Review of the Year: 2005 

15 December 2005 tbs.pm/1059

A look back at a busy year of broadcasting

January – Jerry Springer, who’ll buy ITV and a new look to Channel 4.

2005 got off to a bang when the BBC announced that they were bringing Stewart Lee’s “Jerry Springer: The Opera” to our screens. The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, the Bishop of Manchester, was first up with ill-informed comment, telling the Grauniad, “Freedom of expression is not at issue here” and calling for restrictions on the freedom of expression of the BBC and the rest of the country. The screening of the musical went ahead despite protesters outside Broadcasting House (some showing their open-mindedness by carrying anti-gay placards, for some reason).

DG Mark Thompson defended the programme – making the point that he himself is a practising Christian – and telling BBC News there was nothing blasphemous in the production and it was going out after the watershed with “very, very clear” warnings about strong language.

Stephen Green, the self-styled national director of “Christian Voice”, a right-wing campaign organisation, announced ex cathedra:

“What kind of Christians are the sort of people who find mocking God and Jesus Christ acceptable?”

Intelligent ones, presumably. Stephen Green is allegedly also a practising Christian, to which all one can say is that he evidently needs rather more practice. The “peace, love and tolerance” bit always seems to give them trouble.

Meanwhile, over on ITV, talk (mainly from the Grauniad, it must be said) of a US takeover was in the air. Shares in the ailing broadcaster rose briefly out of the doldrums when the Graun announced that KKR, a US equity firm, was interested. The firm was managed by someone who did a great deal for ITV in the past (or, just did for ITV in the past), former Meridian owner Lord Hollick. Nothing further was heard of this bid.

Channel 4 started the year with new idents based on strange optical illusions. They were mainly positively greeted, but little did anyone know that optical illusions and channels with a “4” in their name were to become a permanent – and dull – link-up for British television as 2005 progressed.

February – How not to fund a broadcaster, the big turn-off and a departure

As the BBC’s charter renewal process churns onward, one of the possible methods of funding (or not) the BBC to get mentioned was switching to ‘Grant-in-Aid’. In other words, the Corporation’s budget would be set by the government and would come out of general taxation. It’s obvious to everybody that that wouldn’t work – governments are too mean, and it would make political influence much too easy (which is why we have a licence fee, which isn’t part of general taxation) – so it was useful when proof came in from Canada, of all places.

In Canada, the CBC is funded this way and February 2005 saw them, once again, getting out the begging bowl. CBC had great plans for regional television and local radio, but a fat chance of getting the additional cents required.

After years of prevaricating, the government and the media regulator Ofcom finally decided when they were going to pull the plug on analogue TV and plunge the UK into the digital dark whether they liked it or not. The plan was simple:

  • 2008: Border, Westcountry, HTV Wales
  • 2009: Granada HTV West, Grampian, Scottish
  • 2010: Central, Yorkshire, Anglia
  • 2011: Meridian, Carlton/LWT, Tyne Tees, Ulster
  • 2012: Channel

but still managed to look like no thought, rhyme or reason had gone into the list.

On a happier note, Lorraine Heggessey disappeared from the top job of running BBC-1 into the ground, heading off to bring her experience to

talkbackThames.

March – The strange world of Ms Jowell, a nipple and how to be fair and balanced

The charter renewal process, something that seems to have dragged on since about a fortnight after the last charter was signed, finally finished in March. And the recommendations of the fragrant and lovely Ms Jowell’s department? Well, a typical “New Labour” fudge. The governors are to go, in favour of an executive board, and a “BBC Trust” will own the whole thing.

That’s the BBC slapped-down (but not too hard) and the organisation shaken up (but not too much), the licence fee saved (but not permanently) and privatisation off the cards (for the moment). It hardly seemed worth the trouble at the time, let alone now.

Last year, Janet Jackson’s nipple appeared on American television and The Whole Of Civilised Society As We Know It in the US collapsed. Sort of.

Certainly, as a Financial Times article reported this year, the US networks promptly canned any adventurous or challenging sitcoms they had in development in favour of safe pablum that wouldn’t offend the Puritans. This year, pop singer Javine Hylton’s nipple appeared live on the BBC. The BBC chuckled, the press sniggered and… nothing much happened. It’s clearly a different world between the UK and the US.

Well, perhaps not. In the US, advertising standards don’t seem too bothered by the unfair and unbalanced (yes, the double meaning is intentional) Fox News using the slogan “Fair and Balanced”. Over here, with our strict laws on advertising claims and our media watchdog growling behind the gate, there’s no way Fox News could get away with it. Oh, but there is… a Transdiffusion member wrote to Ofcom to complain about the slogan and got the most wonderful piece of ludicrous double-talk back from the toothless wonders:

To anyone watching the channel for any length of time it will become clear that Fox News is not ‘fair and balanced’ in the sense that UK-based news organisations like ITN and BBC News are. We do not therefore find the ‘slogan’ to be misleading.

April – Freeview, expensive view and very expensive view

April was the month that Channel Four announced that E4 was coming to Freeview: in other words, abandoning Top Up TV and leaving the service with one less crowd-puller. The channel was to remain encrypted on Sky, but bets were being taken on how long C4 would keep that up.

April was also the month ITV bounced back into the DTT market, scooping up SDN for £134m and with it precious bandwidth that would be useful for its future plans… assuming, of course, it had any.

This was also the month when something strange happened at Central East. Who’d be a transmission controller at ITV, hey? Something goes wrong just before the local news. Do you (a) say so and run trailers for five minutes; (b) say so and run a different variant (the West one, for instance); (c) say nothing but do one of the above; or… (d) take that morning’s bulletin off tape, play it out without a word and expect that no-one will notice. Let’s hope no-one chooses the latter, most stupid, option. Except in April, someone did and ITV Central got itself a little bit fined.

May – Disruptions, windflows and windbags

May saw the end of a General Election campaign that seemed to have started about 18 months before. With voters being asked to choose between a warmonger and a vampire, it was certainly a more interesting election night than 4 years previously (when the choice was between a national hero and a fool). The coverage gave us one “gem”, when George Galloway and Jeremy Paxman went head to head: two of the biggest egos in politics and broadcasting clashing over… er…

The BBC, as usual, won the plaudits for its Election coverage, then immediately spent the goodwill by premiering a whole new look to that most sacred of British traditions – the weather. As the map spun around, the people of Scotland wondered what had happened to their nation, the colourblind looked in vain for detail and the rest of the country just felt nausea as Wales rushed past at a giddy pace.

Hope was (like Scotland) on the horizon that we may have been able to avoid the weathermen for a while as Bectu took strike action against the high-handed attempts by BBC management to impose job cuts and prepare the BBC for privatisation. In the end, we got an edition of My Family instead of the news, the BBC blinked and further strikes were called off.

June – A pig, a poke and OneWord

June is the last full month of “real news” before the “silly season” kicks in as MPs and broadcasters take themselves off to Mustique and other such places that ordinary folks go to for their 3-month-long holidays.

One group of MPs, just before they signed off to spend a small fortune of others’ money in the Carribean, decided that there was just enough time to give the BBC a good kicking.

APIG (the All-Party Internet Group of MPs who have used, or at least seen, a computer) decided that the BBC’s plans to make its extensive archive available online free to all was against the spirit of the internet.

What the BBC should be doing, it proclaimed, was charging an arm and a leg for pixellated, stuttering clips of The Two Ronnies. Obviously they had their minds on something else – whether the villa’s jacuzzi was working, perhaps?

Meanwhile, ITV got one of the things from its wishlist: the ludicrous fees paid to the government for their broadcasting licences were reduced on appeal. ITV rejoiced and promised the money saved would be used wisely, being pumped straight back into the pockets of shareholders.

And in radio we got to see what happens if you put one group of idiots in front of another group of idiots and let them cross-question each other. You get a parliamentary Select Committee and the management of OneWord bitching about competition and how unfair it is to have any. So now we know.

July – Time, bombs and Celebrity Wrestling

July is where the “silly season” kicks in. Not this year, though. 7 July 2005 saw “The War on Terror” come to our doorstep, having previously just blighted the lives of millions of swarthy foreigners. As always with an outrage like this, the world changes forever afterward. In the case of the UK, four bombs go off and we sign away a thousand years of civil liberties into the caring, liberal hands of Charles Clarke.

But the month did manage to have some silliness in it. TimeWarner, according to those dedicated newshounds at the Mail on Sunday, were about to pay £6.6 billion for ITV plc. No-one seemed to think this was in any way a bad idea, but it didn’t matter as the story wasn’t actually true.

More silliness, but this time from within ITV. As everyone had noticed, celebrities are popular. I’m An Alleged Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here was popular. ITV wants to be popular again. So, a schedule was launched where every programme had the word Celebrity hammered into the title. July was the month that ITV pulled most of those programmes off air and started to feel a bit silly.

August – Plugs, dogs and sniggering

Trouble on the cosy sofa that Richard and Judy slump into every day on Channel Four. Or, more accurately, on the table in front of the sofa, where a can of Red Bull was likely to be (prominently) found. R&J were £5000 poorer for the experience and the can disappeared.

Meanwhile, BBC Three decided that its programmes weren’t distinctive enough. The solution (“better programmes” not being one of the options) was a massive, bright-white on-screen logo that dominated the picture and ruined the programmes. Needless to say, people complained (they have a right to: we’re paying for this type of nonsense, and paying double if these DOGs burn permanently into the phosphors of the TV screen).

The BBC’s response was enlightening – a full-page article on bbc.co.uk to explain how stupid the audience, and how anally-retentive the complainers, were. The subsequent

full-page apology and grovelling from the BBC didn’t really undo the insult.

No DOGs on BBC-1, mind. But Lorraine Heggessey managed to come last in a dancing competition at the Edinburgh TV festival. Her dancing obviously suffered from poor presentation.

September – Lies, damn lies and a half-century

Ah, the Daily Mail. What would we do without it? There’s so much misinformation and nonsense about, so it’s very useful to have it all distilled into one newspaper. This month’s untruism from the pages of the Blackshirt Gazette was the SHOCK HORROR EXPOSE news that it’ll cost us all £2000 each to go digital come the switch off of analogue. Quite how this figure was arrived at is something of a mystery: the majority of the population can go digital for well under £60 per TV these days (by November you could pick up a perfectly decent DTT set-top box in Tesco for under thirty quid); the rest for £120. And these are flat, one-off figures.

Less likely to misinform [Oh, really? – Ed], but just as likely to mislead, is News International. Under the frail hand of Rupert Murdoch, News has stretched its tentacles from being a small newspaper operation in the Outback to being the holder of the destiny of politicians, organisations and ordinary people. This month, Hurricane Katrina struck the US and live pictures of the disaster showed something that needed no commentary: the US got the rich citizens out and left the poor and the blacks to die. Mr Murdoch took the opportunity to reveal that Mr Blair had told him the BBC was gloating over this on-air, and how different it was from the government-supportive nature of US networks. One wonders what life is like on Planet Murdoch.

22 September 2005 was, of course, the 50th anniversary of Leslie Mitchell intoning “This is London” and meaning ITV, not the BBC. He was right of course: it was transmitted from London to London, and other regions had to await the transmitter rollout. BBC-2 followed the same pattern years later. Only with the start of colour on the main channels did London lose the right to be first.

ITV made a poor fist of its own 50th anniversary celebrations, with a documentary series by Melvyn Bragg that had clearly been sent back to the producers to be dumbed-down after initial completion. With good and bad episodes alternating it was a curate’s egg. One edition praised ITV’s worthy commitment to regional production, whilst another celebrated throwing off such shackles. Bragg himself seemed at sixes and sevens about the loss of regional production.

In an odd bit of bias, Granada and ATV were celebrated, while Rediffusion and ABC were hardly mentioned, except for a good reference to The Avengers. The Bernsteins and Grades obviously made better legend than Spencer Wills, Brownrigg and Thomas. As was to be expected, several ABC programmes were retrospectively credited to ATV and history was, once again, rewritten by the victors. A Granada production. Hmmmm…

October – News, news, no news

October marks the end of the silly season, but not the silly stories, this year at least. October started with the sound of howls of pain from the politicians. Yes, it seemed that John Humphrys doesn’t think much of them. Cue immediate demands for the presenter’s head to be delivered gift-wrapped to Downing Street. Someone should have pointed something out to the pols: nobody thinks much of them.

In other news, we were told we were about to see less of some newsreaders. Michael Buerk, Peter Sissons and Anna Ford all announced they were off (although that doesn’t mean we will see less of them, per se, as they will be back on-air in different guises). Someone we will see less off

is Sophie Raworth, temporarily as she takes maternity leave. And someone we will see more of is Natasha Kaplinsky, leaving Breakfast to take Raworth’s job on the Six.

Finally for this month, in a move that surprised no-one, Sky bought an ISP. This marked Sky’s 94th internet strategy this month.

November – Bong! (but ask not for whom the bell tolls)

With the launch of ITV4, the poor ITV News Channel got hit again, taking a cut on Freeview to just 12 hours a day (some rolling news service that is). November saw a further hit, as ITV plc decided to see if the channel could be run on a smaller shoestring but also drew up ‘secret’ plans to close the service.

Meanwhile, the University of Cardiff had some interesting research to ponder. BREAKING NEWS! 79.4% of stories which Sky News labelled as “Breaking News” were in fact, ‘routine, predictable events’. In contrast, ITV News Channel had 32.1% whilst BBC News 24 was at just 12.5%. BREAKING NEWS! This wasn’t a surprise. The broadcasters need to decide what “breaking news” means though. Something unexpected to “spice up” the feeling of immediacy (as they see

it) or something dramatic, akin to a traditional “newsflash” as most viewers probably see it. The term ‘breaking news’ is devalued by over use. Not that ‘flogging a format to death’ is unknown to broadcasters today…

December – This month, the United States of America executed its 1000th person since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976.

In 2005, over 4000 people have been executed worldwide. This figure includes children, the mentally ill, people with learning difficulties, gay men and lesbians, dissenters and many, many innocent people. China, Viet Nam and the United States killed the most.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Join Amnesty International and the campaign against state-approved murder.

Necrolog

Those we have said goodbye to this year.

  • John Timpson (Died 19 November) – Today and Any Questions presenter (BBC News)
  • Ralph Edwards (Died 16 November) – Creator of Truth or Consequences (

    Radio Hall of Fame)

  • Avril Angers (Died 9 November) – Actress, How Do You View
  • Harry Thompson (Died 7 November) – Comedy writer and producer (

    BBC News)

  • Michael Piller (Died 1 November) – Star Trek: DS9 and Voyager co-creator
  • Mary Wimbush (Died 31 October) – Actress, The Archers
  • Lloyd Bochner (Died 29 October) – Canadian character actor (

    CBC)

  • Fred S Fox (Died 23 October) – Script writer for George Burns’s TV shows
  • Michael Gill (Died 20 October) – Producer, Civilisation (

    The Times)

  • Elmer Dresslar, Jr (Died 16 October) – Ho Ho Ho! Green Giant! (Wikipedia entry)
  • Pierre van Ostade (Died 13 October) – Presenter for KRO in Holland (De Telegraaf in Dutch)
  • Ronnie Barker (Died 3 October) – Legendary comedian
  • Don Adams (Died 25 September) – Actor, Get Smart!
  • Roger Brierley (Died 23 September) – Actor
  • Bob Denver (Died 2 September) – Actor, Gilligan’s Island
  • Peter Jennings (Died 7 August) – ABC World News Tonight anchorman (ABC News)
  • James Doohan (Died 20 July) – Actor, Star Trek
  • Gerry Thomas (Died 18 July) – Invented the concept of “TV dinners” for Swanson
  • Gretchen Franklin (Died 11 July) – Actor, EastEnders
  • Derek Hilton (Died 11 July) – Granada Musical Director (Daily Telegraph)
  • Ian Stirling (Died 30 June) – Westward/TSW announcer (This is Devon
  • Richard Whiteley (Died 26 June) – Yorkshire Television presenter
  • Georgie Woods (Died 19 June) – US local radio presenter and Civil Rights activist (broadcastpioneers.com)
  • Eddie Albert (Died 26 May) – Actor in the terrible Green Acres
  • Thurl Ravenscroft (Died 22 May) – They’re Greeeeaaaat! (

    Fan site)

  • Shaima Rezayee (Murdered 18 May) – Afghan youth TV presenter (

    Reporters Without Frontiers)

  • Frank Gorshin (Died 17 May) – Actor, Batman TV series
  • George Barron (Died 14 May) – Presenter of BBC Scotland’s Beechgrove Garden
  • Johnnie Stewart (Died 29 April) – Creator of Top of the Pops
  • Gwynfor Evans (Died 21 April) – Fought for creation of S4C
  • Paul Henning (Died 25 March) – Creator of The Beverly Hillbillies
  • Laurie West (Died 16 March) – Rediffusion weatherman (Daily Telegraph)
  • Tommy Vance (Died 6 March) – DJ
  • George Atkinson (Died 3 March) – Invented concept of home videotape rentals
  • Stan Richards (Died 11 February) – Actor, Emmerdale Farm
  • Kate Peyton (Murdered 9 February) – BBC producer (BBC News)
  • George Herman (Died 8 February) – Meet The Press anchor (MSNBC)
  • Bob McAdorey (Died 5 February) – Canadian television and radio presenter
  • Ossie Davis (Died 4 February) – Actor and activist (The History Makers)
  • Ivan Noble (Died 31 January) – BBC journalist (

    BBC News)

  • Bill Shadel (Died 29 January) – CBS Radio and ABC Television anchor (

    JFK Library)

  • Johnny Carson (Died 23 January) – Talk show host johnnycarson.com)
  • Jan Nowak-Jeziorański (Died 20 January) – Head of Radio Free Europe for Poland (wprost.pl in Polish)
  • Jacqueline Joubert (Died 8 January) – One of the original RTF TV presenters (evene.fr in French
  • Humphrey Carpenter (Died 4 January) – Biographer, Radio 3 historian and children’s author
  • Cyril Fletcher (Died 1 January) – That’s Life