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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.


September 12, 2006

iCrisis?

At the weekend, The Observer wrote that the iPod was losing its cool, saying the device was “too common to be cutting edge”.

Well Steve Jobs has hit back in the only way that Apple can: lots of new iPods. And I mean lots.

iPod ShuffleFirst up is the new iPod Shuffle, with 1Gb of memory. It’s that little grey square on the right. Yeah, it’s a lot smaller.

The iPod Nano comes in various new flavours (and up to 8Gb) while the main iPod is 60% brighter and comes as a 30Gb or 80Gb beast.

The prices have all come down as well, which made me think they were making room for a super iPod with full widescreen at around £300-400. But it appears they’re not ready for that yet (although it’s rumoured to be in development).

They’re also got something called iTV (working title, which is useful or they might have some Brits heading for the lawyers), which is going to be a box linking your PC/Mac to your TV. It’s a nice idea, but is hardly cool. If it included a hard drive and worked as a PVR as well, that’d be more like it.

I’m not an iPod fan for the reasons that the Observer mentioned – they’re just too ubiquitous, too simple (no FM radio) and evil when it comes to Digital Rights Management and moving your MP3s from one player to another and back again. There’s a sense that iPods are just a loss-leader, there only to make you spend more money on iTunes, rather than giving you some stuff that you’ll never have to pay for later (like the radio). I went for a Creative Zen Micro instead, and am quite happy with the choice.

But are Apple really in trouble as the Observer says? I don’t think so. Sure, they’re finding it harder to innovate nowadays, and the only changes they’re really making to the hardware has been the size of the hard drive inside it. Sure, you can download movies with iTunes (but only if you’re in America), but that’s software, and software isn’t cool.

iPod NanosThe reason people get so weak at the knees about a possible iPhone or a widescreen iPod is that they’re just such cool products that it’s amazing Apple hasn’t made them already. But I don’t think teasing us for a few more months – or years – is going to hit Apple’s bottom line too much.

Apple’s marketing budget is truly enormous, and Creative have proven – for me at least – that you can have a superior product at a better price, and still not be able to flog it.

But, there’s a development around the corner which might just put the cat among the pigeons, and not surprisingly, it comes from the ‘other’ Silicon Valley mogul. Microsoft’s Zune is out soon, and is expected to do everything an iPod can (and perhaps more, such as serious gaming). With Bill Gates’ billions behind it – and considering the recent success of the Xbox 360 – there’s no knowing how much damage it might do to iPod’s fortunes.


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