everyone’s snarky comments, humour and opinion is often the best part.

Public service broadcasting is having a tough time on the other side of the pond.

Last Saturday the House of Representatives voted 235-189 to pass a continuing resolution that eliminates funding for public broadcasting. It still has to get Senate approval but the BBC’s situation looks pretty favourable when seen in this light.

A campaign to raise awareness and to save local television and radio called 170 million Americans argues that public broadcasting funding is too important to eliminate.

Chris Bishop, the creative director at PBS Kids put together this graphic to garner support for what it does and why it’s worth supporting.

fish fight campaign

The politics of food is a story that will be revisited many times in the next decade as pressure on resources mounts. And it’s one where the growing impact of advocacy journalism is evident.

We’ve already seen riots in Algeria, Haiti, Senegal and Bangladesh over rising food commodity prices.

Climate change, growing populations, pollution, drought, migration and consumption habits in the developed world all contribute to imbalances in supply and demand, with a knock-on effect on the stability of prices.

Wyatt Investment Research has said it expects food riots in the US within the next 18 months, on the basis that food stamp participation has risen sharply and shows no sign of abating.

The researcher Kevin McElroy says that more than 42 million US citizens rely on stamps, which amounts to 14% of the population being already unable to afford to feed themselves.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Big Fish Fight, which began on Channel 4 on Tuesday night, taps into the politics of food, with the chef using his celebrity status to champion sustainable fishing practices and to seek changes to Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy.

Whatever your views on discards (almost half of all fish caught in the North Sea are apparently thrown back dead), the campaign has been skilfully coordinated between TV, the web and external partners to tap into crowd-power in an attempt to effect change.

If you’d dived onto Google during the programme, as I did, you’d have seen hashtagged tweets barrelling through the search results page at a huge rate of knots.

The programme’s Facebook page (above) is active and the campaign has captured 276,000 signatories  to a letter that is going to EU Commissioner Maria Damanaki, MEPs and members of the Common Fisheries Policy Reform Group.

Harnessing signatures to apply political pressure sends a strong message to businesses, institutions and government. But on its own, it’s not enough.

At grassroots level, Fearnley-Whittingstall wants people to move away from eating overfished species such as cod and to try alternative varieties.

The message is being carried into the chip shops of Britain where owners are being urged to back the campaign by offering sustainable mackerel as an option and to display stickers in their windows declaring their support.

An online pin-sticker map will let consumers seek out the chippies that support the campaign and, presumably, avoid the ones that don’t.

Changing footfall patterns and consumer habits – hitting businesses at the till – is much more powerful.

Fearnley-Whittingstall has already notched up a couple of successes. Before the campaign went public, Tesco – which was in his sights over its “marine friendly” labelling – pledged that all of its own-label canned tuna would be caught using more sustainable pole-and-line fishing techniques by 2012.

Selfridges also committed itself to stocking only sustainably sourced fish products in its food halls and restaurants.

Now, at the BBC we’ve been reporting on this stuff, consistently, for ages. An article from 2006 by my colleague Richard Black, the news website’s environment correspondent, is headlined “Only 50 years left” for sea fish.

A more recent piece states: Over-fishing means UK trawlers have to work 17 times as hard for the same fish catch as 120 years ago.

It begs the question: why does it fall to a celebrity chef to carry the argument? For that matter, why is Jamie Oliver in the vanguard of trying to change a nation’s school meals and eating habits? When did he become the new-age John Pilger?

Celebrities, of course, have always lent their names to causes they believe in. The difference now is they’re doing far more than merely endorsing.

Fearnley-Whittingstall and Oliver are asking the questions and taking us on a journey as they front up to the people they think can supply the answers. These are chefs with a cause who are whipping up a controversy and doing a great job in focusing attention on the issue.

John Lloyd, writing in the FT, has highlighted the danger of surrendering journalistic neutrality for the polemical approach that is gaining ground on US cable networks. He describes it as:

“… a broadcast journalism deeply convinced of the rectitude of its own point of view, and skilled in using the medium to imprint that view on the mind, and the emotions, through image, interview and evocative music”.

The bedrock of trust in information comes from rigorous enquiry, honest reporting and non-partisan perspectives, delivered without fear or favour.

So we have to be careful not to compromise a hard-won reputation for enquiring journalism.

But it does beg the question: is our journalism compelling enough to galvanise people to act – even if we have to stop short of making the connections to activism?

Is that our role, anyway? Or should we continue to simply present evidence and leave the newly informed people to act on their own volition?

Which is the more important news story – a train derailment at London Paddington causing massive disruption or a mini-tornado ripping through a row of terraced houses in Oxford?

You could make a pretty good case for either depending on the detail and the circumstances. A big part of the answer would have to include consideration of the audience it was aimed at.

For news producers, these kinds of judgment are made every day as part of the process of building running orders and populating web pages.

We sift the significant from the insignificant and in doing so we weigh all kinds of factors: How unusual is the event? What are the consequences? Are there lessons to be learned? Was it avoidable? Does it have wider significance?

We also consider the content we can muster: How good is the audio? Do we have arresting pictures, or great quotes, or an insightful interview?

Serving material from one-to-many – broadcasting – has stood the BBC in good stead since 1922 but the news industry is in an unprecedented period of flux and broadcast is a blunt instrument for news delivery.

Even the BBC’s narrower-focused regional splits owe more to the accident of transmitter locations than real, on-the-ground, geographic boundaries.

Smartphone technology is now providing us with more refined tools to reach people in real-time as they go about their daily lives.

The trouble is we’re still using the tech in broadcasting mode. And seen from the perspective of news consumers, the judgment calls we make on stories can seem perverse.

The fact that thousands of commuters had delays to their journey is as nothing if your house has been battered by freak weather.

Equally, commuters might empathize with someone whose home has been damaged but mainly just want to know when the service will be restored or how they’re going to get home.

This isn’t just a case of one story leading a bulletin and the other one being pushed down, or something getting front-page billing with the other relegated to a few paragraphs.

It goes to the heart of future news delivery and to a world where successful news providers will be able to cater for the differing requirements of a diverse audience by offering tools for them to adjust the mix of their news flow.

Those requirements now include place, timeliness and context as part of the relevance equation.

We all filter for relevance, whether consciously or subconsciously. Why is this important? What does it add? How does this affect me? Why should I care?

There’s now such a deluge of information that it can be overwhelming and time-consuming to sample, sift and sort.

Wikipedia says information overload is characterised by:

– rapidly increasing amounts of new information
– the ease of duplication and transmission of data
– an increase in the available channels
– large amounts of historical information
– contradictions and inaccuracies in the material.

That sounds very much like the rapidly-changing news eco-system.

Consultant Clay Shirky says the problem isn’t so much about information overload as filter failure.

The problem we have to solve is how to serve relevant content to individuals without pushing out so much that they become swamped, or disinterested.

How is it possible to know what millions of individuals want and what’s relevant to them?

In short, we can’t. Only the individuals know – and that’s the point. We have to develop more sophisticated filters to allow people to make those decisions for themselves.

News organisations need to know their consumers in the way that Tesco knows its customers. Such an organisation would know that I favour technology news over entertainment, that I want more business-focused material than health, and that I might want to reverse these choices at any given time depending on where I am and what I am doing.

The compact implicit here is that individuals will have to surrender some information in order to get better information and that means thoroughly exploring and explaining privacy issues.

Location and context have to play a big part in our future thinking. For someone wanting more information on the Paddington story the onus is on them to do the legwork and go and look.

Typically, that might mean visiting a trusted source to find information before going elsewhere to see if anyone else has additional detail or more recent material.

It might also involve a visit to Twitter. Twitter’s rise as a news platform shows the hunger for rapid-fire, quick-to-consume snippets. If you’re caught up in an unfolding event or something that piques your interest you want to know more, right away.

But the repetition, contradictions and inaccuracies that typify overload are there in abundance and the precious commodity of time isn’t always well spent.

The ideal solution would allow an individual to register an interest in the story and to track significant developments which would be pushed to them, snap by snap, line by line.

Recognising that interest, the news organisation would offer a UGC backchannel through which witness information, or pictures or video could be passed – and rewarded in some way, if used.

It might also open up the possibility of involvement in live, or time-delayed, broadcasts by individuals at the scene – but that’s a whole different discussion and something for another post.

The Sunlight Foundation recently picked up a $10,000 Knight Batten Award for its real-time coverage of February’s US health care summit.

Much of it mirrors the kind of Live Event coverage that is routinely used on the BBC News website, but I was especially taken by the addition of visualisations to aid understanding of the debates.

One example they used shows links between health care lobbyists and Senator Charles Grassley, one of the summit speakers. You can see at a glance that several are former members of his staff.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s interesting to note.

Channel 4 has also been exploring these kind of relationship connections with Who Knows Who spider maps.

It’s easy to see how televised coverage of House of Commons debates might benefit from instantly available supplementary information delivered to second screens like  smartphones or tablets as MPs stand up to speak.

On-screen Astons showing an MP’s name could trigger a second screen template showing a bio of his or her parliamentary career, what their interests are, what committees they sit on, their voting record, key speeches they have made, what their business interests are, who sponsors them,  even what expenses they have claimed.

Characterizing the depth and strength of relationships needs more work and is a matter for careful appraisal, but much of that kind of information is already available within newsrooms, especially amongst political and business staff.

On the basis of six degrees of separation almost everybody can be connected to anybody and that carries with it  the potential for mischief and misrepresentation.

As ever it’s a matter of sound editorial judgment.

Not the catchiest headline you’ll ever read, but when the big mobile operators start to co-operate you know there’s something going on. It involves part of the 3G spectrum they already own, the Time Division Duplex (deep breath, stick with it). Why does it matter? Well, as the rise of smartphones gums up the pipework and with the Olympic Games in the offing, any extra capacity is valuable. It still doesn’t get round the wider issue of getting fully-fledged mobile broadcasting into the UK. That requires spectrum, masts and towers, so a lot of money and the buy-in of mobile operators to put receivers into handsets.