COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd presented the TV sector with severe challenges but led to its finest hour. Peter Bazalgette looks back on 2020
“Great fears of the Sicknesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.” The very first mention of the plague in The Diary of Samuel Pepys, on 30 April 1665. Fast forward 355 years and there’s this on 11 January on the ITV News site: “Health authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan are reporting the first death from a new type of coronavirus.”
Pepys had a sense of foreboding, but we’re gloriously blithe about this. Another Sars or Ebola, something that happens to folk elsewhere. It’ll be another six weeks before the truth begins to dawn, even though the virus is already silently among us.
The greatest disruption to our lives since the Second World War will severely challenge the broadcast sector. But also give rise to our finest hour.
The Government conducts its post-election reshuffle. The Kremlinologists seek clues as to future policy direction. Nicky Morgan retires from DCMS (a loss) and, alarmingly, gives the reason that female politicians are trolled so viciously online that they fear for their families.
Sajid Javid remains as Chancellor, which is a plus since he understands media. But only for five minutes, as he refuses to let Dominic Cummings choose his Spad.
At DCMS, Oliver Dowden is made Secretary of State. Does he watch Emmerdale, Fleabag, Gogglebox, The Yorkshire Vet and Chernobyl? We have no idea, but many politicians only watch the news… when they’re on it.
The interesting appointment is Whitto, back as media minister. A man who really does watch TV and understands PSB.
They say he has a pipe dream of privatising Channel 4 and taking away the BBC’s exclusive use of the licence fee. What can it all mean?
Things begin to move fast. At ITV, Carolyn McCall recommends home working on 12 March and makes it mandatory on 17 March. We’re being told advertising may fall by 40% in April (and it does). The worst ever monthly fall up to then had been 17%, at one point in 2009. This is a national shock.
But as we work through these doomsday scenarios, we have a much greater concern, along with our PSB colleagues. Can we keep our news and daytime shows on air? Can we ration our soap transmissions to maintain them in the schedule for as long as possible? (Yes and yes.)
Then, on 23 March, Britain’s total lockdown is announced. We have to promote essential public messages. We must continue to scrutinise an, at times, faltering government performance. And perhaps most important of all, we need to give the nation the shot in the arm it is expecting from our drama and entertainment. We manage all of this. And Clap for Carers starts on 26 March, becoming a recurring live event for TV.
Memo to Westminster: programmes made by us, about us and for us. It’s called public service broadcasting and it turns out that it’s a distinctly 21st-century concept.
Everyone’s at home and the gentle erosion of live viewing speeds up in a matter of days. Good for Netflix but also for iPlayer, ITV Hub and All 4. For instance, it’s in April that the BBC’s Normal People is streamed 22 million times in a week. But “live” also shows some resilience: ITV gets almost 5 million viewers for a Virtual Grand National.
And we learn Zoom one-upmanship. A cacophony of cats, dogs, Hoovers and kids are paraded. Some folk, it is said, are suddenly buying books by the yard to furnish their intellectual credentials. But my prize for effortless insouciance goes to the entrepreneur I’m on a video call with, whose butler silently prepares his lunch in the background, entirely unacknowledged. We’re all front-of-camera now.
Britain Get Talking is one of ITV’s social-action campaigns, aimed at promoting mental health. We’ve long been planning a drive to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week.
But our special advertisements, spearheaded by Ant and Dec, encouraging us all to reach out to people outside our inner circles, take on a whole new significance. Britain is locked down. Will you overcome your natural reserve and talk to that neighbour who lives on their own? Has that pensioner, too frightened to go to the shops, got anyone delivering food for them? Britain does indeed get talking.
And then, on 25 May, in a far away American town, a man is killed by the police. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis turns out to be the second unheralded event of the year that affects us all…
Black Lives Matter protests take off in the UK. There are flashpoints, such as the pulling down of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. But something more profound occurs in all workplaces. People of colour are empowered to say how they feel about years of casual discrimination. And perhaps we listen properly for the first time.
This is more acute for broadcasters. We say our programmes reflect the nation. But do we really, from top to bottom of our organisations? We know the answer is no. ITV shortly responds by being the first FTSE 100 company to put someone on the management board specifically charged with access and diversity policy. And all broadcasters will celebrate Black History Month imaginatively later in the year. But we have a long way to go.
The death toll from Covid rises, month by month. It becomes clear that people who are obese are particularly vulnerable. The Prime Minister’s prior admission to St Thomas’s underlines this. He’s emerged admirably determined to increase Government efforts to combat obesity.
Unfortunately, this soon descends to gesture politics and the Government announces its intention to ban so--called HFSS ads (for food and drink high in fat, salt or sugar) from TV before 9:00pm.
Multiple studies, some carried out by Ofcom, have demonstrated that banning ads won’t move the dial (lengthy and determined intervention with deprived families is the answer, but has always been on the too-difficult shelf).
The Government’s own “evidence”, such as it is, suggests that a ban will only deliver a reduction of about 1.7 calories a day per person. Yet this could take more than £250m out of TV advertising. This is money that ITV and others invest in news and entertainment.
We have campaigns for healthy eating, we promote the message in our daytime shows and soaps. We believe we’re part of the answer, not part of the problem. Sigh.
This is the month that the BBC bites the bullet and ends free TV licences for the over-75s. There’s a chorus of disapproval from politicians, though they know full well that George Osborne, then Chancellor, specifically gave the BBC the latitude to decide this. It becomes open season on the BBC’s funding generally, a full seven years before the current Charter expires.
It may be that the licence-fee system is out of place in the streaming digisphere. Other possibilities are a household media levy or monies directly from taxation.
But, whatever we finally settle on, let’s ensure that the BBC receives hypothecated funding: voluntary subscription will diminish it. Surely, it would be a positive thing for our society to commit to such a confident investment in critical social content?
I learn about an augmented-reality app for children being developed by the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, which they plan to launch the following month. The kids can care for dinosaurs, and even create their own robots to do the work. The museums are continuing to serve their audiences, even as they’re forced to remain closed.
The project has funding from UK Research and Innovation (on whose board I sit), overseen by Andrew Chitty, formerly of Granada and the BBC. And the app is produced by Factory 42, run by John Cassy, late of Sky. Thus two expats from tellyland are helping the screen industries define their future. The funding comes from the Creative Industries Sector Deal. It’s good to be reminded that the reimagining of our wider sector is full of rich possibilities.
Channel 4 announces that it is reviving Changing Rooms. This is not my first “drowning-man-flashback” experience, as formats that I had a hand in long ago, in the pre-Covid 1990s, get pulled out of cold storage. Ready Steady Cook and Food & Drink have already risen from the grave.
It’s more and more difficult to launch new formats (hats off to The Repair Shop, a notable exception). So, recognised brands are much in demand.
If we want to find more new formats we need shrewd briefs from commissioners, willing creative teams and scary deadlines. In 1995, Michael Jackson (the controller of BBC Two) challenged me to do for interiors what we’d done for food with Ready Steady Cook.
I and Ann Booth-Clibborn then got on the Tube with an idea to pitch at the BBC. I asked: “Does this format suck?” She said, “Er, actually, yes.” I said: “We have eight stops to think of something else.” At Holland Park, out of sheer panic, I asked her, “What would it be like if we got neighbours to swap houses to do up a room next door?”
I wonder whether I’ve imagined all this. But Ann and I are still in touch and she tells me those febrile exchanges on the Central Line really did happen.
I love a general election (I’ll even watch reruns of the 1955 election in black and white on iPlayer… all 12 hours of it). So I’m glued to American media on 3 November. It’s distressing how the crooked enterprise that is the Trump presidency, ably amplified by Fox News, has lured CNN and The New York Times into being just as polemical against Donald Trump.
Then, when Fox tries to go straight by calling Arizona (correctly) for Biden, Trump’s cult followers peel off to hitherto obscure cable channels Newsmax and One America News Network. There, Trump has always “won” the election. And they also desert Twitter and Facebook where, albeit belatedly and ineffectively, they are qualifying Trump’s baseless assertions of electoral fraud. They find a home at Parler and Rumble, sites with no such scruples.
Welcome to confirmation bias in the internet age. Trusted and reliable public service news, anyone? The next front is anti-vaxxers…
And so we come to the end of this plague year. Charmingly, the House of Commons holds an adjournment debate to mark the 60th anniversary of Coronation Street. So they do watch the soaps!
Production of drama and other location-based shows had completely ceased for many months. But 85% are now back shooting. Advertisers return, too – the soothsayers in the City and media gulch are currently predicting a decline of around 10% to 12% for the year. Unprecedented, but a recovery from that 40% figure in the spring.
A happy Christmas bubble to you all. And let’s hope for a post-vaccination economy in 2021.
Peter Bazalgette is Chair of ITV and a UKRI board member.