Thursday, September 08, 2011

Ben Hammersley's Message in Hilversum

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I've been to several NPOX festivals in Hilversum, but this year, the fifth, was one of the best. It may also be the last. NPO is the Dutch Public Broadcasting organisation and is currently going through a crisis as it tries to downsize its budget in accordance with new government legislation. Of course, the first thing to collapse are most forms of creativity as apparent from the new public broadcasting autumn schedules. The number of cheap talk shows is frightening. Discussions are all about jobs and money, rather than how can the public broadcasters get closer to the people that pay for it all. The public. 

I've noted in this blog before that the new media law, drawn up by the NPO and the Dutch government clearly defines the relationships between the broadcasters and the government, but it makes programme makers in Hilversum even less responsible to the public. Whereas in the UK, there is a BBC Trust which conducts open consultations with the public (such as reviewing networks or programming), in the Netherlands it is assumed that the public is represented through the broadcasting societies, which are now, in effect, production companies with a political or religious colour/bias. The problem is that most of the Dutch population is not a member of these broadcasting societies and there is never any public discussion about the role public broadcasting should play. The current right of centre government clearly wants to reduce the influence of the public broadcasters in Dutch society, which it perceives as a being inherently biased towards the left. 

Which brings me back to NPOX. Held in a newly built theatre in Hilversum, it was more of a reality check rather than a festival. The thousands of freelancers in Hilversum are only beginning to realise that they are going to bear the brunt of the cutbacks. Effectively there is an exodus of talent leaving town for Amsterdam or further afield.

The keynote came from British tech journalist and war correspondent Ben Hammersley. He points out that a lot of confusion in broadcast and related industries is because those in power now were educated before 1989. Not only was that year a pivotal point when the Iron Curtain broke down, it was also the year that the Internet really went public. In 1989, CERN was the largest Internet node in Europe, and Tim Berners-Lee saw an opportunity to join hypertext with the Internet. After that date, there was a fundamental change in the way people collaborate. They think as a network rather than in the heirachy of their predecessors. It explains why many of those managers in their 50's and 60's don't understand social media or how they are going to integrate these new platforms of expression into traditional radio and TV. Ben highlights a recent survey in the US which finds that 95% of under 25 year olds are using another device while consuming traditional radio and/or TV.

I like Ben's talk because towards the end he highlights what's needed - a new form of storytelling but also a different way of organising productions - more along the lines of the way Hollywood develops films. He explains that as editor at large of Wired they made a map of the area of London. It turned out that in Shoreditch there were more companies than people, simply because people were working on a project basis, bringing together the best talent for the job and then moving on when it was over. This approach is completely alien to the broadcast companies in Hilversum where the survival of the company and its heirachy through the subsidy model seems to be more important than the programmes that are produced. There are some exceptions, it's true, but I don't think it's going to be enough to fulfil Hilversum's ambition of being one of the creative capitals of Europe by the year 2020. Holland's commercial production industry certainly understands how to build cross-media services and integrate these into game shows. But when it comes to factual production - making content with a high public value, you can count the creative talent on the fingers of one hand

I asked Ben about this after his talk. You can find his response at around 44 minutes in.

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