News knows its place

The annual MIPCOM Television market in Cannes is a sobering reminder of the place of news in the televisionmarketplace.

News Programming, apart from disaster footage from the archives and collections of funny “and finally…” clips, doesn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Old news programmes have the same secondary value as old newspapers except you can’t wrap the fish and chips up in them.

Technology has all but solved the problems of rapid distribution but news by its very nature has a very short sell-by date. It’s also not generally very entertaining.

As you walk down the subterranean corridors at MIPCOM the stalls are overwhelmingly filled with children’s animation, movies, reality formats, sport and sex. News programming simply doesn’t feature and even serious current affairs and documentary is becoming a rarity.

A few state-subsidised broadcasters or independent documentary makers still come to Cannes each year tomarket serious TV journalism.

But finding this stuff is the equivalent of tracking down a rare first edition in a small backstreet bookshop.

In general, Current Affairs doesn’t sell. It’s expensive to make and it usually requires concentration to watch so, not surprisingly, it doesn’t rate that highly. It doesn’t always travel well across different sales territories and if it’s really topical then it’s also likely to go out of date very quickly. No wonder all the rich TV folk work in formats or cartoons.

Its an irony that these days you are more likely to find an exciting new documentary at a film festival rather than a TV market. The phenomenal success of theatrical documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 or Supersize Me (pictured below) are showing the way forward for journalistically-minded documentary makers – especially those with bees in their bonnets.

A nother growing trend in TV journalism is the burgeoning of the 24-hour news channel.

In the 80s and 90s your typicalMiddle Eastern potentate indulged himself with lavish palaces and a fleet of Rolls Royces. Today the new must-have status symbol seems to be the 24 hour news channel to compete with CNN and Al Jazeera.

There are at least four Arabic news channels in theMiddle East, with several more currently in development, and back here we will soon have an English-language version of Al Jazeera to compete with our three homegrown news channels and the rest.

It’s not just about status, of course.

24-hours news channels can be the mouthpiece of a particular national, political or cultural perspective.

That’s why the US Government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Al Hurra, its very own Arabic language news service, which operates out of Virginia. Closer to home, even Jacques Chirac is contemplating a French version of BBCWorld.

Clearly, if you want a job with prospects then get into rolling news consultancy.

Meanwhile a new experiment in local news launched quietly this week with the official opening of Channel M, a citybased TV channel operating out of Manchester.

M is available on cable and local analog and it broadcasts a formula of music plus news and information which has succeeded in cities all over North America, continental Europe and Latin America, but not so far in Britain.

There were, of course, the Channel One and Live! TV operations in the 90s but none of these really took off – partly because they were expensive to run and hard to distribute, but also because they seemed to offer a cheaper and not so good version of what ITV and the BBC were already doing.

Channel M is a joint venture between the Guardian Media Group and Chum, which pioneered the City TV format in Canada. It aims to provide a Manchester- focused news programme for half an hour each weekday evening.

ITV local news in the north west was once the powerhouse of regional journalism, but sadly that is no longer the case and ITV’s local news is increasingly dominated by features and lifestyle items. In ratings terms it gets thrashed by the BBC in most regions -notably so in Manchester.

This month’s Ofcom Report on Public Service Broadcasting essentially sounded the death-knell for nonnews local programming on ITV.

It more or less acknowledged that after the digital switchover – when every home will be a multi-channel home-ITV regional news will probably go the same way.

In theUnited States local TV news is still thriving, even as the network news programmes languish. They may be cheesy but they’re very popular and profitable.

Hopefully urban news services such as Min Manchester may prove equally successful over here – successful enough to replace the old regional formula which ITV did so much to pioneer and develop over the past half century. It would be a shame if, in the future, the only local news on TV is BBC News.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five 

Next week: Janice Turner

by Chris Shaw

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