November 13, 2006

Behind the scenes at 18 Doughty Street

I’m not going to tell you what 18 Doughty Street is. You either know already, or you can listen to my handy audio guide at the bottom of this entry! But last Wednesday I went behind-the-scenes at the world’s first online political TV channel, spoke to the people who created it, and ended up on air myself.

David Davis MP, being interviewed for 18 Doughty Street

18 Doughty Street is run by Iain Dale – one of Britain’s top bloggers and a member of the Conservative’s “A-List” of candidates for the next election. There’s around ten other people who seem to be full-time, and some others who mill around. I’m not entirely sure what they do, other than file expenses claims (maybe they’re all due in on Wednesdays).

“Other programmes have been pushed towards the edges…”

From lunchtime onwards they sort out the guests for that evening’s broadcast and decide on what stories they want to cover. While the channel began life with a large amount of variety, some of this has been sidelined in recent weeks and the schedule is based more firmly on studio discussion, with other programmes pushed towards the edges. I think this is a bit of a shame, but Iain and Co prefer the live formats. I think they’re planning a night of programming all about Gordon Brown’s Autumn budget statement, which seems like it could be overkill on what is essentially a dull subject.

The set of 18 Doughty Street - smaller than it looks!

Something which I felt was lacking from the proceedings was a Producer. Unless I’m mistaken there’s no-one (outside of the technical people) with any previous experience in television, and it shows. The hierarchy seems to end with Iain at the top, but he’d probably admit to not knowing much about putting together a TV show. I think some of the investment (for there is plenty of money here) should have gone on getting in a pro, who could control the process of making TV, as well as keeping an eye on the bank balance.

The gallery at 18 Doughty Street

The outfit does feel very professional though – they have seven or eight High-Definition cameras, not that they’re very useful when broadcasting online, and a freshly-painted front office.

“Phones are picked up with nervous excitement…”

The office is alive with political gossip. MPs are on the phone questioning the station’s stance on one issue or another, and the computer screensavers couldn’t be much more political if they tried. Phones are picked up with nervous excitement, although in one tragic incident, someone found it was a wrong number.

One of the presenters, Rena Valeh tells me it’s a constant battle to get more left-wing presenters on the channel. I’m given the impression that the Conservatives in charge would be happy if the socialists were banned altogether. As it is, they’re allowed on in order to ridicule their beliefs.

On the show with me is Simon Clark, a good speaker from Forest (the pro-smoking pressure group, funded by… yep, the tobacco industry), Jonathan Sheppard of Tory Radio and Barckley Sumner, the Deputy Editor of Tribune. I’d say the guests were weighted strongly in favour of the Right. While the numbers might be even, it seems more effort goes into getting the right-wingers than the lefties.

“Not for the first time, Ann Widdecombe caused a peak…”

And to the question of viewers? Well there’s a few jokes about how they’re getting lots of media interest but fewer viewers, and I tease out of them that no programme has had more than 10,000 viewers. Probably not for the first time, Ann Widdecombe caused the peak. I don’t think they know exact numbers, but I’d guess from viewer feedback they’re getting somewhere in the low hundreds a night, which isn’t much more than my blog.

But theirs is a bold and forward-thinking attempt to talk about politics without fear of talking over people’s heads. Soon they will have more user-generated content – I’d say the sooner, the better – with contributors ranging from the man on the street to the man in the Shadow Cabinet. They’re honest about their intentions, and I think they will open the door to imitators, so long as investment can be found.

In the short interview below, I ask Iain Dale and one of the other presenters, Donal Blaney, what the channel’s all about and what impact it might be having. My impression is that while its impact on politics may be small, especially as it is so partisan, its impact on broadcasting could be profound and may well outlast the channel itself.

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