Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Dear BBC, please get rid of the News Channel

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on July 1, 2009

It has tens of thousands of viewers, has won two RTS awards in the last 3 years, and is (according to its own branding) ‘Britain’s Most Watched News Channel’.

But, dear BBC,  you should scrap your 24 hour rolling news.

Now when I say that, I don’t mean close down transmitting, or make hundreds of people redundant, or pull out of the “race” for breaking news. I don’t even mean stop broadcasting news altogether.

It just seems in the growth of satellite news channels, which brought us  CNN and Sky News, and then Fox News, and then ITV News, which then closed down, and then Al-Jazeera…it just seems you have missed a trick.

What I want to see is a BBC News and Information Channel. Except with a better name than that, obviously.

With a whole channel dedicated to news, with 24 hours to fill,  how come fewer documentaries are produced? How come in order to find out about under reported stories from both the UK and abroad we have to turn to the internet? How come for some well thought out analysis of global events, you’re better off in the hands of Radio 4 or the World Service?

Because in the race with Sky News, the BBC News Channel fills its 24 hours with breaking news stories and following them as they develop, just like Sky News. And with that comes all the trappings and distortions of rolling news.

The pointless 2-ways from outside buildings where the newsreader clearly knows more about the story than the correspondent. The irrelevant updates on local, but gruesome crimes. The live broadcasting of police press conferences, of interest to hardly anyone. The parading of guest after guest after guest, each adding very little to the story. The over-reporting of PR news. And the speculation – oh, the speculation!

Click, Newswatch and Hardtalk are all well and good, but they are too few and far between. And you stick ’em on at 5am on a Sunday morning.

This race with Sky News (which, if it was an actual race in a stadium or something, would have about 15 spectators) has created a terrible distortion in news and facts, where both channels zoom in on a story to such an explosive magnitude, making it seem like the biggest most important disaster since some kind of climate change nuclear tsunami.

And, dear BBC, it really isn’t a race you need to win. Or even run in.

So how about this: a channel with short live news bulletins twice (or even four times an hour), with more 30 minute news bulletins, and the rest of the time filled with amazing documentaries, and great longer interviews with really interesting people, and some right-on analysis from all those clever correspondents. Hey, you’d have so much space to fill you could commission some riskier pieces from non-British journalists or young journalists. They might work, they might not, but it would be interesting.

You could whack more science and history on there. You might even get to be creative and dynamic.

But suddenly – breaking news! What do you do? It’s OK – if it’s not that important, there’s always the ticker at the bottom of the screen. And if it is important, then you can dip out of the programme for a bit. And if it is really important, then you can revert back to your news-channel ways.

We know you covet your “most watched news channel” crown, but come on BBC, the licence fee payers deserve more than this tit-for-tat war with Sky News, right?


17 Responses

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  1. […] See the original post:  Dear BBC, please get rid of the News Channel « Adam Westbrook […]

  2. cellulord said, on July 1, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Steady now.

    Maybe when Greg Dyke was in charge that sort of argument may have received a sympathetic ear … maybe even (shudder) John Birt … but not now. You’re making a fundamental mistake here, you see, since the BBC took a stance against Blair’s government and embarrassed him … it’s had its teeth and claws pulled. Mark Thompson isn’t there to oversee the creation of great public service broadcasting … he’s there to make sure that the BBC is, as much as possible, encouraging people to look the other way.

    Plus … if they can’t have a reporter spending all day standing at the end of an empty road, with a camera crew, on the civilian side of the yellow tape, explaining what happened before they got there, and getting the cameraman to turn his lens around so we can see all the other camera crews standing there, also beaming nothing of any consequence to their audiences … how can they claim to be giving the people the news they need?

    And, obviously … we could do it far better than those poxy colonial Sky bods … because we don’t have to break into the newsfeed with adverts.

    I generally don’t buy daily papers … I wait until the weekend and then buy a broadsheet or two. Why? Well, it’s cheaper, obviously, but also because they aren’t scratching around to try and find a headline … they can gather together ALL the threads of a story, spend some time considering them and structuring some kind of objective, informed over-view. They have a perspective that the day-to-day unfolding story doesn’t have.

    It would be lovely to have a news channel to go to that did the same.

    Imagine if they stopped competing for Sky viewers (which, because of the unique way they are funded … they don’t HAVE to compete for) and modelled themselves on a more enlightened, less elitist, 21st century version of Radio 4 instead.

    Imagine if talented, enthusiastic amateurs could make documentaries which, provided they met the quality and legal demands (which the BBC could advise on so the makers could re-work the story if necessary) could have a NATIONAL platform for their work. Wouldn’t cost the BBC a bean, would be democratic, would encourage diversity, would be public service.

    Imagine video-blogging, opinion pieces by intelligent, articulate, informed people – famous and otherwise – debating the issues behind the headlines, discussing the developments on the stories that are still important, but which have fallen out of the headlines. Production costs – negligible, addition to the free distribution of knowledge and opinion – considerable.

    Imagine lectures, not just Reith lectures but educational, thoughtful lectures from all over the world. The beeb wouldn’t even need to produce them all, they could buy many of them in from around the world.

    Imagine readings, political thinkers, journalists, philosophers, in-front of an audience in a church-hall somewhere, reading an essay, a script, a poem, whatever, then responding to the audience’s responses. That’ll cost an OB unit.

    Imagine streaming the video from the innumerable local radio stations, whenever they conduct a REALLY GOOD interview on the radio – they all have broadcast quality cameras in their studios, give it a national forum. Don’t fill the time with any old crap, only do it when it’s special and likely to be of interest to the nation as a whole.

    But then, why not have regional features. See the cosmic in the microcosmic … give all those local newsteams a remit to create something with a longer lifespan.

    But, unfortunately, we have no time for any of that because we have to go now over to Giles and the end of that street so he can update us on all the latest nothing-at-all that is still happening there.

  3. Chris D said, on July 1, 2009 at 10:08 am

    I knew this entry was by you as soon as I saw the title in Google Reader.

    And I agree.

    Although how much BBC World have you seen? Their format is a bit more bulletin/doc/bulletin/doc and it’s often like watching paint dry.

  4. Angus Farquhar said, on July 1, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Great article Adam, I totally agree, I love to get the news in the morning but there really is no middle ground. BBC News Channel is too soft and could almost be Phil and Fern, Sky gets dull after about 10 minutes and Radio 4 needs to get some younger, more diverse presenters.
    Contrary to what Chris D says I spend quite a lot of time in foreign hotel rooms and really enjoy the format of BBC World. It’s hard enough to keep you up to date but also gives you a broad view of what is going on in the world from some interesting perspectives.
    There are some really great ideas here and I sincerely hope that someone reads them that can point them out to the right people.

  5. charlie beckett said, on July 1, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Hi Adam,
    I was part of the launch team for News 24 under Tim Orchard and funnily enough, what you describe was akin to the original brief. We were told to think outside the box and use the 24 hours to cover everything under the sun. In the months of preparation for launch all sorts of generic programming and special features were suggested and a few even made it to air. I distinctly remember one sequence where Krishnan Guru-Murthy (now C4News) showed viewers how to put a duvet cover on, live. It was beautifully done but it was neither a ratings success nor terribly important. I was producer of the evening slot which had an entertainment slot with Liquid News presenter (the late) Christopher Price. Chris was a wonderful presenter but even he struggled to move from an item on Prince to one on the Prince of Wales.
    It was a mess. And a boring and expensive mess. It is much harder than it sounds to do what you are suggesting on TV and make it work.
    Of course, new technologies do help. I remember trying to create a slot where viewers send in their own VHS tape reports – that would be a lot easier now with YouTube as CNN have shown. But even so, CNN have got it right by keeping most of those UGC reports on their website.
    By the time it got on air BBC News 24 was much more like Sky News and within a year it was entirely the same. Why? For some of the reasons listed above. It is much more expensive to create built-programming despite the efficiencies of new media technologies. And where a programme would be cheap enough it will, too often, by incredibly dull or niche. That stuff is probably best left to the Internet and the long tail of online broadcasting. People turn on news channels for news. Instant news, short news, live news.
    By all means create different programming but don’t waste your time trying to put it on a 24 hour news channel.

  6. […] commentary on world affairs as they happen. But have they become too cliched and homongenous? Adam Westbrook suggests that the BBC should shut down News 24 and relaunch it as much varied and interesting […]

  7. T Rayner said, on July 1, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Can’t say I agree with you on this Adam…

    24 hour news channels are not intended to be watched throughout the day. People turn to them when they feel they need to know what’s going on straight away.

    The immediate live content provided by 24 hour news is what separates it from the polished scheduled network bulletins, which people turn to because they feel they ought to know what’s happened that day.

    The reason 24 hour news channels need to deliver ‘news’ (as opposed to docs or features) around the clock is very simple. The reputation and brand identity of the stations rests on viewers feeling they can rely on the channel to be ‘on-the-ball’ and ‘rolling’ the moment a story emerges.

    A good breaking news story should make the viewer feel that they are part of a developing situation – the output should convey the excitement and energy of the newsroom whirring into gear.

    The fact that information comes out piecemeal should not be used as a way of deriding 24 hour news – it’s what makes it watchable. People follow developments in the the same way that they will continually watch twitter or log on to news websites for updates. Rolling news channels and the web compliment each other in far more ways than they compete.

    The BBC has a duty to provide a TV hard news service that delivers around the clock. It should come far higher up the list of priorities than scheduling carefully crafted documentaries and long interviews. As for analysis, ‘conventional’ 24 hour news formats have the space to offer it in spades.

    Whether it’s a terrorist attack, the disappearance of a toddler, or just a good old case of extreme weather, rolling news captures the imagination, whether its on TV, online or both.

    Just take a look at Sky’s figures since Jacko’s death: 8.6 million people watched Sky News on TV between Thursday and Sunday night.

    SkyNews.Com received 2.5 million unique users in the same period.

    To think that the BBC could improve its service by transforming the News Channel into a strange hybrid of currentTV, straight talk and the national geographic channel, with a chirpy 2 minute news update every 15 minutes is to misunderstand the central role that 24 hour news plays in the way people digest the world around them.

  8. adamwestbrook said, on July 1, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    Tom, I totally agree 24 hour news has its place, as you describe – and for all my talk of web video, until we find a way of streaming video that doesn’t involve countless servers, broadcast TV news will always have a place.

    My argument is whether the BBC should be part of the race for breaking news to the detriment of other formats which could be using the same space.

    Is it really so important, the licence fee should be spent on it? You and everyone else do a great job at Sky News – but I just don’t think its a ratings war the BBC should be fighting.

    Also, I don’t agree news channels offer analysis ‘in spades’; in the rush to get guests on air (ahead of the competition) are they really the best to offer insight to a particular story?

  9. Dan Wilson Craw said, on July 2, 2009 at 8:04 am

    Does this have anything to do with Brooker’s article on Monday?

  10. adamwestbrook said, on July 2, 2009 at 8:17 am

    No I didn’t read it this week. What did he say?

  11. T Rayner said, on July 2, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Adam, I take your point about analysis. I guess what I was saying is that there is plenty of space for analysis in conventional 24 hour news formats, but you’re right to say it is not always handled as well as it could be.

    The argument that I don’t buy, is that the News Channel is somehow standing in the way of the BBC broadcasting a range of more risky documentaries or longer interviews. Why not use BBC3 and BBC4? Why not use the iPlayer? Why not have a greater depth of video content on the news website? Why not do more with red button on-demand services?

    To my mind, these would be the more realistic, and indeed the more effective way of dealing with the issues that you raise. The BBC have enormous scope to deliver more across their many platforms, there is no need for the news channel to be sacrificed.

    The issue ultimately is not about a race for breaking news or a ratings war. The former trivialises the very legitimate desire to drive the agenda that any news organisation (24 hours or not) should have, the latter is a folly, as apart from on some major breaking news stories, the News Channel tends to win more viewers comfortably. The key point is that everyone benefits from competition between the channels.

    As I said in my previous post, 24 hour news plays a crucial role in our current media landscape. Of course the channels will have to evolve, but to get rid of them all together would be a regressive step.

  12. Paul Treacy said, on July 4, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    This is great. There is a great opportunity here for the Beeb. There is a lot of superlative broadcast quality multimedia work being done using great stills, video and audio capture. This type of storytelling has reached maturity and is a great tool for TV. If the BBC were to harness this resource it would be great news for photographers and multimedia pros the world over as many stations around the world would likely follow suit.

  13. Robert Persson said, on July 15, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Amen. In fact the CBC has a domestic cable/satellite channel with a focus on current affairs-related documentaries (can’t remember what it’s called now). Might be one to look at for a model.

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