Hugh Curly-Whirly’s TV campaign single-handedly triples Sainsbury’s sales of Colin

January 18, 2011

Oh, the awesome power of celebrity endorsement, especially when it is attached to a good cause. Our local fish-lady (stockist, not mermaid) reckons that Hugh Curly-Whirly, as she insists on calling the eminent TV chef, is now revered as a latter-day saint by fisherman at the Cinque Port of Hythe.

Fearnley-Whittingstall recently devised and fronted Channel 4’s three-parter Fish Fight campaign, which appears to have had a galvanic impact on national fish-consumption.

Curly-Whirly’s purpose was to highlight our over-dependence on certain edible fish, namely cod, tuna and salmon. That and the inanity of current EU regulations which, in seeking to inhibit over-fishing, actively promote “discards” (dead and dying fish thrown back into the sea) on a biblical scale – playing no small part in the destruction of our marine fishing industry while they’re at it.

The net result (if you’ll forgive the pun) has been shoals of consumers shimmying around all our best known supermarkets, in a desperate effort to buy up every available “alternative” fish and seafood species. Words rarely heard outside angling circles, such as “coley”, “whiting” and “dab”, have now become the common currency of over-the-counter exchanges with baffled in-store fishmongers.

What Sainsbury’s persists in calling “colin” (that’s pollack to you, with a French accent) is now going out of its doors three times faster than last week, when the programmes were aired. And Tesco, the country’s biggest fish retailer, claims that sales of fresh sardines, coley, brown crab, sprats and whiting have grown between 25% and 45% over the same period.

Mind you, one of the things you won’t hear Tesco trumpeting is sales of its tuna. The saintly Hugh used one of his programmes to excoriate the supermarket’s antediluvian attitude towards netting its own-brand stuff. Whereupon – Hey Presto! – Tesco instantly dropped its attachment to the wasteful but cut-price “purse seining” technique of slaughtering millions of innocent fish. It was a move cynical enough to leave Princes stranded at the bottom of the tuna eco-league table but, in the event, did not elevate Tesco further than fifth place.

So, nice one Mr Curly-Whirly. Just a single piece of advice from our local fish-lady and the good fishermen of Hythe, if I may. Before you direct consumers on an indiscriminate trawl for every available alternative edible fish species, do you think you could do something to educate them on their seasonal availability? All this demand at once – it’s simply unsustainable.

What are the chances of the BBC negotiating a decent licence fee for 2016…

August 30, 2010

… and Mark Thompson, the present director general, leading those negotiations? Much better than they were a few weeks ago.

In his much-awaited MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Festival, Thompson skilfully deflected the incessant barrage of brickbats hurled at the BBC’s corporate flatulence by painting BSkyB as the real enemy of UK media plurality.

Get-back time at James Murdoch, head of News International, after his cruel gibes in last year’s lecture at the expense of the corporate bloater, of course. But more than that, Thompson has read his runes well. The times, they really are achanging.

The argument, beloved of BBC critics, that the corporation is stifling commercial competition falls to pieces once we begin to examine the success story that is BSkyB. A few deft brush marks from Thompson’s speech tell the tale well enough. Sky’s dominance is underlined by a marketing budget that is bigger than ITV’s programme budget; and subscription revenues of £4.8bn that “dwarf…all other commercial broadcasters put together.” Lurking not very far below the surface is the suggestion that in Rupert Murdoch we have a UK version of Silvio Berlusconi – owning well over 40% of our newspapers, and poised to buy out the 61% of BSkyB his organisation does not already own.

That last bit may be a bit fanciful, but there are certainly compelling elements to the Thompson narrative that argue for a strengthened rather than reduced role for the BBC. If there’s been a failure in public service plurality over the past 20 years, it’s not so much the overweening power of the BBC that has been responsible for it as the inability of the ad-funded sector – represented primarily by ITV, C4 and C5 – to build a countervailing digital subscription-driven complement to their free-to-air analogue offering. If BSkyB could do it, runs the argument, why couldn’t they? To which, once we dust down the sorry case study of ITV Digital, there is no very good riposte.

Moving on, and acknowledging the chronically weakened position of the free-to-air, ad-funded sector, there seems little sensible alternative to recognising a new balance of power if broadcast plurality is to be maintained. Unpalatable as it may seem to people at ITV, the BBC is now the best bastion it’s got against further encroachment from Sky – along the lines of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Thompson’s specific proposal – that Sky should pay the ad-funded channels for carriage of their content, rather than the other way round, which is what now prevails  – is unlikely to gain traction. But it was shrewd propaganda, underlining the point – as it does – that Sky would not be where it is today without a big subsidy from free-to-air sector content.

What’s more, Thompson’s thinking chimes nicely with a change of heart by the regulatory authorities. Ofcom’s recent decision to open Sky’s lucrative but restrictive Hollywood first-run film offer to the Competition Commission is an indication of increasing concern that Sky is getting too big for its boots. It comes hot on the heels of an earlier probe into Sky’s sport offer.

A back-handed compliment, in a way. Sky has become the one to beat. A situation which, if nothing else, will give the BBC a breather for a while.

Simon Fuller revolutionises the TV pilot

December 19, 2009

I was intrigued to read (in the Financial Times) that Simon Fuller, founder of 19 Entertainment, intends to pilot his new show not on television but on the internet.

Fuller, who devised American Idol, US television’s most successful format in years, has developed a new venture called If I Can Dream. I quote: It “will follow the efforts of five young people trying to break into the entertainment industry. Their every move will be streamed online, with the audience able to interact with them via video messages and social networking sites such as Twitter and MySpace.”

Clearly this represents a step-change beyond the reality entertainment of Big Brother, with digital interactivity moving centre-stage instead of acting as a useful ancillary. But the real beauty of his digital strategy is that it will massively reduce the cost of producing a pilot on US network TV.

How so? Well, Fuller intends to use Hulu, an online video entertainment platform jointly owned by Fox, ABC and NBC, which will enable him to build a web audience, slowly but steadily, for several months before launching on TV. Hulu had about 42 million viewers in October.

Could something similar happen in the UK (home of American Idol’s prototype, Pop Idol)? After all  the tears and gnashing of teeth in the IPTV sector over the regulator’s refusal to endorse the Kangaroo project, the odds might seem low. Not so, necessarily. I read in the same edition of the FT that Project Canvas, a joint venture between the BBC, ITV, Five and BT aimed at standardising online video technology, has taken on a new spurt of life. It has now added Channel 4 and TalkTalk to its ranks. That leaves only BSkyB (sister company of Fox) as a significant outsider.

There’s hope yet for a triumph of common sense.

Baz, Big Brother’s Hero of Our Time

August 27, 2009

Peter BazalgetteI am indebted to my former colleague, Iain Murray, for reminding me not so much that Peter Bazalgette – the impresario behind Big Brother – is the great-great-grandson of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, but of what they have in common. It seems that genetic inheritance, if dominant enough, will out. Sir Joseph was an eminent Victorian engineer, one of whose grand achievements was the construction of the London sewerage system. Peter’s great achievement has been mapping the cesspool of the human soul, via reality television.

The first was undoubtedly a philanphropist, who happened to work for money. The other, I’m not so sure about. Gifted, witty, an after-dinner speaker worth paying money to hear; commercially adroit; along with David Elstein one of the most intelligent and perceptive commentators on the current media scene; a first-class psychologist. Yes, all these things are true. And yet the key adjective that comes to mind is “cynical”: not in his manner, but in the nature of his achievement. It’s the kind of cool, cultured cynicism of the Roman aristocrat of yesteryear, who – personally disdainful of animal bloodshed and human sacrifice in the arena – nevertheless proves a superlative organiser of the emperor’s “bread and circuses” entertainments programme designed to keep the unwashed masses compliant.

Bazalgette didn’t invent Big Brother, and he certainly didn’t come up with reality TV (although he has, in his time, been a fertile inventor of TV formats). Where he was smart was in grasping the reality format’s potential, back in 1999. To fill the void of values, in the wake of declining conventional ideological beliefs and the collapse of social deference, we have celebrity culture. That is to say, having destroyed the old idols we feel bereft and have to seek out new ones to worship. But where to find them? Magazines, from ¡Hola! to Heat, provide only limited production value; nothing by comparison with television when it comes to manufacturing instant stardom and providing gratification for our voyeuristic instincts. In this egalitarian age, the compelling thing about these instant wannabe idols is that they are just like you and me. All right, they may scream a bit louder, they may be more self-obsessed and emote a great deal more than the rest of us, but on one thing we can all be agreed: they, like us, have feet of clay. And in that we have the essence of their entertainment value.

Taking things a stage further, Bazalgette was quick to realise he held the whip-hand with our political, media and cultural elites – the “twittering classes” of which he is a renegade scion. They might sneer at what they saw, but by degrees they found themselves sucked into Big Brother’s maelstrom whether they liked it or not. And often they did not: it was a humiliating experience. Germaine Greer, for example, proposed herself as a human experiment, but found she couldn’t take the relentless exposure. On a personal note, Bazalgette’s most triumphant moment must surely have occured when he had to turn down haughty media grandee Jeremy Paxman for an interview with ousted BB candidate George Galloway MP, because it broke the House rules. As for the newspapers, he had them in the palm of his hand. Declining circulations and a loss of young readers meant they had no option but to cover the climax of a BB series on their front pages.

And where the newspapers led, the political class surely had to follow. “It is entirely legitimate to regard politics as a popularity contest,” Bazalgette once wrote. “After all, what you think of the person you are going to entrust power to for five years is pretty crucial. And in the close-up age of Big Brother and Heat magazine, our expectations are raised.”  A pretty flip explanation, you might say, for the appearance of Galloway or Christine Hamilton, wife of the disgraced Neil, but you know what he means.

Last and not least, Bazalgette was on top of the multimedia implications of reality TV right from the start. Only formally was BB a television show. It also embraced internet and mobile audiences, 24/7. In that lay a further little goldmine, surplus to Channel 4’s sponsorship and advertising revenue extracted from the TV programme.

I remember Bazalgette – at the Marketing Week Madrid Media Conference in 2001 soon after BB first aired – confidently predicting the eventual collapse of its blockbuster viewing figures. He, at least, was under no illusion about its ephemeral appeal. And, to prove the point, he has long since moved on from production company Endemol. Now viewers are down to 2 million, Channel 4 is finally calling time. But if BB is dead, the reality entertainment concept – or something very like it – is destined to live on.

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