Swallowing your pride 

13 January 2010 tbs.pm/1119

BBC admits it went too far in U2 tie-up

On the surface this just appears to be yet another complaint from the commercial media sector (this time, the RadioCentre) along the lines of “How dare the BBC devote time, publicity and resources to a significant musical event”, and soon to be followed no doubt by more complaints about the current promotion of Chris Evans’ Radio 2 breakfast show.

(Radio presenter and station owner Steve Penk has already complained about this, therefore expect more of the same imminently.)

Granted that a decision to directly equate the BBC with the group in question – namely, using the slogan “U2=BBC” – may have been a trifle too enthusiastic all things considered, although presumably this marketing ploy was aimed at the section of the UK population for whom this would have a moderately significant meaning.

There are two things that are causes for concern in relation to the BBC’s handling of the U2 album launch and associated concert, and they reflect both sides of the argument as to whether or not the event(s) were given undue prominence in relation to their actual worth.

Firstly there’s the whole (and rather controversial) issue of BBC management strategy in relation to the creation and promotion of major ‘events’ as a means of creating publicity for broadcasts (hence supposedly justifying the licence fee); saturation coverage can be most offputting for anyone who is ambivalent about the event in question.

(Another example of a recent “major event” was the Christmas and New Year Doctor Who specials, which had David Tennant also appearing in everything from QI to Never Mind the Buzzcocks and most things inbetween as well as all of the idents.)

These hyped events can turn out to be anticlimatic if expectations are too great, and such high concept promotions can end up having an opposite effect if pushed to near-saturation level; attempting to shout the loudest can annoy both viewers and commercial competitors (whether actually justified or otherwise).

And annoying the commercial competition (along with a reasonable proportion of BBC viewers and listeners) is the very last strategy that the BBC needs to adopt at this point in time.

The second point relates to whether or not the BBC should enthusiastically get behind a specific event with a commercial subtext such as a U2 album launch, but it has to be said that the BBC already broadcasts sporting events (darts, Formula 1) together with other programmes that contain obvious references to commercial entities (eg. The X Factor).

So, apart from obvious differences such as the nature of the entertainment in question, just how different is U2 from a commercial sporting event such as Formula 1? Both stand to make significant amounts of money from the prominence of their product(s) and both manage to entertain a fair number of people.

Perhaps it’s about time for the BBC to further enforce prominence rules that already apply to commercial sporting events across the rest of its output, which would in turn cut down on the free plugs given to programmes broadcast on commercial channels.

The commercial media sector would undoubtedly be very upset as a consequence, but they wouldn’t be in a position to complain about such a strategy if they insist on complaining each time the BBC heavily promotes a specific event, whether it be cars going round a circuit or an album launch and associated outdoor concert.