Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Eric Schmidt at Edinburgh

 I  was fortunate to hear Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, speak at the Edinburgh Television Festival and to attend the Question and Answer session the following morning.
Schmidt posed one big question -- in my view a massively important one: why hasn’t a country like the UK built large technology companies? (He reminded us that the first commercial use of a computer was at the headquarters of J.  Lyons, once famous for its tea shops, in West London).
For the audience of British TV Executives the question took a more specific form: why doesn’t British broadcasting do better globally, lead in Europe? After all, the British speak a global language -- and other Europeans, like many nationalities, are used to watching dubbed or subtitled content.
His answer was: first, we don’t teach computer science enough in schools or encourage it enough at universities; second, we are over-regulated.
In his brief tribute to Steve Jobs, who had announced that he was stepping down the day before, Eric Schmidt reminded us that Apple makes sure its technology is beautiful.
It’s hard not to agree that our education system could give a much more positive message about science, innovation and entrepreneurship. (What is the point of media departments teaching Marxist or post-modernist theory to people who want to work in advertising or TV?)
But his regulation argument aroused little comment. Why?
To be blunt, British broadcasters and producers are deeply attached to their regulations. I expect they would fight like cats and dogs to keep them.
The BBC is regulated from top to bottom, and funded by a mandatory levy. It totally resists any change.
The public services broadcasters (PSBs), BBC, ITV, C4 and Five, get mandatory “prominence” on all guides. They would hate to lose that.
British producers are entitled to keep rights in programmes even if they have been funded largely by public broadcasters.
Yet Schmidt is right. Regulation does hold back innovation and entrepreneurship. Regulation, as he delicately put it, usually favours the regulated. It deters innovation and entrepreneurship by newcomers, putting the emphasis on continuity and risk avoidance by the current players.
Schmidt proclaims himself a Capitalist and a Technologist. California invents the future in a cultural and political landscape utterly different from Europe, with its high public spending and tax rates and extensive social policies.
But that’s why Europe needs to be very smart about the impact of regulation and the danger of decline. If it cannot support entrepreneurs and build large companies in key emerging sectors, we have a big, big problem.
I have two recommendations which I think are worth exploring by people who are ready  to be fearlessly objective.
One, national regulators should switch their thinking to a European rather than a national scale: Schmidt’s critique of the suppression of the Kangaroo project by British competition authorities got a round of applause.  (I am not an expert in competition law so I am going to return to this when I have taken advice.)
Two, the UK should ask tough questions about the costs and benefits of every piece of regulation, with a strong bias towards abolition.
The UK could start with some like these:
Quotas for original production: the PSB’s have detailed commitments to original production, even though there is a 50% EU rule for European content. Nearly all major channels in Europe exceed the 50% quota of European content, the vast majority of which is domestic. This is because there is a very strong preference for domestic content in every Member State. Are these UK rules really  serving a useful purpose? (If Governments want to be very specific, say about Children’s’ content, they should contract for that directly.)
Guide prominence: it’s actually getting a bit silly. The public broadcasters want to keep their prominence at the top of the guides but now want to charge Sky, for example,  retransmission fees. Sky, I guess, would like to get the revenue for its top slots. Why not take out the regulation and let them sort it out?
A proper assessment might keep some rules but modify them in the interests of a more open market and more competition. For instance, the independent terms of trade have helped to build the UK’s format industry worldwide, but they also act to keep large independents and public broadcasters in an exclusive ritual dance.
Eric Schmidt himself mentioned Contract Rights Renewal (CRR) by which, following the mergers that created what is now ITV, the price of advertising is held at a given level.
There is a job to be done here. Perhaps Eric Schmidt has provided the driver. Anyone agree?

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

What Content will Define our Decade?

I am taking a break  this week to think about next week's post. Big Brother was the defining show of the last decade. What will define this one? Your  thoughts would be welcome. Back next week.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Midsomer Murders: a Producer in Trouble


This week there was a fascinating case in the British media. The programme called Midsomer Murders, known around the world as Barnaby or Inspector Barnaby, portrays a typical English village (with a very untypical murder rate!).  

I have written about it before. One of the reasons it succeeds is that it occupies very familiar territory: for detective stories about English villages are a well-known genre around the world, made famous from the novels of Agatha Christie and many others. 

Thus Midsomer Murders is different from -- but in the same mould as -- Inspector Morse and Poirot and Miss Marple, all widely shown around the world. (Midsomer Murders is actually based on the books of Caroline Graham – no relation).

There was furore last week when its producer – and CEO of its production company – in explaining how he designed this show, said he had cast no black or Asian performers since black or Asian people would be out of place in a typical English village.

In real life Brian True-May is not completely correct. Like everything else, England’s villages are changing.  I live in one and we have a black family and one Asian family in a village of about a hundred homes. They participate fully. One family member sits on the village council – or Parish Council as it is called.  Another is a doctor.

True-May has been widely criticised and suspended from his job.

So this is the issue.  Midsomer Murder is fiction.  It’s a story -- it has a high audience among older, more conservative viewers in the UK and its job is to continue to appeal to that audience. In other countries it may appeal to different groups. But it needs to be recognised for what it is, to have a clear and coherent identity, and to be part of a well-established tradition. People like to know what they are getting before they invest their time in watching something…

When a producer is casting a show, he or she will look for ways to clarify and simplify context and location. He or she is using clues to locate the work in the viewer’s minds and to make recognition and navigation easy. It is legitimate to use every trick – a story is an illusion, a simplified frame for fictional events which the viewer will need to track.

Or to put in another way, the villages in Midsomer Murders are stereotypes. Whatever their consequences for social behaviour, in cultural terms, stereotypes are a tool, a way we navigate our lives and make decisions. I have referred before to the work of Boyd and Richerson who have tried to explain why humans have “culture”. They conclude it is because we cannot research every decision: we need a way of making decisions in a way that is not as crude as pure animal instinct, but is “quick and easy”. Copying available models is one way we do that. Stereotypes are another: this looks like a kind of person or place I have met before, so I will treat them as I did then. 

Entertainment uses stereotypes – recognizable frames that provide familiarity and easy understanding for people and events that are new to the viewer. Stereotypes are almost by their nature behind the curve of reality.

So, going back to the main issue, the question is: should casting be colour blind? UK urban drama often features black and Asian actors. There is social truth in this, for minority ethnic groups live mainly in cities in the UK.  

Midsomer Murders is not a challenging work but it does its job, staying firmly within an established tradition. But even much more “difficult” works like The Wire from the US use stereotypes.

So should social policy determine the casting of a TV series? Many might say, yes, if it contributes to social or racial prejudice. But there is no evidence that Midsomer Murders has contributed to racial prejudice. Nor is there evidence that the producer himself – though he may have been impolitic – is prejudiced. You could say he was just making a professional judgement.

Others might say it would be better with a more typical social mix. The point is: should a producer have been fired for explaining his casting policy which prior to his interview has raised no complaint – except from critics who found it old-fashioned and dull?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Rosario Tijeras: A Telenovela with Attitude

Rosario Tijeras is a Colombian drama. It is an adaptation of a novel by the same name. Rosario, the protagonist, played by Maria Fernanda Yepez, was raised in the slums and raped by a local gang. After the rape – her friend was also murdered by an infamous drug lord – she seeks revenge, and gets it by killing the drug lord. Word spreads fast, and, in a reversal of expectations, a gang hires her to become an assassin and from that moment she works for the new mafia boss.

The show has murders, betrayal, fast money and beautiful women and appears to make riveting television. It was one of Colombia’s top-rated shows of 2010. When the series began airing on Telefutura in the US in September 2010 it delivered the highest rated series finale in the history of the network. (Columbia is the third largest Latin American country after Brazil and Mexico, and, sadly, one of the most dangerous places on the planet.)

There were disapproving voices, of course. Though extreme tales of drug bosses and glamorous women assassins are common on Colombian primetime television, this latest “narco-soap” has been controversial and sparked protests in the city of Medellin. The show’s posters, emblazoned with the slogan “It’s harder to love than to kill”, had to be taken down in Columbia’s second largest city, home to infamous drugs lord Pablo Escobar in the 80’s and 90’s.

The main complaint has been that the series glamorizes the life of criminals and will encourage young people to imitate that lifestyle. The main Medellin newspaper El Colombiano said that the show was a "gulp of absurdity, vulgarity, bad manners and a big dose of narco-culture". The argument also spread over to neighbouring Panama, whose president, Ricardo Martinelli, complained about the Colombian shows that air on local television there. "They exalt drug trafficking, theft, muggings," he said, adding that the shows do "damage to our country" and corrupt "moral values". 

The show has also hit problems in neighbouring Venezuela.

It’s not the first time that Columbia has seen anti-heroes like Rosario. This one is actually just the latest in a group of telenovelas, dubbed “narco-soaps”, which have caused an outcry in Colombia. There has been The Capo, which paints a wily drug boss as a sensitive anti-hero. There was a smash hit Without Breasts There Is No Paradise that glamorized the lives of the women who surround the drug lords, as did Mafia Dolls, which ended in early 2010.

Two questions arise whenever this kind of debate comes up. First, are people indifferent to the moral issues? And second, what impact do media have on behaviour?

On the first the answer is No. A huge majority of Colombians supported late President Alvaro Uribe’s successful campaign against the drug cartels. Nobody except a hardened criminal wants to live in a violent and lawless country. But such issues are seldom simple. There is sympathy and some support for the farmers who have harvested the coca leaf for generations and who do not get adequate compensation for losing their business when their crops are destroyed. There is also resentment against the United States whose drug users consume most of the cocaine that fuels the drug trade.

However, most people feel they are able to distinguish “entertainment” from “reality”. They get pleasure out of entertainment. That pleasure is a signal that entertaining stories satisfy ancient instincts, instincts that were there long before the arrival of nation states and drug lords!

Rosario Tijeras has two of the ingredients that capture instinctive attention: murder and beautiful women.

A female assassin is an interesting case, however. A female assassin goes against “nature” (killing is usually the way male rivalries are settled), so she has to be sympathetic and credible. (You will have come across other female assassins who are just cardboard characters who do not engage serious attention). Rosario gets sympathy from the back story: she has been violated and her friend has been killed. That justifies revenge, which we instinctively support, but not the role of a career assassin. I would like to watch the series to see how they have secured continuing interest in Rosario’s role as a career criminal -- for that will be main challenge for the writers of this series.

As for the other question, we still know relatively little about the precise impact of entertainment on the moral culture of a nation or community, although reams of paper have been written on the subject. Most countries have “standards”, which vary widely. But do violent telenovelas encourage young people to join drug gangs or sanction muggings?

In truth, this is a very confused issue. On balance, there is now a consensus among academics that violent entertainment does not directly promote violent behaviour -- with some exceptions, like young people and sociopaths. But media are clearly part of a culture. Culture is complex and multi-layered and it is often very hard to determine what is driving change and what is following.

However a particular culture, however pluralistic, has its own character, and its own “attitude” towards key issues.

My guess is the media debate is animated by two different types within the administrative class. One group is concerned with public order and does not like crimes such as murder and drug abuse being treated lightly, i.e. as part of “entertainment”. The other group, predominantly academic, is protective of freedom of expression. Finding it hard to get hard data on media impact, they tend to rely on a kind of acceptability test, acting when a stream of complaints gets particularly noisy.

Most ordinary people, however, know they have little influence on public issues, enjoy being stimulated by good entertainment, and don’t think a “story” is going to change their lives or opinions.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Media Strategy: Knowing Your Market

The US market: 50  channels to talk to

The main question addressed in this series of posts has been: how do I identify a market for my content? And the emphasis has not been on home markets, but external markets, in other words, exports.

I have emphasized a knowledge-based approach (hope that does not sound pretentious.) I observe that the traditional approach to sales is: show of your wares, attract as much attention as you can, build relationships. All essential, but knowledge can make it even more effective.

First question about the country or market you are looking at is: where are the gaps? However good your contacts, a basic framework or theory of content demand will help focus those enquiries and provide scope for independent initiatives.

So start with the basic assumption that mainstream audiences prefer home-made content.I tried to explain the reason for this cultural preference in the first post in this series.

I will talk about non-mainstream channels at a later date.

Look first for what they can’t they do themselves, or do enough of. Depending on the size of the country or market, there could be many types of content that cannot be made at home in the required quantities…expensive documentaries, drama, comedy, formats for games or reality entertainment.

I use primetime drama as a core example because it is so expensive that even countries with large populations cannot afford as much as they need.

For mainstream audiences, here are some questions:

Is it familiar enough? In other words, even if that audience is used to dubbed or subtitled material, will they be able to make sense of it?

I explained in an earlier blog that basic aspects of US life, for example, have become so familiar that they pose few “cognitive” issues.  A French or British drama on the other hand needs a bit more help. The British series called Sherlock has done quite well – Sherlock Holmes is quite a widely known character, at least in Europe. Midsummer Murders, known around the world mainly as Inspector Barnaby, uses an English village as its location, familiar from the British detective novel, another worldwide favourite.

Stories need not only to feel familiar. They also need to be attractive and relevant. Famous cities work better than country towns.

As for the subject matter, it will have to do a traditional job in a special way. In an earlier post I talked about the human fascination with murder. Every schedule in every country on our planet offers murder mysteries. Decide what is missing from their repertoire and see if you have got it, or can make it.

Our fascination with murder is one of many instinctive biological responses that secure attention. Suspense is another – an ancient response that warns us to pay attention because something bad may be about to happen.

The approach taken in this series is very basic. It is intended to make the point that basic knowledge helps to ground everything that follows. In future posts I will try to understand the more intricate problem of why something succeeds -- sometimes unexpectedly.

But the first step must always be to identify and know the customer. The largest media market in the world is the US. It is only recently that other players have sought to sell into that market on any scale. But things are changing.

That is why structure of the US market is has become so important. To help approach that market from outside, our company has created, in association with the UK magazine Broadcast,  the most comprehensive report on the US market ever written. It’s called US TV: Commissioning Strategies: 2011 to 2012. You can visit the micro-site by clicking the link.