Friday, 29 May 2009

Hey hey USA

So I've been in the States for a bit, and here's a unordered list of What I've Noticed About Yank TV:-

The evening entertainment magazine shows, from veteran Entertainment Tonight (ET) to new guy TMZ (Tee-Em-Zee of course) by way of Inside Edition and countless others, are now so jump-cutty and frenzied they're impossible to watch.

Mary Hart on ET, bless, has been presenting the show forever.. well, since 1989, when Sky Movies started to show it here. She sat alongside John Tesh, a man with a face that looked like it had been hit with a pan - and with a nifty sideline in Richard Clayderman-stylee naff piano music. The two of them read out links and the show was nice to everyone.

Not now. John is long gone, some shouting man with no appreciable personality is there. Mary doesn't look any older than she did two decades ago, just tighter and... er, bigger. As in the Botox and surgery to her face, US-TV-Enormo-Hair and fixed grin makes her head look massive.

But now each shot lasts a second of two, even when a presenter is talking, the camera constantly cutting and zooming. The reports are even worse - the word 'soundbite' being too long for most clips. They did a 'summer movie preview' and I swear there wasn't a single entire line of dialogue in the whole thing. How are you supposed to judge a film if they cut so fast between clips you've no idea what it looks like?

(The answer, oh Blogateers, is - of course - da yung'uns like it, and you look things like that up on the web nowadays. But I don't care. It's like watching bits of broken crockery in a blender - bouncy and noisy and pointless)

TMZ has the novelty of (a) being based on a website; and (b) pretending to be a documentary, with 'journos' pitching ideas to the 'editor', then clips popping up. Very odd. But everything is still in. Tiny. Lit. Tle. Bits. 'n'. Pieces.

If you thought it wasn't possible to cram in more ads on the already saturated American airwaves, you'd be wrong. Branded segments of programs (that's how the US'ers spell it, without the extra 'me', spelling nerds) like a minty chewing gum sponsoring a bit of the somehow-better-when-in-the-US Soup featuring sweary bits of dialogue from reality shows, telling them to clean their dirty mouths... to even more blatant product placement (an ep of some useless drama thing set entirely in a Subway sarnie shop), it's all there.

Most new shows are on twice a week, an 'encore' showing in primetime some other day, usually low-rated weekends, to boost numbers and save money.

NBC's The Biggest Loser is two hours long now. The American Idol results show, which is basically 5 minutes of 'you've won! you haven't!' is an hour long, sometimes 90 minutes, in addition to the two hour main show. The 'season finale' of Celebrity Apprentice (Joan Rivers AND her daughter!) lasted THREE WHOLE HOURS.


Especially, but not exclusively, on cable stations, a box will pop up with clips, animations, teasers, graphics and captions in the corner of the screen after each break, trailing the next show, or the next episode of this show, or some other show altogether. Countdown clocks to new episodes or series also dominate the screen, especially on TLC which seems to specialise in shows about people who have lots of kids. Sextuplets, 14 kids in total, whatever - just screaming children and shouting parents.

The recession means the ads for Viagra, Cialis and other medication seem to dominate even more, with their comedy list of side effects. A pill to 'reduce gas' has a huge list of problems it could cause including 'anal leakage'. So you don't fart but you shit yourself. Champion.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Founding a tv company

So with all the bad news swirling about, I was talking to a friend who said how lucky I was to run my own company, and have the 'stability' of doing so for years. This is lucky year 13 for my company (sort of) so he might have had a point.

But then I thought back to how it all started, and the night it nearly didn't happen.

I had cosied up to a senior exec at a big independent producer. It wasn't her job to add to the portfolio of mainly youthy, mainly entertainment shows this company made - and made very well - but she said she could help.

I'd got in via a guy who worked for me, who'd gone for a job interview in a period of unemployment, turned up a bit worse for wear but made an impression anyway. So the two of us went to see her, were kept waiting for ages - and we'd been to the pub so were a bit, er, the worse for wear. My mate wanted to walk out, I wanted to wait and see... well, anyway, she turned up, met us, chatted, introduced us to the bosses and we came to a deal to set up a joint venture company.

So I meet their head of new business, and we get on well. He works out a deal, we agree terms, and all that needs to happen is that this guy meets my other mate, who I'll be forming the business with.

Now this friend was easily my best mate in London, and it's fair to say we got on incredibly well despite being very different characters. We'd worked together well in the last job, despite the inevitable ups and downs of working with friends. And he was as enthused as me at the idea of setting up our own thing.

I decide it'd be good to meet in a pub, and off to Victoria Park me and my mate went as it was next to New Business Guy's (NBG for briefness) house. It turns out NBG was a drinker. Oh yes. A VERY big, VERY fast drinker, the sort who drinks half a pint in a sip. I'm quite a drinker, but pints of beer I find hard to drink quickly. My mate, however, is a legend when it comes to boozing, someone who could drink solidly for 36 hours and seem just slightly tired at the end of it. He could drink ANYONE under the table, under the ground or under anything ever.

The two of them are getting on OK, but the drinking is accelerating, and it's obvious my mate isn't exactly enamoured by NBG. "Twat" was his one-word judgement when NBG went off for a piss. "Quite an, um, character" was NBG's judgement as my mate went off to pee, rolling his eyes. I don't think tall, posh, clever NBG had ever met a tattooed, long-haired, leather-jacketed, burly bearded biker guy before. He seemed to view my mate - someone crucial to the business we were setting up - as some sort of amusement that would shock the oh-so-trendy types populating the parent company.

Things got worse. I tried to keep up and felt very ill. The subject of private lives was brought up, my mate fiercely protective of his... NBG seeminlgly yearning for more danger and edge than his lovely nice safe wife-kid-house-big job life was offering.

I was getting sicker and sicker as the two of them got drunker and drunker. They even arm wrestled at one point. I have no idea who won as I went off to vomit copiously. I got back to the table and they were both mute, arms folded, drinking shorts. I said I must've had something bad to eat and would have to go home. Goaded by NBG, my mate stayed and had more shorts. I watched from outside, having managed to grab a life-giving cup of tea from the jellied eel shop next to the pub (hey it was 1997, they still existed in Victoria Park Village)

My mate stumbled out on his own as I watched NBG asleep on the pub table. We wandered off, deciding to walk to Stratford where he lived. We walked through what is now the 2012 Olympic site but was then just wasteland with warehouses, barking dogs and skanky drug addicts slumped in corners. Now this I'd have considered scary except (a) my mate could more than handle himself, even when a bit pished; and (b) I was more concerned with him saying over and over again he couldn't work for that... well, insert every rude word ever here.

I pleaded and cajoled, seeing my dream slip away of a company I owned a stake in, guaranteed funding for a bit, the excitement of working with one of the biggest and most prestigious indies. But to no avail. We got to his place, ordered pizzas, drank booze and decided that was that.

I stumbled into a cab home at 2am, depressed and confused and drunk and ill, the worst night of my career so far.

Next morning I had a 10am meeting with NBG and boy did I feel rough. I was expecting exactly the same negative reaction from him, and on my way in I planned a speech saying how I'd decided to stay where I was after all.

NBG greeted me with "well, what a night!" and then said how wonderful he thought my mate was, how great things were going to be, and how he was looking forward to another "session" on the booze.


In my weakened state I nodded feebly, filled in the forms and went off to Stratford.

I knocked on my mate's door not sure what to do or say. He greeted me cheerily as he ate a slice of cold pizza. "What a shitty night!", he said, laughing.


So I started on my spiel of how NBG seemed fine with everything (a raised eyebrow there) but I know my mate wasn't keen to work with him and I understand that and I-

My mate stopped me in my tracks. "As long as I never have to deal with the twat I'm fine. The bastard we work for now is worse."

And with that he signed the documents and our company was born. Six months later, my mate - still without ever having dealt with NBG at all - met a lovely American lady, decided to get hitched and emigrate, and we went our separate ways business-wise.

My old mate now runs his successful own company Stateside. NBG left the parent company at some point, has surfaced in many different forms in telly and the interweb, and still likes a pint or several drunk at lightning speed.

And I don't do lager any more.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Fish News!

Let's ignore all the bad news about telly right now, and here's one of my Anecdotages from The Far Far Distant Past, a world where big companies spent lots of money on channels no-one watches.

(Like the channel amusingly called Watch today, hoho)

Here's when I was in charge of news for a day.

So it was the silly cable channel I was Head of Stupid Ideas for. I was in really early, for impress-the-boss-early-on-in-your-contract sort of reasons. I mean, 8am in tellyland, it might as well have been midnight.

Boss wanders in, flapping and yacking to Head of Programmes/Programming about random tabloidy things.

He sidles up to me and says he's fackin' bored with the noos (always made me smile, how a newspaper man couldn't pronounce news), go on, think up somethin' stooopid to make the nooos more interestin'.

I have to say here the news was three minutes of a person reading the news from a foot-pedal operated autocue, rarely with any clips (they cost money) just the occasional still (paid for by the newspaper group wot owned the channel). It was Dullsville Street, Boringtown, Bland County.

I can't remember how or why - this was quite a while ago - but I suggested how about the news presented by a goldfish, with thought bubbles popping up with short, snappy captioned comments. I'd like to think this flash of genius (ahem) was spontaneous or off-the-cuff, but it probably wasn't. I remember having a big book of ideas and being a swotty teacher's pet-type, writing things up I thought might work.

(Long since ditched that, btw)

Anyway, boss said "Bingo. Gerrit on air in an hour", news reader man sitting one desk away from me scowled at me with venom - he was about to be replaced by a 10p pet - and the head of programming/programmes chortled to himself, no doubt thinking about the headlines in the papers the next day.

I then got a cab to the local pet shop (not easy to find in the pre-Google days), bought a fish, a bowl, a little shiny arch for the bowl, some gravel and some food (hey, I know how to prepare), and I was back in the office 30 mins later.

We didn't hit the hour deadline - we had to type in news for bubbles to pop up, and find a nice bubbly watery sound track, it took time. News reader was pleased to be typing the stuff up; less so when the boss came over and stuck a sticky label to his jacket saying "Executive Producer, Pet Division (Small Fish Dept)"

Anyway, 2 hours later, Britain's Wettest News went live for a trial bulletin. It wasn't actually broadcast, something I've just remembered, slightly making this anecdote pointless, but it's a blog typed up LIVE AND DIRECT (insert Sky News whoosh here) so these things happen.

And, you know, it was funny. BLUB-BLUB-BLUB - POP! - thought bubble… PING! BLUB-BLUB-BLUB - POP! - another one. The fish behaved itself, the tabloid execs all chortled, and "we're on our way to h'another television triumph" the boss announced, patting me on the back.

I went to grab a sandwich, returning as they set up for the bulletin. The boss was even more thrilled when I said we could just film the fish for five minutes and then use the same footage every day, meaning he could flog the camera.

Only one small item. Our newsreading star, under the harsh tv lights, had… er, kicked the watery bucket literally minutes before air. Someone - surely Executive Producer, Pet Division (Small Fish Dept) - had forgotten to move it.

The boss was mortified. "Get another one, an heir and an spare!", he commanded, and I went to my desk to pick up my pass and the ten poonds for the taxi. Just then head of programming/programmes came over. The cost of the computer stuff to do the captions worked out five times dearer than just filming a bloke on a desk. And the bloke on the desk was the nephew of someone High Up in the company, and somewhat unhappy at his new role. And being replaced by a small creature with a seven-second memory span.

The idea was quietly dropped. My boss was soon onto other things, like why we showed the same ads every commercial break (answer: no advertisers) and why the psychic woman always seemed to be talking to the same people every night on her live phone in (answer: only a few viewers, plus most of the calls were the poor staff working on the show, as otherwise it would fall off air).

Anyway, thought it might make a change from the current bad news flooding tellyland. (Insert gag about news and flooding here).

*Oh, yes, ITV cancels The South Bank Show - well, I saw the one about William Goldman, superb programme and great subject, and there were NO ads in it, just trailers for other ITV shows. It wasn't sponsored by anyone. When it finished and was followed by boxing highlights - way to segway between items, ITV! - there were 7 ads, including one for kebab-flavour Pot Noodle. Lord Melvyn of Bragg's flagship show, ABC1 audience, no ads during, Pot Noodle ad after - ITV SOOO wanted this show dead.

**Oh (ii), in Future TV News, the government replied to my email about product placement (see below). Love to say it was a specific, detailed response but alas not. A cut-n-paste jobbie with no ref to my lovely idea of using prod-place money to fund pub-serv progs. Oh well.