«How do you see the issue of the general aging of television news audiences? Well it’s clearly a problem. It’s a bit less of an issue for us at ...»
Editor Five News
How do you see the issue of the general aging of television news
Well it’s clearly a problem. It’s a bit less of an issue for us at Five News because
we have a younger audience than any of our competitors actually. Our
demographic is down in part to the channel’s demographic being a bit different.
There’s also a format issue – we have three half hour programmes a day, but in
addition we have these updates, ranging from two to three and a half minutes, that run in the evening until late at night. So they’ll be inserted into a big American acquisition like CSI. Through those programmes, measuring a three- minute reach, you get to people that you won’t get to with a half hour built programme, and that helps us enormously. So it’s less of an issue for us than it is certainly for the place I worked previously, the BBC, where there is a real issue for younger viewers for the big network bulletins and they are worried about it, and very rightly worried about it, and in a way I would applaud them for being worried about it. Certainly at my time at the BBC it was taken extremely seriously so I don’t think anyone is naïve about this. So it’s a problem, but I don’t think we should panic about it because if we panic about it we will probably come up with the wrong solutions. We clearly need to engage but we need to engage in a way in which we are clearly levelling with people, not panicking.
The dilemma for some editors, particularly at the BBC where there is a duty and need to reach absolutely all kinds of viewers, that if you make news more appealing to younger viewers you just alienate the older viewers. Is that a problem for you at Five?
I don’t think it’s as straightforward as if you change the programme you piss off the older viewers. It’s much more sophisticated than that. You’ve got to be quite brave about the agenda because my experience of having changed programmes before, most recently in my last job, is that you can make quite a lot of change and you will get some angry emails and some viewer vitriol but you can actually make quite significant changes that actually don’t drive viewers away. To an extent I think older viewers probably tend to channel surf a bit less than younger viewers, they’re historically used to far less choice, and if they’re loyal to your product then there’s a greater sense of loyalty form an older viewer anyway so they are more inclined to stick with you than the younger viewer.
In addition, some of the things that you would do to modernise and update your programme frankly, would be appreciated by older viewers. I don’ t think it’s as simple as, ‘oh, jazzy stuff for younger viewers, older people won’t like that’. It’s much, much more sophisticated than that and I think that in agenda terms you can do quite a lot to feel more modern to appeal to a younger audience without driving away older viewers.
Well, production treatments. For example, there’s some research I was involved with at the Beeb suggested that perhaps older viewers were slightly less in favour of whizzy graphics than older viewers but when you drilled down, yes they reacted against too much going on, the over 50s, but actually once they understood what we were trying to do, once they got used to it, they actually found it a useful aid to storytelling. So in this research we did with Frank Luntz, the American pollster, the headline figure was that older viewers were less keen on whizzy graphics than younger viewers but when you drilled down and discussed it what came through was older viewers just need to get used to things. I think graphics is really good example. Language is another thing. If you can just look at your language and be a bit more ballsy in your storytelling you don’t drive away older viewers, as long as you’re not using street speak or something, where even the younger viewers would think you’re being ridiculous, as long as you’re not going to extremes then there’s quite a lot you can do to update your product that leaves you with a broad church.
As a genre television news does seem to be particularly conservative and resistant to change in its main formats.
Well when I banned the noddy the reaction from some of our rivals was astonishing actually. There were legitimate concerns from some former colleagues about by linking this with the trust issue we were suggesting that there was some sort of crisis in TV news when there wasn’t, and I was quite clear that I wasn’t for a moment suggesting there was a crisis of trust in TV news. However, there were other former colleagues, my peers, who’s reaction was ‘this can’t be done! It’s impossible!’ Actually of course it can be done. I said at the time it was as much about modernity as it was about honesty. Viewers are not stupid and certain people I’ve worked with in the past have fallen into the trap of thinking that they are. Viewers hate being patronised, younger viewers especially, and viewers can tell if something is naff or phoney and the noddy falls into both those categories. That’s why I talk about updating your product. It’s not about a revolution but an evolution, by constantly looking at the way you operate and the way you do things and asking whether there isn’t a more modern and better way of doing things. I liken it to the Japanese car production factory approach which is about constantly checking, constantly reviewing, constantly appraising your production processes to iron out niggles and look at whether there are better ways of doing things, constantly modernising but not in a way that they blow up the factory and start again but constantly improving their production processes and similarly we should be constantly improving our production processes.
But why is television news so formerly conservative?
So I think it’s a general media thing, it’s not about television news I think. But I sometimes think there’s a fear of risk taking in television news because people take the news terribly seriously, as they should, but we take ourselves terribly seriously, which I’m not sure we necessarily should. There are a lot of conservative people in news and I think that has led to a reluctance to embrace risk taking. And actually if you do something a bit different, like the noddy thing, some of the reaction was ‘oh, you can’t do that!’ but that was not the reaction from within the team, that was the reaction from outside. Within the team here, which is a young team, I’m one of the oldest people here at 35, most of the production team is under 30, that helps a lot actually. That’s probably one of the reasons for us having a younger audience. If you’re trying to get to those people then you should make sure you employ some of them so that you’re reflecting back, both in language terms and agenda, into their living rooms and onto their tellies something that feels real.
There seems to be a feeling, particularly within the BBC, that the only way to reach younger audiences now and in the future is through new media and that younger audiences will never really come back to the core terrestrial news services.
I’d be surprised if they said that. There’s a problem but there’s not a crisis, I don’t think. People still do watch the telly and people do still watch the television news, large numbers watch the news. It’s certainly true that new media presents an exciting and different platform for new news and it’s been embraced by all the broadcasters at a different pace. But I think there’s just going to be a mix. People were saying a few years ago that radio was dead and I don’t think it is. People said that newspapers would die and while they’re declining in circulation they’re still pretty healthy overall, we’re not seeing constant newspaper closures, we haven’t seen one close since Today. So I think there is absolutely a shift going on but there is not the crisis that some would have you believe. I don’t want to downplay the problem because connecting with that younger audience is still an issue, definitely.
So how do you see the relationship between the traditional core terrestrial news and new media?
We work very well together actually. What I’ve tried to do with our website is make it have much more of a club feel around the programme. We’re in the very early days of doing this but since I’ve started we’ve used today’s information, complimentary information, so if you’ve just seen a story about the league table of cancer rates and you want the detail, we say here it is online, come to our website and we’ll redirect you to the original research. We can just do a lot more to navigate our viewers from what they’ve seen on the telly to further detail. The BBC does some of this quite well too.
3 That’s one area, and then the club feel extends to us empowering, we do these UGC Your News items which are entirely driven by the viewer. Obviously we edit them because they’re sometimes coming in at 10 minutes or something but we don’t get reporters involved in them, they’re supposed to feel a bit different. Quite a lot of them are around local campaigns and I think there’s a lot you can do through online media to help people campaign, to empower people actually. So again the club feel will be extended to that as well. I think if you can get the product right, both on TV and through multi-media then young people will really engage. I think young people love to make a difference, or want to make a difference. The older you get the more weary you become. And I think if we can get the proposition right so that it really feels like it’s empowering people then potentially we’ve got a really exciting site, that’s my ambition for that.
What sort of people are sending stuff into Your News? Is it predominantly younger viewers?
It’s a varied mix actually, we’ve had some older people with their camcorders.
One of the most striking was a young guy who had a particular condition, the name of which I’ve forgotten, which is basically around self loathing, he hated his face basically, and he was shining a light on that problem. It was almost disturbing to watch but very powerful, he was shining a light on his condition.
Similarly we’ve had and anorexic woman doing something, and we’ve had a wide mix of different ages getting involved in it. Even some kids who want to tell us about their favourite lollypop lady or whatever, it’s quite a wide range. To be honest it’s not a young media thing, you might have thought before it launched that young people would be more embracing of it but I don’t think that’s been true really. You need a bit of time on your hands [to do it] so we’ve had a few retired people, and it gives campaigning groups a platform, so we’ve seen quite a wide range of different age groups.
Some broadcasters are monitoring what news items and issues people are looking at on the web and feeding that into their decision making over what stories to cover. Is that something Five is doing?
Yeah, well we use the hits on the Sky site to support some of our decision making editorially. So if there’s one story that’s just got an overwhelmingly bigger response than another then that will influence us, but it doesn’t dictate what we do, clearly. The Five site isn’t primarily a news site in the way that Sky News site is so we will sometimes have a look to see what people are interested in. It can’t dictate what you do because sometimes it will be the kind of ‘man marries goat’ story but it certainly supports some of your editorial decisions. You see, people who look at stuff online seem to be interested in certain stuff over others, there are certain stories that will just appeal more online but you can’t go overboard in reading too much into that. It’ll be interesting to see how the new Sky programme, Martin Stanford goes when they launch that.
Yes, what little I’ve seen is interesting. Some of it very good, some of it very bad.
Bad in what way?
In quality terms. Well, the stuff that people have filmed themselves, their UGC.
Just like the stuff that we get, the Your News stuff, some of it is very good but some of it does not make it to air because it’s not terribly good. At the end of the day you’re still making television. Current TV has gone all out, because it’s their USP, to say this is your telly. I don’t know what their viewing figures are like, quite small I would have thought.
In terms of setting the news agenda for TV news, it used to be a very top down process with editors often taking their cue from the daily press. Is that changing?
I think it is changing. Firstly there’s fragmentation now and people have a lot more choice, so there are a lot of different ‘news’s’ rather than ‘the news’. That’s a good thing. I’ve said that our mantra should be, our ambition should be our difference, we need to differentiate ourselves from other products in the marketplace. In terms of the agenda changing, it is. Through audience research, through online hits, through the machine called Peaktime, which tells us minute by minute what appeals to people, we have far greater evidence for our decisionmaking. We are much, much more interested in what people think about stories, what they engage with, the kind of production treatments they engage with, than we ever were when I first started in television 12 or 13 years ago.
When it comes to the kind of stories that might interest younger people, how do you keep in touch with those issues so that they are represented in setting your news agenda?
Our audience research is broken down into age groups and demographics, which is very helpful. Actually anecdotally I base quite a lot on what members of my team talk about, that’s why it’s better to have a team that reflects the younger audience. What they talk about, what they engage with, you can’t make too much of it because it’s not scientific, we don’t appoint people scientifically here, but it’s helpful.
Can you give me an example of a story that you would have picked up inthis way?
Well, most recently the iphone launch and how pissed off young people were at the prospect of having to be bound into a contract. Very few people in the team knew what their phone contract details were. That was one small example.