Thursday 24 July 2014

TV events: The BBC's addiction to fictional figures - UPDATE

For reasons best known to the BBC, it merrily trots out all sorts of figures that just can't be substantiated. It happens all the time, frequently claiming financial and business losses that seem to have been calculated by holding up a wet finger in the wind. You know the sort of thing: A strike is staged or there is a shutdown for some other reason and we are told that there are "losses amounting to [insert any figure you like here]". Sure there are losses caused by shutdowns, but just because a can of beans, a jacket, a book, a dining table or a book of stamps is not sold today doesn't mean it won't be sold tomorrow and, therefore, is not a "loss".

This takes me on to the nonsense frequently repeated by the BBC and other media organisations about audiences for events such as royal weddings, American presidential inaugurations, and major sports.

Take the current claim in news bulletins that the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was watched by "up to (or more than) a billion people". How could that be? It's impossible.

Over the years, several ex-BBC editors, including myself, have challenged the "wet finger" calculation of figures, with no apparent effect. Among the most vociferous objectors is a former BBC senior manager and colleague, Graham Mytton, who is an internationally-recognised expert on audience figures. I am taking the liberty to quote from a Facebook entry he made earlier today about a BBC claim that the Commonwealth Games had an audience of more than one billion:
Why does the BBC put out this impossible and self evidently risible rubbish? There are two billion people in the Commonwealth. Most of them will have been asleep last night (it was 2.30 a.m. in India). Is it remotely conceivable that half of them were watching last night? No global TV programme has yet reached a billion, not even the Olympics, although they have come close. Why does the BBC throw away its usual caution and acclaimed authority for accuracy when it comes to global TV audiences? Every time it does this. The Royal Wedding, the Oscars, the World Cup and so on. When I worked at the BBC, one had to have a source. There is no source for this rubbish. Why? Because it is not true. Simple.
Does it matter that the audience figures are inflated? Will anyone care? Well, they should care because the BBC has built up over several decades an international reputation for accuracy. This should apply to every aspect of a story. If it plays fast and loose with figures for such things as business losses and audience figures, what else is considered too good to check?

UPDATE:  On the same subject, this article is worth reading. It denounces the extraordinary claims for the TV audiences for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton:

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Writers should not be expected to work for nothing

An important message from the latest newsletter of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain:

Free is not an option

A letter from one writer to another 
The recent Writers’ Guild Survey about the extent to which writers are being asked to give away their work for free, or work on others’ ideas for free, produced a howl of anger as a response. Though aimed at all writers – authors, poets and dramatists for the theatre – it was particularly tailored for those who work in film and TV. A whopping 87% of writers had been asked to work for free, with everyone experiencing an upturn.

It’s clear that there one culprit to blame. Us. We writers are simply colluding in our own downfall, by agreeing to work for free. The worse the story of abuse – endless treatments, being sacked from your own projects, promise of cash that never materialises – the more you wonder, why? The answer is simple. We’re all passionate about our work and understand there’s a lot of give and take in the industry (well we mostly give). Now, however, it’s time to stand together and say no. This is exploitation.

Let me clarify what “free” actually means. All writers accept that there’s a certain amount of spec work – you have to write a spec script to prove you’ve got the chops. That’s fine. When you pitch your idea, you have to put it on a page or two to sell it. But that should probably be it.

As one writer in the survey wrote:  “I'd distinguish between two kinds of pitches – the one I write to showcase my idea and the one they need to sell it. I expect to present my wares for no reward. The tipping point comes when they start giving me notes.”
Another writer says: “Just a ‘one-pager’. Enough to get a feel for the idea. But of course what they want is an entire series condensed into a couple of pages and to do this you need to have worked out the entire series, how it works, how the characters interact etc. There’s a fundamental difference between a ‘pitch’ and a treatment. A lot of TV ideas can’t be pitched in the same way as high-concept movies can. It’s a lot of work to ‘create’ a TV series.”

Time and again, development producers seem to be set up with a salary and an assistant, but no budget to pay for anything. Can this really be true? When it comes to a Top 10 writer or a special book, the funding will suddenly be there. Surely, saying they don’t have any money, actually means they don’t have any money for you.

The survey asked writers to name and shame the biggest culprits and it turned out to be nearly every indie around. If we’re willing to fund a company’s development (and often these are huge indies turning over millions, never mind in-house BBC), then they’re only too happy to let us. How many times have we been in meetings with producers and commissioners to discuss our idea and we’re the only one around the table who isn’t being paid? What’s more, if a producer is in a commissioner meeting with several ideas, which one will they really push – the freebie or the one they’ve paid for?

If we don’t put a value on our work – why would anyone else? Aren’t we just devaluing our own market by flooding it with free ones?

Giving a producer a free option is a really bad idea, then you’ve really lost control of it and they have de factor ownership. Try asking the producer if you can send it out to other people during this period and see the response. They believe it’s theirs, with no money changing hands.

All we have is our ideas. They are our currency. Writing isn’t about typing, it’s about thinking. That’s what we’re paid for.

So what’s to be done?

Say no to unpaid work. If you have an agent, make sure they know this and that they ask producers when they approach you, if they have money to pay for development. The Guild is going to suggest that a tick box is included on BBC editorial specification forms, which asks if a producer has paid the writer for the work.

Join the Writers Guild – there is safety in numbers and who else is going to care about us?

Other suggestions from the survey
“The BBC sets out a guideline/schedule for payments at all stages. Networks adhere to these guidelines. Independents get a 25% reduction on these rates. All writers must sign a Guild agreement before they work. All companies must sign a Guild agreement before they employ writers. Non-signatories are fined double what they would have paid for a Guild writer. Fines imposed by the BBC or network airing the shows. Easy.”

“What I’d like to see emerge from this campaign is a Guild-backed and enforceable principle that if a writer develops material for nothing, effectively bearing the cost of development, that constitutes an agreement to executive producer status and fees on the project.” That makes good business sense – if a producer wants something up front for free, then they should pay more later on.

The industry is taking steps to stop exploitation for runners and juniors. Now it’s our turn. It’s up to us to enforce that free is not an option.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Mysterious case of the supermarket plug in a BBC film (updated)

This is a most curious one. Last week my wife and I viewed an American film that we had recorded off BBC3 back in April. Because our hearing is not as good as it used to be, we watched the film -- a comedy called Youth in Revolt -- with the sub-titles switched on. As the film approached the end, we were astonished to see the words "Always Shop at Tesco" pop up on the screen during a pause in the spoken dialogue. See the screen grab.

Why and how did this happen? The BBC insists that the words were in the spoken dialogue, but we could not see any lips moving, nor could we hear either actor speaking those words anywhere around the scene, even with the sound turned up high. I have also downloaded versions of the screenplay and can find no reference to Tesco. Admittedly, these were not shooting scripts in which dialogue is often added, removed or amended when the filming takes place. 

Why would this encouragement to shop at a British supermarket be in an American film? Sure, Tesco used to operate in the United States for a while but under a different name. Another question: were the sub-titles provided by the American production company or did the BBC outsource them to a British company?

As I have said, it is a mystery.

UPDATE: One person who has looked at this film thinks that "Always shop at Tesco" is muttered as a throwaway line by the woman on the left of the screen. I still don't believe it. Why would a character in an American film deliver a slogan for a supermarket chain that is unknown in the USA? They wouldn't, of course. I still believe that someone inserted the slogan in the sub-titles before transmission by the BBC. Was it mischief or unauthorised product placement?

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Why was this photo an embarrassment?

As a keen genealogist I have many family photographs that I would regard as “special”, but this is one that I wasn’t supposed to see. Nor were any other descendants of the couple who are pictured. The couple were my great aunt, Florence “Florrie” Cox, and the Rev. Frank E. Paice, on the day they were married in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in December 1914.

Both were Baptist missionaries from Australia, stationed in the early 1900s in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The marriage fell apart in scandal for two reasons: 1) Frank Paice had fallen for another missionary, Olga Johnston, during the two-year engagement that the church required Florrie and Frank to spend apart. 2) Florrie had a rare variation of the intersex condition, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Although she looked and felt like a woman, she had male chromosomes and could not function in several important respects as a female.

When Frank and Olga’s scandalous affair became known, both were forced to resign. Florrie returned to Melbourne, but was a family embarrassment with the breakdown of her marriage a relentlessly taboo subject.

The Australian press – normally addicted to such juicy stories – was prevailed upon to look the other way when the divorce went through the Supreme Court and the judge ordered that the file be “closed for all time”.

Frank and Olga married on their return to Bengal where Frank took up an engineering management job. When they returned to Australia some years later, they had reinvented themselves as pillars of society, with Frank taking on a number of high-profile civic positions in Melbourne. No mention was ever made of Frank or Olga’s time in India or their six years as missionaries. Not even their only son and close friends knew of their missionary past. I learned of the scandal only because my mother let it slip when we came across a photograph taken just before Florrie was about to depart for her wedding in Calcutta. 

It took me 18 months of email exchanges, letters and telephone calls to get a Supreme Court judge in Melbourne to lift the ban on access to the divorce file, revealing Florrie’s condition. But nowhere could I find photographs of Frank and Florrie’s wedding as they had been destroyed by the family – probably out of embarrassment and anger. Then I got lucky. A very distant cousin showed me a photograph of two people he could not identify. I was stunned to see that it was Frank and Florrie after their wedding at the Circular Road Baptist Chapel, Calcutta. Somehow it had survived the family's photographic purge and my hunt was over.

The story of Florrie Cox and Frank Paice is told in my book God’s Triangle, available in paperback and ebook.

Finally, an unresolved question:
Why is Frank seated while Florrie stands? I have part of the answer. Florrie would have wanted to show off her frock and her large bouquet to their best effect. However, it was unusual, but not unknown, for the groom to be seated for a wedding portrait.  I am unable to track down any reliable explanation why Frank chose to sit down, but maybe it was because Frank was shorter than Florrie.