Thursday, 19 April 2012

Digital Love

Last night Kate and I went to see the Arqiva Switch Over Night light show from the Crystal Palace transmitter.  The previous night had seen the analogue signal switched off in the London area and to mark the final relay transmitters being switched onto the new digital signal, Arqiva had decided to hold a publicity stunt - I mean a celebration to mark this historic occasion, by lighting up the mast.  As a confirmed TV geek I was keen to go.  Kate went along with it all...although she's as much of a geek as me and tends to keep it hidden!
Crystal Palace transmitter before night desceneded

It wasn't the best night for the light show. Pretty horrendous weather all week meant it was cold and wet, and reports indicated that the visibility was such that the show wouldn't be able to be seen from across south London as had orignally been the intention. Still, the locals were getting in on the act with most of the surrounding pubs unusually busy for a Wednesday night, and some even putting on special celebrations themselves. Arqiva had orignally advised spectators to head to local pubs to watch the show, as Crystal Palace Park is usually shut from the early evening onwards. They even went to the effort of publicising a "tweetup" on their website - perhaps not entirely understanding how tweetups tend to be organised - and held in a pub...round the back of the Crystal Palace triangle with no visibility of the mast at all.

Along with hundreds of others we headed into the park at about 9pm. Eventually we found a good viewing spot and as the clock ticked up to 9.15pm we waited. And waited. By 9.25pm it was clear something had either gone very wrong, or the "VIP event" was overrunning badly. A quick check of Twitter revealed that it was the latter - but most of the public waiting in the wet were none the wiser. Holding a heavily publicised celebration that the public could not attend was a slightly odd decision, especially when the thing overran and left all the plebs like ourselves standing outside the marquee waiting for things to start. We noticed a few people give up and leave, and general sarcasm rippled through those that remained ("when they said it was switch-off time, we didn't think they meant the power").
Kate in position and waiting!

Switch-off itself has gone incredibly well across the UK - far better than most had imagined. In fact, it's been reported today that nearly half of the money earmarked for helping people switch will be handed back by the BBC to the government. As well as my aforementioned geekery it's a process which I can claim a very small part in. Arqiva's engineering work requests all need to be approved by broadcasters, and this very glamorous role has been held by yours truly for a few years now. Numerous transmitters have been shutdown for periods to enable the work to convert them to be ready for the switch, and when particularly large numbers of people have been hit I've needed to contact the relavent local news programme and ask them to mention it to give viewers a bit of warning. I swear the head of news at Meridian must hate me as they've had an awful lot of shutdowns. Finally I schedule regional continuity annoucements to warn viewers to expect disruption. Basically I've been the bringer of bad news for the last three years.
Digit Al switches off analogue.  This is actually how it happened.

Thirsty work, ending eras.

I'd previously seen the Winter Hill analogue switch-off in December 2009 back home in the Wirral. To most normal people it's not a process that looks particularly interesting (although BBC Wales and S4C made a bit of a fuss when Wales went) but there is something quite final and rather sad about the plug being pulled on a method of broadcast that has brought so much television to us over the decades. And lest we forget, television is what brought Kate and I together and for the time being is helping me pay the rent, so it's something quite close to my heart. So two and a bit years later it was London's turn. Predictably there was a lot of media interest in this one, some of it with the usual London-bias (as was pointed out, this isn't the end of analogue - Northern Ireland has that honour in October) but some of it justifiable, given that this is the largest number of people to be switched in one go, and also the birthplace of television. What was less obvious was the sudden outpouring of Ceefax and Teletext nostalgia ("remember bamboozle, lol") when this had been disappearing for years anyway and still has sometime to run in yet-to-switch areas and overnight on BBC Two. 

Here in London, with BBC Two having switched off on 4th April, Channel 4 was the first to go just after midnight with a reappearance of what I'm told was their original testcard, meaning it was the first and last thing to be shown on C4 analogue in London. BBC One followed shortly after with a mention from the continuity announcer that Mark Thompson was flicking the switch - notably making it the first thing he's shut down successfully in his time as Director General. ITV1 was the next to go twenty minutes later after Ladette To Lady, which I don't think I've ever paid so much attention to before. Insiders on one forum claimed a caption was due on ITV1 marking the end of analogue from Crystal Palace but in the heat of the moment didn't happen. Finally Channel 5 - which has always been transmitted from Croydon - disappeared in the middle of a programme at about 0045. And with that slightly abrupt end, analogue was gone in the capital.

The following night, at 9.30pm the suits in the tent started to move outside to watch the lighting of the transmitter. The Arqiva party had assembled a number of people to help mark the historic moment that the capital switched to digital, including legendary broadcaster David Attenborough, legendary scientist Brian Cox, legendary children's TV host Floella Benjamin, legendary executives Greg Dyke and Peter Bazalgette, and presenter Chris Evans. The job of hitting the switch was appropriately given to Attenborough, who had begun his career at the birthplace of television, Alexandra Palace, which was the original London transmitter from 1936.

A countdown was held - 3, 2, 1.....and nothing. The tower remained in darkness. That ripple of sarcasm became general hilarity amongst the public as we wondered whether we were witnessing one of the biggest screw-ups in public relations history. But then the light show began and, to be fair, it was pretty cool to watch. The mist and rain actually added to the effect of the light beams pulsating through the sky. It was just over very quickly, and didn't really merit the description "show", as it was basically an elaborate switch-on routine, followed by leaving the lights on for 90 minutes. They did however miss a trick by not using the opportunity to project the Thundercats logo into the sky.

All in all it was a curiously British occasion. Having made a huge fuss it as an event for people to come along to, visitors were left standing in the rain outside a tent full of people on a corporate jolly. When the show finally began fifteen minutes late it was over pretty quick. As we moved forward to get a better picture of the lit-up mast, someone leant forward over the barriers and shouted "EVANS, YOU WANKER", which rather summed up the evening. The new age of digital broadcasting had arrived in the capital - and somewhat appropriately for this there was a repeat of the light show scheduled the following evening.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Hit The North

I don't know if you've heard, but some parts of the BBC have moved up north.  There hasn't been a great deal of media coverage and the whole thing has passed off without much comment so it's possible the whole thing has passed you by.  Oh no, hang on - that was in a parallel universe where common sense prevails.  Yep, it's not been a good week to be from the north and resident in London.  Tuesday saw BBC Breakfast's first broadcast from their new home at Media City in Salford, marking the end of "phase one" of the migration of staff to the north and arguably the highest profile move yet, certainly in terms of airtime.  And it's driven the media insane. 

There's been an awful lot of very vocal negative chatter about the relocation of the services, including Radio 5 Live, CBBC and BBC Sport as well as the aforementioned morning news programme.  I realised I don't say often enough how much of a wonderful initiative BBC North is - so here goes.  I don't think anyone can really have missed the main argument in favour that has already been much talked about - that the move will put the corporation closer to more of the people that pay for it, better reflect their lives and represent their interests more than is done at present.  Predictably though the controversy has mainly centred around whether Breakfast will be able to attract guests to the sofa in Salford as easily as they did in London.  This in itself is quite a frustrating debate, given that Breakfast is a news programme for over three and a half hours, with just over half an hour at the end devoted to fluffy showbiz stuff (mainly as a spoiler to stop viewers switching over to ITV1's Lorraine and then potentially staying there throughout daytime).  Perhaps the freelance journos doing much of the harping over the move only wake up towards the end of the programme and presume the rest of it pre-8.40 is much the same?

The jury's still out on whether there will be a drop in quality of the guests in this segment (although it perhaps wasn't a wise move to wheel out Shaun Ryder on day two - presumably Peter Kay will follow next week) but it's typical of the tone of the debate that it has been framed by such largely unimportant issues.  Although Breakfast was a late addition to the list of areas moving north, it's arguably the best-placed out of the news output to be broadcast from somewhere else, having as it does a much greater emphasis on domestic human-interest stories.  It'll come as a shock to my neighbours but some of these stories happen outside London and the south east.  For every C-list comedian promoting yet another panel show that can't be bothered to make the trip anymore, the team will be much closer to the heart of so many news stories and their makers that were previously out of reach.

This week also saw a focus on the safety of the area that BBC North is based in, particularly in a Telegraph article that heavily hinted that, basically, Salford is pretty rough, and those relocating from London W12 were in for a bit of a shock.  In fact, those who have spent any time in that delightful area of London will know how dodgy the White City estate that borders much of the BBC's property is.  The idea that "the north" is by definition grim and crime-ridden - presumably in contrast to London - is laughable.  I do love the capital but since moving to London it's never failed to amaze me quite how many shitty areas with not much going for them are crammed into this city, and the punchline is that most of them are ridiculously overpriced too, so it's a little ironic for a city like this to hold this perception.

There's also the story of the staff moving up to Media City.  It's no doubt a very difficult personal situation for those in departments moving north, especially those with partners and children also based in the capital, and I fully understand and sympathise with the decisions of those who have decided not to make the move.  What doesn't get talked about so much in the rush to dramatise the relocation of many staff to the new site is how the project will change the way in which many people end up working in television.  Every year, so many people are required to move to London in order to have any chance of working in their chosen area of the media.  I did it, my fiancĂ©e did it, many of my friends from university did it.  Unlike many professions it just isn't possible to remain in your local area to work in TV or radio, unless you're one of the few in the dwindling local TV and radio operations.  The demise of regional ITV companies is a case in point.  Had I been born twenty years earlier I or anyone else would have been able to work in a presentation department in a dozen cities across the UK, rather than the handful that remain now.  So the requirement of staff to move for their job - many of whom were born in London and have always worked in London - doesn't seem too much of a strain to those of us who already have, the family committments excepted (for the record, my job was re-sited in Leeds last year, and had there not been alternative positions offered I would have been tempted to relocate).

Whilst BBC North won't reverse the situation overnight, it will in future mean that those looking to work in TV and radio have the option to look to the north west as well as the south east.  In a small but significant way it will help to counterbalance the unfortunate huge bias towards the capital.  The initial relocations involved may have costs attached, but that's the same for any job that requires you to move location.  And don't listen to those who ask what the point of a new northern operation filled full of southerners is.  Over time, as people move on, the services based in Salford will recruit those from surrounding areas - perhaps even those who would otherwise not have considered relocating to London - and so represent the north of England far better than is done currently.  It will save money in the long term by not having to pay them London-weighted wages, and avoid the relatively huge cost of doing anything in the south east.  And on the subject of the staff moving north, there are bizarre double standards being attached by the press to this process.  Every "total number of staff agreeing to move north" story was accompanied by a chorus of crowing saying that the fact it wasn't 100% meant the strategy was a flop.  The same papers were then incredulous that the new complex didn't employ that many people from the north west - i.e. it had given most roles to their existing staff from London!
The issue of travelling from London brings us back to the thorny issue of getting the guests.  It's actually pretty recent for there not to be a regular networked show airing from outside London.  Through the 70s, 80s and early 90s, Pebble Mill managed to pull in what passed as "showbiz" turns in those days - admittedly Birmingham being not as far from London as Salford is but still, way outside zone 6.  Saturday morning TV on the BBC and ITV has managed to air from Southhampton, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle and not end up short of talent.  The oft-quoted example of This Morning moving from Liverpool to London was in fact not entirely driven by the quest for guests.  It was as much a result of Richard and Judy's desire to relocate and the fact that Granada had just acquired LWT and so now had a London riverside studio complex they could use.  Today, there are three trains an hour from London Euston to Manchester Picadilly each taking a little over two hours - a length of time that some (slightly barmy) people take to commute into or across London every day.  Media City is also closer to Manchester Airport than Television Centre is to Heathrow.  If the guests want the publicity, they will come.  If they don't, it's hardly Parkinson.  The programme will not suffer.

What hasn't helped is a number of examples of senior managers not practicing what they preach by relocating from London along with their staff (Peter Salmon, I'm looking at you).  One of Breakfast's anchors hasn't helped the issue by not only remaining in London but announcing that, somewhat bizarrely, they intends to commute every single day, rather than managing to spend a whole three nights a week in the north.  It's hardly helped the cause of the project and gives rise to the impression that the whole thing will be rolled back in a year or two.  It won't - because it's legacy is the key to the success of the project.  In time, the difficulties and controversies will be forgotten and everyone will realise that yes, funnily enough it is possible to run output from outside of London.  Not only that but the output might just get out of the mindset of the London bubble that is happy to mention Oxford Street, Covent Garden and Ealing but largely sticks to generic names such as "North Yorkshire" and "East Lincolnshire" when covering stories from outside the capital. 
I love it here in London - I really do - but I also love the northern cities which I grew up with and they have only improved in the interim.  As the operation beds in over time, and the workforce becomes predominantly local (and Virgin Trains and Manchester landlords stop being the main winners) we'll wonder what all the fuss was about.  Perhaps it should even go further - Radio 1 would be a particularly good fit for moving outside London.  It's not often you look to Nicky Campbell as a beacon of reason and good sense but in an interview with The Guardian three years ago he said  "When people say such and such a programme can't be done in Manchester we just look like's not as if I am going to Helmand province."  There's a risk of us in London looking very silly if we don't stop harping on about it and patronising everyone who lives outside the south east.  When the name "Capital" is seen as a suitable name for a national radio network and the petty squabbling in the London mayoral campaign is reported in the national media you do wonder if the battle has already been lost.  The BBC deserve credit for attempting to do something about this, and I'm happy to give it to them.