Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Why-on-myou-nee nul pwoins

As you probably can't tell by my attempt at phonetics in the title, this is about Eurovision.

I managed to miss it as a televisual event for the first time for ages, but have iPlayered it... well, the bits I could manage to sit through. Favourite part: Lord Terrence of Woganville's line when a rather, er, hefty lady singer came on stage. "Just so you know, it's not over when she's finished", or words to that effect.

As usual with Eurovision, it was lavishly staged, stunning to watch and full of hilarious singers and the compulsory Worst Costumed Act Ever (pirates!) thanks to Lordi's win a few years back. And Sir Wogan of Irony was on top form, gently poking fun at something that has long lost any sense of being an actual song contest.

And then the voting. Ah yes, the voting.

Now it's true it's always been stupid and arbitrary, the Scandis all voting for each other, Greece and Cyprus shenanigans, and our pact with the Irish. But there was always a chance anyone could win. Not now. The block voting of the new Eastern Europeans means, realistically, no Western European country can ever win now.

But I don't think it was a mistake to let these countries in. It's good that everyone is there, even those bits of countries that no-one can remember, especially if it provokes Duke Wogan of Terrytown into even more splutters of indignation.

Singing in English is also mentioned but, if anything, that evens things out more as neighbouring countries tend to have similar languages. Err, well, I have no actual fact to base that opinion on, but it's a blog so fact isn't really required.

I've even heard the war in Iraq blamed for making the UK even more unpopular. Hmmm. I don't think people boogeyed to Andy Dustmanthing on Saturday then decided to vote for the Russian lad with his shirt undone due to deception on WMDs or our policy in Helmand province.

(Although I've also read interweb gossip that lots of the newer democracies in the east are known to have 'issues' with race, and the UK being represented by a black man would have influenced their votes. Disgraceful, but there you go)

Here's my solution. I think the rot started earlier, with letting the public vote on the whole thing. Let's face it - the public can be mighty stupid. Lordi and 'Hard Rock Hallelujah' prove that conclusively.

The public can also be very canny. Azerbaijan are more likely to vote for the Huge Powerful Neighbouring Former Superpower Wot Provides Their Heat And Water than, for example, Belgium. Who provide, um, some chocolate they can't afford.

Bring back the juries of 'music experts' I say. Scrap the phonelines and go back to the way it always was. Or, simply, ignore the country that comes top in any vote. That is almost always the one the block vote goes to, and it's too hard to fiddle them to come second, so leave out the one that gets the most.

OK, OK, it's totally undemocratic but neither was the old system. And I agree with Woges that block voting will end up pissing off the major funders of the competition - ie us - and that the competition will die. It will be dead for me the day our beloved Irishman decides he won't commentate on it any more, even if the ratings-hungry BBC won't scrap it as, yet again, it reached a massive audience for them on a Saturday.

There are more important issues at stake here than viewing figures, oh BBC highups. And, yes, I do realise the ridiculousness of using the word 'important' in a sentence about Eurovision.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

British tv taking over American tv

The media-about-the-media has been full of claims about British formats becoming more and more prevalent on US tv. It really cranked up during their writers' strike, where our cheap'n'cheerful reality formats filled up the hours usually screening sitcoms and dramas.

And now there's talk that even though these shows don't rate as well as a top-notch drama or hit sitcom, as they're a fraction of the price maybe they should keep running them. This doesn't impact British terrestrial tv too much, but means a shortage of product for places like Sky One or Living.

Anyway, the thing that most commentators miss is that US reality shows are almost always very different to ours. Seven big differences, in the inevitable list format, follow:-

If you've ever watched any American reality show, it's been cut together then scored by a composer, just like a drama, soundtrack swelling for emotional bits, comedy music for funny bits... all slightly ahead of the action so you know what to expect. It's very odd to us Brits - imagine Big Brother with the soundtrack from Desperate Housewives. Somehow a lot less... well, real.

They use many more cut-in interviews with the contestant/participants than we do. US Big Brother seems to be almost entirely made from people talking to camera (to soppy music) - not in a diary room picking their nose to a fixed camera but in a lushly-lit interview studio.

The first winner of Survivor was a big fat ugly old naked gay man. What reality show has ever been won by such a character in the UK?

US Big Brother dropped audience voting after series one. Every other edition in the world has it as an integral part. Americans just couldn't be arsed to ring up and vote for some reason. They can for American Idol but not to pick which twentysomething pretty girlie or boyboy wins this show. This change of format is common to most reality show imports, sometimes because of different laws - ie premium rate numbers and text/SMSs are illegal in some states meaning shows with that as a concept don't work nationally - and, incidentally, no nasty viewer-conning scandals for the USA.

This lack of voting formats is one of the reasons number 3 above can happen. If you look at the list of winners of such shows worldwide, they tend to reflect the majority of the voting audience in race and age.

Generally, much, much, MUCH glossier. Show an American audience E4's streaming BB coverage and they'd hoot with derisive laughter. The idea of cutting to bird song or shots of people sleeping or, shock, smoking isn't attractive at all to US producers or audiences.

Interestingly, the exception here is American Idol, which until recently looked far cheaper and shoddier than, say, UK X Factor. Maybe it's because we've been doing these shows a bit longer...?

The trouble with exporting our mainly harmless reality formats to the US is that their rapacious tv execs have taken things to a new level. If you've ever seen A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, you'll know what I mean. A transexual person picking from male or female potential partners. Or one with that rapper who wears a big clock round his neck picking what he charmingly calls "his bitch". The somewhat, er, hard-nosed vixens competing for these dubious honours normally end up fighting and bawling, their pixellated body parts falling out of their skimpy outfits.

There was even one where an adopted kid had to try and pick his real father out of a bunch of blokes (although even Fox cancelled it quickly). Or current gameshow Moment of Truth where people reveal if they've shagged their wife's sister for money. In front of their entire family... wife and sister, of course, sitting together in a nice two-shot.

Writing that above reminded me that swearing isn't allowed on US tv so their version of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares mainly features 'Chef Ramsay' (as they call him - hey, he's a chef and let's make sure the viewers don't forget it) with a blurry mouth. They can't even bleep someone out and show the lips swearing. So Gordon's mushy features look even weirder with a blurry beige mess over his lips.

And, of course, we do it on their shows - but for different reasons. American Idol's pixellated Coke cups in front of Simon, Paula and The Other One. Some poor British editor has to sit and blur out that thousands of times over and over again. The dullest job in tv, perhaps.


Still, at least the Americans can laugh at their reality shows. See http://www.c21media.net/news/detail.asp?area=1&article=41804. Look, a hyperlink! It's like a proper blog or something!

Monday, 12 May 2008

More bad shows I've worked on

Thinking further about this over the weekend - whilst trying to come up with new ideas that aren't bad - I was reminded of some other corkers that I've had the misfortune to work on. Here goes...

A show named after an Abba song. Not a great start, you'd think, and you'd be right. The idea was it was a problem-page type show but (CUE ROLL OF DRUMS) it was told from three different points of view.

So wife accuses husband of shagging the neighbour - you'd see the wife's story (he's out late... mysterious texts... woman answering his phone!), the husband's story (he's working late... neighbour coming on to him...) and the neighbour's story (husband coming on to her... she resists...) One of them was true but which one? Intriguing eh? OK, OK, maybe not, but C4 at the time thought so and stumped up some dosh for development and a pilot.

I was assigned to the head of development to work on the show. Nothing seemed organised, and Mr Head would just sing the theme toon at me when I asked about anything. I got more and more concerned over the weeks as we were supposed to be shooting something in a fortnight and didn't have a script.

It then turned out he'd got a new job and left over one weekend. Oh.

So muggins here had to write a script. And writing a complex script from three different viewpoints that can't contradict each other proved a little too much for me. And for the other two writers who had a go. It was just about possible to write something that could logically work but it was dull to watch. And anything interesting and dramatic would give the game away.

We sat and told C4 this, and they had the good grace to let us keep the money we'd already spent on developing something unusable.

I won't go into details on this show, but it was a monthly gameshow co-produced by a German broadcaster designed entirely to get a million quid grant from the EU. Er, I mean, to 'foster co-operation across the Eurozone via the medium of televisual entertainment'. The show was an awful cross between Treasure Hunt, Jeux Sans Frontieres and Eurovision. It was a stinking mishmash but was entirely paid for by the tax payers of Luxembourg. Or something.

Picture the scene: a big multinational broadcaster's ad department comes to my little company and says they want us to make 26 short episodes of a cartoon publicising a new fast-food product for an even more multinational food company. We were short of work and, hey, these guys were funky and trendy and had lots of other things they wanted us to do. Cool.

Errr, no it wasn't. Advertising is even more twuntastic than tv. We sat in massive meetings to decide the name of the pet dog. The main characters were tweaked until they were duller than ditchwater. I believe three different 'brand executives' had 'input' into the colour of one character's top.

Our silly little comedy stories had to be cut right back to show the characters taking this food product (absolutely inedible, by the way, and in packaging that made it look like toilet cleaner) out of the freezer, microwaving it, then eating it. Yum! The little inserts were supposed to run weekly, and were keyed around events like movie openings, holidays etc. Oh no. The product was delayed on the shelves so they all fell by the wayside.

And then the 'brand guardian' went on holiday for three weeks so nothing could be approved. And then the product, which was just a trial launch in several regional UK markets (despite being shown on national TV) was taken off the shelves.

Still, they paid us. Nine months' late. And much less than we were expecting. The moral of the story? Never believe anyone in advertising, I s'pose, not particularly original or unexpected, but there you go.

Thursday, 8 May 2008


So I was sitting talking to a mate, someone who runs his own small business (ie just him) making corporate videos and the like. He's successful and fairly happy, and gets to employ people he likes (mainly ex-Doctor Who and Blake's 7 actors) in his videos. They're mainly for councils, the police, ambulance staff - that kind of thing. Always enlightened by Servalan from B7 or Ace from Who turning up.

Anyhow, he asks me what the worst show I ever worked on was.

You'd think I'd have a ready answer. Hey, I write this stuff up, I should. And, yes, it's an area I've touched on before. But THE FUTURE is stream-of-consciousness blogs and so I won't go into THE PAST by re-reading my previous typesplurges and actually doing some research.


3 Try Your Luck!
A live weekly game show, part of that Sky series about video games I bleat on about more often than I should. This was the worst night, presented by Mick Thingie, off of Capital Radio, in a set designed to look like a shoot-the-duckies stall at a particularly rancid fairground. Mick Thingie used to do the afternoon drivetime show, when not appearing with Pat "Mullett" Sharp in dreadful pop videos, and opening branches of Costcutter in Swindon.

The show consisted of kids shouting "left!" and "shoot!" at very badly designed 'specially written' games on the telly, ultimately to win a console and/or some video games for it. I writ the 'specially written' games, hence their pooritude.

And, in a shocking state of affairs that'd be all over the papers Mr Murdoch doesn't own now, Mick Thingie used to prerecord the last hour of his Tuesday afternoon show on Capital so he could do our live show. Tsk tsk. Anyhow, the show was dull, cheap-looking (and -costing) and as it was presented by a "housewives' favourite" totally unsuitable for the teen audience it was aimed at.

As mentioned a million times previously, but it really wasn't a good tv show at all.

I did some development on this and it was going to be a big show for BBC1 or ITV but it ended up being shown for 2 weeks every night on Sky One. Good idea for a show but bad because (a) all the good ads were too expensive to use; (b) the presenter was inexperienced; (c) the guests were cheap; (d) the set was cheaper; and, most importantly; (e) the contestants weren't allowed to use brand-names more than once.

I only found this out when, returning from filming a different show for three weeks, I was drafted in as a contestant on the run-through, to test the format. It all dragged on, and we were fed wine in the green room. Note that only happened because that "Papa!"/"Nicole!" lady was on, off of the Renault ads, and she insisted. She couldn't speak English, which didn't exactly make her a hit on this show. In English.

So I was a bit drunk, surrounded by mates, and was told by my boss (in a whisper so the producer - another mate - wouldn't hear) to "try and break the show". She was always doing that kind of thing, bless her, and it needs to be done occasionally; pushing things to their limits to make sure the format, presenter and team are sound.

I've apologised to said producer many times, but I was a disgrace. The answer to one question was Pot Noodle - but we couldn't say it. We had to say "noodle-based snack product". It's catchy, isn't it? (Actually it is, I still use it to this day)

So we collapsed with laughter at this and then I answered every question in the next round with either "noodle-based snack product" or "Not Poodle" or "Pot-shaped Noodle-snack-product". Then the Shake'n'Vac ad was shown and me and the other team captain spent ages riffing on what on earth the generic name for that could be.

ME (buzzing in on the "It's all yoooooo have to do!")
Oh, I know this one! But I can't use the brand name?

PRESENTER (smiling to camera)
I think he's learning the rules viewers...

OTHER MATE (buzzing in)
Lemon-scented about-to-be-Hoovered-up-stuff?

ME (buzzing)
You can't say that brand name for vacuum cleaner. He doesn't know the rules, viewers.

PRESENTER (anxiously)
Any idea then?

Hoovell-based suck-product?

Suckupable freshening scatterash?

PRESENTER (producer yelling in earpiece "GET ON WITH IT!")
No.. er...


Shake 'nnnnnnnnnn' leave on the floor for no reason?

PRESENTER (with boss now yelling "CONTROL IT!" in earpiece)
Let's see the full ad.


And then they brought that woman on, the one who's obviously high on the fresh scent of Shake'n'Vac. Sad. She was old way back then, and her only claim to fame was that ad. She talked dead posh like though.

As I said, terrible television. Luckily, thanks to rights' issues with the ads, it was never repeated.

This flaw in the format couldn't be fixed.

Friday, 2 May 2008

"I've got a great idea for a tv show, how do I..."

When someone starts saying this to me I have to confess to wilting internally. I try my best to look engaged and positive and smiley, but inside I'm thinking of how I can run away without pointing over their shoulder and saying "Oh look, it's Princess Michael of Kent in a gorilla suit!", and dashing off when they turn around.

The truth is that you can't really just think up a show and get it on air. It doesn't happen. Here's an example.

Take Propertunities, my title-without-a-show. Let's try and make it into a show. Three properties for sale, three makeover experts, they turn up and alongside the owners do it up. The one that makes the most money (or in the current market, loses the least) wins. Daytime, every day, it's a winner.

How would I sell that?

Well I can't, as I've no track record making shows like that. A big daytime commission will be a million quid or so, loadsa money. Except that'd be for masses of shows, so tight cost control, volume production, ruthless management and a keen editorial eye are needed. Only daytime tv producers can do that.

OK, so say I hire in a producer who has that experience. We go and pitch it together. The broadcaster says hmmm, OK. Who's going to present it?

Nightmare. If you say the wrong name they'll dismiss it instantly. If you say the right name they'll be chuffed - but if you can't get the right name you'll lose the commission. If you say "err" and waffle, they'll think you haven't done your homework.

So say you manage to mumble someone they like. And hire them. Great! Job done.

Oh no.

Now you need to do a pilot episode. As a one-off, it'll cost far more than making one of fifty episodes. But it's better than the newer alternative. Either make a 'taster tape' (clips of things you shoot at your own expense) or a broadcastable week of shows to see if it works on air. And then they put you against Deal of no Deal and you're sunk.

Say you make a pilot, it works, they love it. That's it then, job's a good 'un.

Hahahah. Fool.

This is when the accountants and lawyers come in. Crawling over your budget - they see what you spend and will try everything to get it down. And will try equally to get as big as percentage of the show as they can. So you end up making it for barely cost price and not owning it.

But, say, you get through all that. Great! Then they say they want it on air in three months. And you have no team, no infrastructure and no way to get it donw by then. That's fine, they say, on air in eighteen months. But you haven't got enough work or funding to keep your existing team going...

And then-

I'll stop there. It's a Bank Holiday weekend and I've a pub to go to. But it's why the big companies get more and more commissions. They can tick all the boxes above. And they deliver a product at the end - it might not be as good as Propertunities but it'll fill the airtime on time, on cost and on target.

And that's what so much of tv, like any other business, is about.

On that cheery note, byebye!