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.

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