Sunday, January 08, 2012

Mixed Commercial Messaging

I confess I don't understand the outburst on recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme "World at One" by John Tusa. He seems to think that a tiny piece of advertising on the Berlin relay on BBC World Service (where currently promos for programmes are slotted in) is somehow a threat to the editorial independence of the World Service.

Former BBC WS MD John Tusa may be correct in that the Berlin relay won’t raise much of the 3 million pounds that BBC World Servce radio is trying to raise this year to partly offset the drastic budget reductions announced nearly a year ago. But for years, ads alongside BBC World Service radio output have been heard on many stations that partner with the external broadcaster. Some stations insert their own commercials at 29 and 59 minutes past the hour when London carries programme promos. That's common in Africa where the local stations need to generate revenue because they are not subsidized by the government. Infact these countries will probably never be able to finance the public service broadcast model that survives in parts of Europe, like the UK, Belgium and Germany.

But what's wrong here? Are the radio presenters and editors in London aware that this is happening? Even if they are, do the adverts have any bearing on the editorial decisions being made in Bush House - and later this year in Broadcasting House? No.

BBC World Service has always been looking for ways to supplement its income by charging some stations that can afford it. Stations in the US pay a fee to Public Radio International to rebroadcast programmes from BBC World Service. Companies can also sponsor these relays as PRI is happy to explain on it's website. Again, these activities don't have any bearing on the editorial content coming out of London.

Mind you, none of this is new at all. I recall a clip from the very same John Tusa broadcast by Media Network on January 22nd 1988 (yes almost 24 years ago) in which there were definite plans to make money out of content - he even quotes a figure of how much money they thought they could earn. The clip is only a few minutes by the way. Also note that this was the point at which cable systems in the Netherlands switched off their relays of BBC 648 kHz in favour of a satellite feed.

There are some interesting variations in order to squeeze in commercials into the output from Bush House. There has been a MW relay in Auckland, New Zealand of BBC World Service since the late 1990's. It is run by a local group of enthusiastic fans who have developed a clever system to raise money to cover their running costs. The automated system puts the feed on BBC WS into a buffer. They carry 2 minutes of ads at the top of every hour and then play back a slightly sped up version of that hour of programming from London squeezed into 58 minutes. Sounds fine to me. Lou Josephs in Washington DC reports that many small stations in the US use the same trick of time compression on satellite syndicated shows so that they can squeeze in local commercials. They call it a "cashbox".

I am far more concerned about the 15 breaches last year by their TV channel BBC World News of the BBC's editorial guidelines. This was reported by the BBC Trust back in November. BBC World News buy in programmes made by production companies who are making disguised PR rather than independent investigative journalism. Nobody seems to be checking that thoroughly enough.

I will be curious to see the coverage of the Consumer Electronics Fair in Las Vegas this coming week by BBC World News programme "Click". This is one of the feature programmes that is happy to accept what the BBC terms as sponsorship. I watch it regularly and can't say I haven't seen evidence of advertorials.  So far, Click is much better than the Channel 5 Gadget Show because I feel it explores my interests as someone actively working in technology.

In contrast, The Gadget show is a festival of sponsored pieces designed as a marketplace for manufacturers and retail outlets such as Curry's and PC World. It's well crafted, but I don't find it useful. It has such a narrow focus on "fashionable stuff" which culminates in ludicrous competitions, showering one winner with 170 sponsored products after they have called an expensive number to be part of the contest.

My trust in Click and other BBC World News features would evaporate if there was any commercial editorial bias. I would be worried that the show is also shown on public channels like BBC One and BBC News.  I'm sure other viewers would interpret that as breach of trust and that will spill over into their trust of BBC current affairs programmes and investigative documentaries in general.

Don't forget you have a situation where BBC World Service radio also has a show called Click (formerly Digital Planet) which is not sponsored and which in-fact it is a completely different programme to its TV namesake.


I personally see more potential with ads on their websites, especially if they make cross-medial websites that mix general BBC entertainment content with the news output. They could be far more creative with their embedded player than resorting to the tedious pre-roll ads before every clip. There have been far too many cases recently where bank ads for HSBC have preceded another doom and gloom report by Robert Peston about banker salaries or the Euro crisis. Now that really is mixed messaging. And I guess that editors in London never watch the outside-UK version of their site.



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