Few media moguls can count an ice-cream van as part of their empire, but Forces TV's Simon Bucks can
How many TV-channel bosses run an ice-cream van? Plus a broadcast centre beaming television worldwide, a string of radio stations, a website and a cinema chain. Not to mention a live-events outfit and a media-skills academy.
Being chief executive of the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (despite the name, a charity) is arguably the ultimate media-mogul job, if you don’t measure it by profit but by the sheer breadth of activities.
Let’s face it, not even Lord Hall has a Mr Whippy in his empire. Not yet, anyway. Stand by for one in W1A.
SSVC has been informing, entertaining, connecting and championing the British Armed Forces since the early 1980s, when it took over the British Forces Broadcasting Service. The first BFBS radio station opened in Algiers in 1944, apparently above a brothel.
When the Cold War was at its most frozen, there were six stations in Germany, alone. No British Sunday lunchtime was complete without Family Favourites. Some of the most famous broadcasting names did stints at BFBS: Cliff Michelmore, Raymond Baxter, David Jacobs, Sarah Kennedy and Gloria Hunniford.
Today, both the media and military landscapes look very different. The return home of thousands of troops from Afghanistan and Germany (“rebasing” in the jargon) prompted my predecessor, Nick Pollard, to set up Forces TV, initially dedicated to military news, on donated channels on Sky and Virgin. This autumn, Forces TV launched on Freeview HD.
The channel has evolved into an action and armed-forces channel, playing an eclectic mix of classic comedy and drama, such as Knight Rider, Airwolf, Goodnight Sweetheart and Hogan’s Heroes, as well as our own military news, sport and factual programmes.
The daily, half-hour British Forces News show reflects the forces’ activities on land, at sea and in the air, covered by a team of reporters, crews and VJs, including correspondents in Cyprus and Germany. Our own reporting is supplemented by generous support from our friends in the mainstream newsrooms, especially the BBC.
Although SSVC is partly funded by the Ministry of Defence, Forces TV is quite separate and doesn’t cost the taxpayer a bean.
Forces News, which is also online and on radio, is impartial, editorially independent and regulated by Ofcom – but “forces friendly”.
Its twin missions are to inform the “armed forces family” of serving men and women, reservists, cadets, veterans and their kith and kin, while keeping their work firmly in the public eye.
It covers defence and security stories in much greater depth than the mainstream channels. When the new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth departed from Portsmouth, the coverage ran to 18 minutes, compared with 15 seconds on the BBC News at Ten.
Many staff are security-cleared but, just as importantly, are experts at decoding the acronyms and abbreviations beloved by the military. Did you know that 2 PWRR is the Second Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment? Or that they are generally known as “The Tigers”?
After a career in civvy TV, it’s been a steep learning curve. The nearest I came to joining up was an inglorious stint in the school cadet corps, when I nearly blew off someone’s head with a blank from a .303 rifle, fired at close range.
That was the fun bit; the square-bashing and the kit-cleaning with “Blanco” rather less enjoyable. Now, I have an unconditional VIP pass to the fun bits of military life, such as careering around the Canadian prairie in the commander’s truck and joining a live-fire exercise in the Brunei jungle.
And the ice-cream van? That’s another fun bit. It was one of the first welfare bills I signed off as a new CEO, and it’s worth every penny. When it rolls into military bases, the free cornets and cones put huge smiles on the faces of children and adults alike – 99, anyone?
Simon Bucks is CEO of Services Sound and Vision Corporation. Forces TV is on Freeview HD channel 96, Sky 264, Virgin 277 and Freesat 165. The daily, half-hour British Forces News is available online at www.forces.net.