Could the stars be about to align in Stockholm?

The new year and 2016 will mark the end of much for the BBC. With a new deal being struck with the government, it is likely to be another turbulent year for an organisation creaking under its own weight, a majority Conservative government that has never been the Corporation’s main friend and as a broadcaster trying to make its own way in the modern world. Broadcasting has certainly changed dramatically since the BBC was formed and as it rationalises its own service, the British Broadcasting Corporation requires a new trademark, a new stamp, a new brand for itself in the 21st century as it heads towards 2020.

The BBC
The BBC is changing, its role is changing and its approach to entertainment could be about to change too.

Overcoming the scandals, the crises and the financial restraint is costing the BBC – in truth even its product may seem under threat. It must straddle the competition of on-demand drama by moving more of its services online and perhaps lose control over its sellable commercial assets in doing so. Its offering for children too seems slow to have adapted to the vast range of services available for young parents on Netflix and others, as well as acting too late in moving its teenage offerings digital, under the pressure of effective public lobbying which delayed many of the BBC’s decisions, even though it will finally do so with the slim-lining of BBC3. It has lost much government funding to deliver grants for the arts on the ground as part of its talent spotting and supporting work. It too has to cope with defining its public service role that it is twisting and turning into digital training with a focus on young people, but is perhaps being beaten fair and square by Channel 4 in terms of looking like a true public service thought-provoking, educational broadcaster. In truth its offer is also looking increasingly dated, scrapping what should be quite successful new shows, which also wouldn’t look out of place on Channel 4 and catering yet increasingly for its haul of free license fee holders which swallows much of its funding.

“Overcoming the scandals, the crises and the financial restraint is costing the BBC”

The Voice
The BBC is losing some of its biggest audience pullers. Perhaps there is now room for the BBC to evaluate its approach to big entertainment.
Top Gear
The BBC has the big names, it has the big brands. If Eurovision is one it is retaining, why not put it to full effect for the first time in a while?

“What may seem like a broadcaster losing it’s way, is one indeed finding and finally beginning to define and act like it.”

But for all the challenges it faces, the Corporation itself still rules a commanding roost for the consumption of radio, news, comedy and entertainment.

And by the end of 2016, that may well be all the BBC has to offer as part of its terrestrial and ordinary deal. A slimmer, funnier and reliable state broadcaster with the sole aim of informing the public of the latest news and entertaining them. No more teaching kids to code – outsource that elsewhere. No more particularly radical ideas – give more license fee funding to Channel 4 to distribute to small British production firms. Don’t buy in expensive dramas from abroad – leave that to Netflix. End the expensive hoarding of sport in which it cannot compete using taxpayer funds. Instead splash out on big national events; award ceremonies, Sports Personality of the Year, extend the BBC’s lead on Saturday night entertainment, hire the biggest names and keep them. The brand of the BBC as the home of television and radio – family television and music – the only station you put on in the car and the first station you turn on back at home.

The changing face of a national broadcaster in a more austere nation. Perhaps then all these challenges and realities reflects a BBC that is changing before our eyes. Indeed what may seem like a broadcaster losing it’s way, is one indeed finding and finally beginning to define and act like it.

BBC Sport
The BBC is losing its sporting prowess which it will replace with entertainment.

“If they are in the business of entertainment then the BBC may just want to consider hosting the biggest entertainment show in the world.”

2016 marks the turning point for many of these changes; the first visible outing for a new BBC vision. Not necessarily just the words on Tony Hall’s lips – but the decisions and positions of an organisation which has now lost it’s sporting prowess and has been tapered, clipped, by government; Formula 1 and even the Olympics pretty much off-loaded, the uncompetitive bid to rid itself of its expensive and slow growing The Voice to ITV Studios. What then does the BBC do to fill this gap and to make its statement of intent?

It may for one just want to consider hosting the biggest entertainment show in the world.

The BBC’s ill fated relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest however has throughout the ages been full of both honour and glory as well as just pure, dire embarrassment. Having previously laid out my case for the BBC to recognise events like Eurovision as enterprising and entrepreneurial money making opportunities for a smart and adventurous broadcaster, even I recognise that some five years on, this ground is perhaps now lost. Not half due to the strategy of Jon Ola Sand and the European Broadcasting Union to move Eurovision’s brand firmly into the entertainment arena – playing on headlines with the introduction of Australia, SVT’s modernisation, a more Western focus and with the help of a now globally famous winner like Conchita. The drive of the contests’ owners is higher viewing figures in new markets, for sure. They are ruthlessly executing their strategy together with Sweden’s SVT who are extending their domination at the heart of the contest.

Conchita Wurst
Eurovision is changing for good, and the EBU’s new strategy should help convince BBC bosses that cheap European TV doesn’t have to mean trash to get viewers on side.

They have also quietly moved aside and moved on those who seem to exercise authority within their own right – ending with the sacking of the Executive Supervisor of the Junior edition of the contest – despite taking the show from strength to strength in what has been a staggering professionalisation of the show and producing phenomenal recent winners.

“Eurovision’s own austerity drive is over, the spectacle and scale of the contest is only likely to again grow, particularly should Russia secure its likely second win in the next few years”

Those of us therefore arguing for the further ‘musiciasation’ of the show itself it seems are on a losing battle. And therefore eyeing an entrepreneurial focus on chart sales and generating income is now perhaps not the way our BBC is ever going to engage in the contest that is now on a different path itself. Its own austerity drive over, the spectacle and scale of the contest is only likely to again grow, particularly should Russia secure its likely second win in the next few years or Sweden equal Ireland’s 7th victory.

The alternative back in the UK of course was always seen as playing on exactly some of these cards being played by the EBU under Ola Sand. Entertainment. Fraser Nelson has long been a proponent of offloading the contest in the UK to a broadcaster like ITV that ‘gets’ entertainment. However in the last few years we have seen that in fact the BBC does ‘get’ entertainment – pulling in millions more than ITV into Strictly and Bake Off. Family TV is where it is. It just misjudges that where Eurovision is concerned, entertainment has no need to be trashy or lazy.

Eurovision's 60th anniversary
A 60 year love hate relationship ended in celebrating the show with the BBC. Perhaps BBC bosses know the return on their investment could be worthwhile?
Engelbert in Baku
Gone are the days of the internal selection.

For the BBC; to be in play with the EBU’s strategy and to have a chance of wrestling the contest from Scandinavia’s grip, it would mean them coming up with an entry that could, indeed, win the thing. So ditching its relatively unimpressive ratings driving strategy of old timers who could no longer sing was welcome and a lesson in combatting the broadcasters laziness to the contest itself. Now the BBC has hopefully also learned the ‘trashy’ lesson; it doesn’t work.

The horrific outing of ‘Electro Velvet’ in Vienna was enough to doubt the BBC in its entirety. But we, and its own producers, have hopefully seen the message from Molly in Copenhagen, and perhaps earlier from Jade in Moscow, that it can do better when it tries. Though it was perhaps always to be doomed in 2014 with a last position slot in the now producer controlled running order and Molly’s nerves. But it still rings true; entertainment, music, the contest can be fun – particularly when we are good. If the BBC can honestly say it has done its best and drives ratings on an expected return to form, it may be on to a winner.

But why Eurovision?

Firstly the BBC know how to put on a show. The hosting of the 60th anniversary event and putting it on BBC One, in prime time, was perhaps a display of its confidence in growing Eurovision as part of its core offering. The BBC will have fended off other European broadcasters for the rights – so it does show progress, having spurned 2005, and some of its dodgy decisions, including hiring Pete Waterman in 2010.

Secondly, the rights to the main show itself would become an instant money-raiser for the Corporation, which faces further budget savings.  The BBC is still considered to be one of the last broadcasters to make a pure profit hosting the contest, and even with the growth of the contest itself into a week long event, it certainly could break even; with only venue costs being a real driver for a large broadcaster like the BBC and its technical expertise. So if the BBC is in the game of cheap but strong performing entertainment television – what better way than hosting Eurovision itself in 2017 to fill the BBC’s growing profile gap, keep the punters happy and get a return on its output, the promise of higher figures and a glitzy outing for its most expensive hosts and stars.

“The BBC know how to put on a show”

Stockholm
Stockholm’s Globe Arena shines in the spring sunlight. Perhaps Manchester, London, Belfast or Cardiff should be preparing for 2017.

We will have to wait and see what the Beeb issue as their ticket to Stockholm. But if we are to ever have confidence, perhaps it may well be the year that the BBC needs the contest more than it ever has done that may shock it into seizing the moment. The Eurovision brand, its name and its game may just mean that the stars may align for the UK in Stockholm.

That’s if the BBC knows what it’s doing of course…

Where are you now?

Last night’s ‘Eurovision’s Greatest Hits’ celebration of 60 years of the Eurovision Song Contest portrayed the contest in the only way the BBC knows how to. The camp, the glitz and the glam were all out to mark this special anniversary.

This was the second big anniversary celebration of the contest after a similar affair back in 2005. Back then ‘Congratulations’, produced to mark the 50th anniversary, was also due to be a BBC venture, although it ended up in the hands of DR, the Danish broadcaster, who had proven itself a friend of the EBU, albeit a slightly dysfunctional Eurovision host with both the contest in 2001 and supporting the EBU to launch Junior Eurovision. But despite the different hosts, both anniversary shows were produced in exactly the same way – and both recognised the same songs, the same eras, the same contest. But surely there’s more to wheeling out Fly On The Wings Of Love, Brotherhood of Man and Johnny Logan every ten years? Continue reading “Where are you now?”

Britain Bucked the Challenge

If people voted UKIP because the BBC have suddenly become a vote winning machine then we should all just pack up and go home right now. But they didn’t. I’ve openly criticised Labour in the last few days because I know that we can win – we have to win. If we’re not in politics to win and to lead the country then again, we should all just pack up and go home. And I think we want to win but I’m not sure we want to lead. Because in the last few days we’ve found it too easy to turn around and blame the BBC for this week’s results than ourselves. That isn’t honesty, that’s excuses. And it’s excuses that got us into this mess and not what will get us out.

“As if Nigel Farage is seen as the answer to a lack of faith in politics”

Continue reading “Britain Bucked the Challenge”

Make Your Mind Up Time

As Copenhagen officially becomes the host city of the 59th Eurovision Song Contest, somewhere back in London, or perhaps now in Salford, someone is no doubt scrambling to put together a couple of press releases and a conference to unveil who will be flying the flag for the United Kingdom in the Danish capital – but we all know, no matter who the artist is, the BBC just don’t get it anymore. There’s just no vision or strategy at the heart of the public broadcaster about how big ticket events could inspire the next generation of talent.

As the contest heads towards its 60th birthday – it’s time for the BBC to make their mind up about the future of the contest in the UK. Fans will tell you a big multi-arena national final is the solution to a Eurovision renaissance. I’m not so sure.

lena-eurovision

There’s an artist who spent 6 weeks at number 1 in their country. Their winning single went 9 times platinum, they achieved 15 consecutive weeks in the UK chart alone and sold 2 million copies worldwide. They were number 1 in no less than 19 countries, signed to a major label and the track still gets radio play across Europe. And if you asked people what TV show they reckon this artist came from, the top answer would be somewhere between X Factor or American Idol. Well – something devised by Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller anyway.

But they’d all be wrong. Because nah – it’s not Syco. It’s Eurovision.

Loreen and ‘Euphoria’ – without any question the biggest Eurovision hit for decades, to be precise. Four million people watched the programme that chose her to represent  Sweden back in 2012 – a powerhouse of young talent, making the ABBA glory days seem a very distant memory. Not only once again in love with the Eurovision Song Contest itself, but even more in love with its national selection. An annual star studded line up with a mix of fresh talent, big artists with huge song writers and most importantly of all – primetime viewing for the biggest record labels in the business.

“Lena went double platinum in 2010 when she charted at number one in six countries, topped Billboard’s European Top 100 and ‘Satellite’ was the second biggest download release in her home country”

But it’s not just in Scandinavia that the Eurovision takeover of the European charts has been forged. Lena went double platinum in 2010 when she charted at number one in six countries, topped Billboard’s European Top 100 and ‘Satellite’ was the second biggest download release in her home country just behind – Lady Gaga. Germany’s broadcaster and production company Brainpool even set up a joint record label to launch her single and after a decade of disaster and failure, a vision and a new idea of what Eurovision was, took a country by storm . They won breaking conventional wisdom – and with what was, at the time, the most radio friendly track to win the contest since ‘Fly on the Wings of Love’ in 2000.

Yet it’s now 17 years ago that Britain last managed to capture the Eurovision title. And with the opportunity of an annual global audience of 150 million viewers, the BBC has continually given us three minutes of enduring an international embarrassment. Jemini, Josh Dubovie to name just two, and let’s not even get started on the ‘retro’ years with Bonnie Tyler and Engelbert Humperdinck. Year after year, disappointment after disappointment. Failure. It makes bad TV, everyone starts blaming each other and the viewers just switch off.

And it’s this that gets me annoyed.. The simple fact is – our national broadcasters just don’t know how to make good entertainment TV anymore. From drama on Channel 4 purchased via Israel and the United States, through to the BBC’s bidding war and disastrous launch of off-the-shelf format ‘The Voice’ – viewers are turning off their box and firing up their iPad to watch their pre-downloaded entire series of HBO and Netflix dramas they can watch on the train. And when ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ is your best performing format you need to take a long hard look in the mirror, BBC. Because there’s no direction, no vision, no understanding. It’s so uninspiring and unimaginative – and it’s a damning indictment of a national broadcaster struggling to see, let alone find, its place in the 21st century.

Driving new talent should be – and must be – at the heart of our public service broadcasting. And I don’t just mean young people – I mean young talent.

People who hold such potential, amazing at what they do and who could be immensely successful, given half the chance. Yet in the UK with arts funds and grants being cut off, more and more kids are growing up with the idea that the arts, music and culture is a nice fluffy idea- but you should really just get a real job and quit mucking about.

We’re cutting off opportunity for thousands of people looking for their big break – and they are working hard every day for it. They’re spending their own money just  trying to get within earshot of a major record label. They’re aspiring entrepreneurs – using social media and the internet to market themselves and share their love for what they do. A generation of creative, inspiring and genuinely exciting people. Written off and told to move on.

Young artists who would literally kill for three minutes to be on that stage in Riga, Oslo, Malmo or Baku. Songwriters who deserve a chance and artists who just need their big break. And yet the BBC sits there and puts two fingers up in their face.

Because, the corporation has completely lost its way with the song contest it used to be so good at. It was somewhat blindsided by the introduction of public voting and a much more, active, younger audience and completely failed to respond to the vast expansion of the contest eastwards. It couldn’t read the shift from a couple of thousand people sat in dickie-bow-ties and suits watching a mild mannered light entertainment singing competition, to the transformed contest of vast arenas with over 20,000 screaming fans. Dazed and confused by a generation turning to Pop Idol, Popstars and X Factor – the BBC sunk into its comfort zone, writing Eurovision off as cheap easy TV. Its potential not just untapped – but completely rebranded as a waste of time. Niche. Insignificant. A bit of a laugh.

And if the BBC just keeps catering for a generation gone by or believes its only mission is to win just to justify its participation – then I hope it does all a favour and just runs it on BBC3 with lower viewing figures. So go on telling viewers that 90% of entries are a ‘joke’, just because you don’t want to take the effort sharing European culture- music, traditions and values. Make fun when Timbaland writes an entry for Russia and call it ‘cheating’. Trash it all – make it seem like we can never win because we’re too classy or keep a brave face and say how nice the artist is – even when their performance resembled a car crash. Because you’re right, nobody really cares and you won’t be held to account for it.

And so I guess after 2 years of the golden oldies, the BBC will attempt to react to the criticism of another disaster by turning to a younger artist for 2014 – another internal selection of a ‘big name’ because apparently it means good ratings. I highly doubt it will take the option to actually turn back the tide on the cynicism that it started well over 10 years ago. A quick spray job perhaps – but no real desire or sense of mission to make something of the opportunity that Eurovision presents.

To me it’s no surprise that the UK’s best results, and only highlights so far this millennium, have both been ballads sung by young women found through TV talent shows. Jessica Garlick came to the attention of the public initially in Pop Idol – the show that shot Will Young and Gareth Gates to fame way back when in the early 2000s. Jessica secured a joint 3rd place in Tallinn. Then, a 7 year wait for another top 5 placing – embracing its own comfort show, the BBC signed up Lord Lloyd Webber and we (re)discovered Jade.

“We need a public service broadcaster based on the values of social enterprise – a BBC that is imaginative and innovative”

But despite providing us with some decent results, we don’t need the blood thirsty cut throat win or lose attitude of the Cowell empire. We need a public service broadcaster embracing new values of social enterprise – a BBC that is imaginative and innovative – but one that also sees there are lessons to learn from Syco’s impressive discovery of untapped talent, which is now finding its way into Eurovision through other countries. No other broadcaster in the UK that is part of the EBU can learn both these lessons.

And if you’re looking for the last chart success for the UK, you have to go back to 1996 when Gina G was at the top of the charts. Remaining the UK’s most successful commercial entry in 18 years, ‘Ooh Aah… Just a little bit’ came 8th at Eurovision. Does it matter? A Grammy Award nominated hit that found its way to the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. We proved back in 1996 that you don’t need to win Eurovision to showcase brilliant talent and reap the rewards.

So BBC, why not use money saved in axing the national final back in 2011 to contribute to setting up and launching a national new talent programme. Going out to find and support outstanding new artists and songwriters with reams of untapped potential. In partnership with record labels offering a network of short-term, paid, internships and apprenticeships across the music and TV industry – a campaign built around inspiring people to go out and end that 18 year wait for a Eurovision Number 1, rather than ‘Believing in Bonnie’ to bring us home the prize of hosting the €30 million show.

Not only discovering new musical talent, but forming new ideas about the future of broadcasting in the UK and across Europe. An innovative new on-screen interactive national final and coverage from the finals that makes the most of tablets and phones, because fans need to stop pretending that we need 5 semi-finals costing millions in arenas across the UK. But instead a new way of engaging millions of viewers and fans that Eurovision has in the UK, at the cutting edge of entertainment TV.

Because we need a BBC that finally re-discovers a purpose in Eurovision. A guaranteed three minutes in front of 150 million people, not just the biggest event of its kind but a platform for exciting and brilliant new talent.

The UK can once again get back to doing what we do best – racking up record sales, exporting new music, promoting success and delivering quality entertainment. But most of all seeing a new opportunity, ploughing millions back into arts funding. A new approach that can show the UK can truly lead the way in setting a new direction for the contest that is facing its own difficult transition as broadcasters seek to cut costs and participation levels fall. Eurovision’s rebrand in the UK starts at home, not with a win in Copenhagen. And Eurovision’s future will be secure when broadcasters force the EBU to think outside the box.

We shouldn’t settle for anything less than an innovative and inspiring public broadcaster that doesn’t just count up the license fee pennies, but sees them as an investment in the future – discovering the next generation of talent. As Europe’s biggest TV show heads towards its 60th year – it’s time for the BBC, and the EBU, to take a look around and launch a proper fightback for the contest, we love and loathe, to be at the heart of the music industry and new talent for another 60 years ahead. It’s make your mind up time.