Thursday, 7 March 2013

War of the Material Worlds

In his extraordinary book on advertising, Creative Mischief, Dave Trott talks about the art of 'conflation' i.e. 'to fuse or bring together separate elements'.

"Conflation is another word for creativity", he says, "Putting things together, causing you to think about them in a new way. Isn't this a gorilla playing the drums? Or a car made out of cake? Or evolution going backwards? Or waves morphing into white horses?"

Creativity is all about taking risks, trying something new, pushing square pegs into round holes and creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.There are many TV and radio shows that, on paper, look like they should have been non-starters. Imagine these pitches:

'It's a sitcom set on a spaceship millions of light years from Earth. It stars an impressionist from Spitting Image,  a performance poet who was once Terry Wogan's sidekick, an unknown dancer from West End shows and a dour, relatively obscure stand-up comedian who will only appear in the show as a head. Later on we'll introduce a novelist in a rubber robot mask.'

'It's a show all about ballroom dancing hosted by a man in his eighties. We'll put it on prime time TV on a Saturday evening up against things like I'm a celebrity, get me out of here and X Factor.'

'It's a drama series about a chap who flies around in space and time (mostly) doing good. The entire cast changes on a regular basis, including the lead. Oh, and the spaceship is a police box of the kind kids won't recognise as they were phased out in the 1970s.'

'It's a sketch show but the sketches don't have punchlines and many are quite surreal. They'll be written and performed by some Oxbridge post-graduates (modern history, English, medicine and law) with little or no performing experience, and an American animator with a fascination for Victoriana and the Baroque.'

It's probably true that if Red Dwarf, Strictly Come Dancing, Doctor Who or Monty Python's Flying Circus were pitched to most TV companies today, they wouldn't be commissioned. Isn't that a terrible thought? The sad fact is that the men and women in suits who make the commissioning decisions these days seem to be overwhelmingly people with lots of qualifications, no experience of making shows and a complete aversion to risk. They also seem to have some kind of algorithm or checklist to follow in order to decide what works and what doesn't. However, the greatest innovations come from breaking the rules. Dave Trott again:

"Why doesn't most advertising work? Because it's 'right'. It's been debated, discussed, argued, briefed, researched, debriefed, rebriefed, until it's 'right'. And that's the problem: it's 'right'. It's not interesting. It's not interesting so no one notices it. No one notices it so no one remembers it. No one remembers it, so it doesn't work, no matter how 'right' it is."

Red Dwarf shouldn't have worked by any checklist you care to tick. It didn't have anyone famous in it. Most of the cast weren't jobbing actors and two weren't really comedians. And the pitiful BBC effects budget meant that it would look rubbish when set against the standards of US imports like Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek or Hollywood franchises like Star Wars. But it worked. And it ran for several series before it was cancelled. But, by then, it had built a legion of fans and was recently resurrected on satellite channel Dave with huge success. Another series has been commissioned.

My boss is a chap called John Lloyd. You might have heard of him although he's famous for what he does behind the scenes, rather than in front of them. John is a producer and writer. He created Not the Nine O Clock News and Spitting Image. He produced every episode of Blackadder. He co-wrote the book The Meaning of Liff with Douglas Adams and co-wrote two episodes of the original radio series of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy. He created QI. He co-wrote The Book of General Ignorance (with John Mitchinson), which has sold over a million copies. He's also a hugely successful commercials director and has won a good clutch of BAFTAs and other awards. Lloydy has a kind of Midas touch - everything he gets involved in turns to gold. He is nothing if not consistent. And yet, as he says in an episode of Car Pool (hosted, coincidentally by Red Dwarf's Robert Llewellyn), "I haven't managed to sell a TV show since QI and that was 2002. Which seems ludicrous. I've pitched ideas that people told me would never work. And then later someone has done something similar, quite independently and on a smaller scale, and it's been a huge success and then TV picks it up." Interestingly, Car Pool was also turned down by TV companies - despite it being endlessly fascinating and featuring every celebrity you can think of as guests - so Robert has posted it online.

There was a time when I would never have considered pitching ideas to anyone but the BBC. They were the brave ones. They took risks. They created stars. They had the safety net of knowing that the licence fee was there and guaranteed. It meant that the BBC could afford to take risks - all four of the shows I mentioned above were made by the BBC. And part of that risk included taking someone who none of us had ever heard of and saying 'watch this guy/gal - they're brilliant!'. And, in no time at all, people like Arthur Negus, Valerie Singleton, Rowan Atkinson, Dr David Bellamy, Tony Hart, James Burke, Tom Baker, Pam Ayres, Kenny Everett, Sir Patrick Moore, John Cleese, Delia Smith and so many others were suddenly household names. They weren't chosen to appear in shows because they were famous or popular. They were chosen because they were different and interesting.

Compare that to today. There seems to be a belief that we are all celebrity-obsessed - but I suggest that, actually, we're really not. The celeb-lovers are not a majority. Yes, I'll see a few people on a train reading OK or Heat magazine or The Sun newspaper. But I'll see just as many, and probably more, reading books or specialist magazines, listening to music or audiobooks, watching films on their tablets or playing games. Not all of us are interested in who's shagging who, or who's divorcing who because they were shagging someone they shouldn't have been shagging. In the same vein, I don't care who the person presenting a show on deep sea fish or the origins of the universe is, as long as they are interesting and authoritative. Looks and age shouldn't be a factor. I like Professor Brian Cox, he's a genuinely nice man and very, very smart. But I don't necessarily want to see him on every science show, especially those covering subjects outside of his areas of expertise. On the other turn of the coin, if I want to learn something about African wildlife, I'd prefer not to be taught by a heavily-scripted celebrity like Richard Hammond or Ewan MacGregor. I don't see Sir David Attenborough starring as a Jedi or reviewing the latest Ferrari, after all. The right person for the right job. It's not rocket science, it really isn't.

I hear today that the marvellous Quentin Cooper is being dropped from BBC Radio 4's Material World show as part of a 'refresh'. Is that really necessary? Radio 4 is hardly a huge money maker is it? And I can't believe that the show is that impactful on the licence fee. Is the show really so broken that it needs fixing? Cooper is a joy to listen to. He is exactly the right person for that show. I'd argue that he IS Material World. His clipped, nasal tones are as much a part of the fabric of the show as Nicholas Parsons' dithering is on Just a Minute. He also knows what he's talking about and puts hugely complex scientific ideas across in an understandable, 'man-on-the-Clapham-omnibus' way. So what's behind this ridiculous decision to sack him?

I can only assume that some BBC media studies post-grad has pumped the data into their iPad, run the algorithm, ticked the boxes and decided that a smart, balding chap in specs who knows his onions doesn't fit the bill. Too risky. Not famous enough. The fact that Cooper has successfully presented the show since 1999 presumably isn't a factor. Nor, I assume is the fact that the Radio Times described Material World as 'the most accessible, funny and conversational science programme on radio' or that Bill Bryson said that it is 'quite the best thing on radio'. Oh, and in the 2011 BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science it was singled out for 'particular praise'.

Pft. What a load of rubbish that show must be! Obviously, it needs a 'refresh'.

If this was being done in a spirit of innovation, I might welcome it. If this was being done to raise revenues in order to increase the number of science-based TV and radio shows, I might applaud it. But I think we all know that it's probably some new broom trying to make their mark on the world of media in the clumsiest and most cliche fashion possible. What we'll end up with is something that is no longer Material World. And our world will be poorer for it.

I, for one, have written to the BBC to vent my spleen at the decision.


  1. Some thoughts on who to address letters to in priority order (Radio before TV[1]):

    Feedback obv.
    Radio science editor: Deborah Cohen
    Gwyneth Williams: Radio 4 controller
    David Shukman: @davidshukmanbbc The BBC's Science Editor. [2]
    John Lynch: Head of Science for BBC London Factual
    Kim Shillinglaw: Commissioning Editor, Science and Natural History

    Addressed to broadcasting house[3].

    [1] "Radio [science] staff rarely talked to television, while news and current affairs works to its own imperatives and contacts its own pool of established experts, the report found."

    [2] "The BBC executive said that Shukman had started building relationships with Vision and BBC Radio science teams and started to act as a link between science programme makers and news outlets.
    The science forum meets to provide strategic oversight of BBC science coverage, bringing together Shukman with radio and TV commissioners and production heads, "

    [3] "Also, for the first time, the Radio Science Unit and the Science News team will be united in the renovated Broadcasting House, with colleagues in Television Science a few floors up. Anyone familiar with a large organisation historically divided on tribal lines (like a university?) will appreciate the significance."

  2. The BBC died about ten years ago. A succession of soulless director-generals and their senior managers obsessed with ratings and their own careers, culminating in that shameless numpty Tim Davie popping up as interim DG. All new TV shows are designed as anodyne palliatives when they should be a kick in the neurons.

  3. Maybe I'm being cynical, but I often wonder if TV companies are competing to find the minimum achievable Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR).

    Here's the algorithm:
    i) Start with some TV material (or 'Signal') which is capable of meaningfully engaging a viewer's attention for T minutes.
    ii) Interleave (f x T) minutes of pointless stodge (or 'Noise'), the aim being to find the largest value of f which will still retain viewing figures above some threshold value.

    The resultant SNR is therefore = 1/f.

    (Just as an example, I would estimate the SNR for "The Only Way is Essex" to be somewhere in the region of 1/1000).