Tag Archives: Media & Marketing

Five lessons from the Apprentices’ misadventures in media – @bbcapprentice

coveredWe cringed our way through another hour of entertaining, ridiculous television last night, having missed the scrap episode. Spoilers herein; alongside some of the prime examples of the Apprentice’s idiocy this week (always easier to give and assess from the outside, I know, but that’s my privilege as a member of the license-fee paying public):

  1. Always listen to to t’focus group. That’s why you do them. I think they get too much of an edge, here, to be honest – the focus groups are found for them and they’re told to go. Those idiots didn’t learn it last time (well, the Every Dog example), and didn’t do it this time. Raise the tone does not equal tits and a briefcase. Don’t patronise? Doesn’t translate to a magazine called ‘Hip Replacement’ with features on how to make a phone call. The banter between Lord Sugar and Nick on Hip Replacement’s content was brilliant.
  2. Puns do not translate well. Glenn really loved puns and plays on words too much – hence leaping all over ‘Hip Replacement’ as he did over his own ‘Catsize’ two weeks before. Idiot. — Don’t get me wrong, though, I love a good pun. Just not in any context where I plan to sell anything, except maybe to a tabloid newspaper.
  3. The balance between decision by committee and ridiculous high-handed authoritarian idiocy is apparently a fine one. Both teams struggled with inadequate leadership this week for opposite reasons; Natasha’s desire to take the credit when she thought they were on the up and her determination to do a lads mag in a crowded market that’s been evolving for the last 15 years – and on the opposing front, Jim looking to dissipate the responsibility for all major decisions for everyone.
  4. Listen to the quiet voice. I’m really not a fan of Susan – I think she’s probably one of the lesser bulbs on the programme – but she was flatly ignored by her team. Lots of loud, vocal people agreeing loudly with each other makes it hard for the quiet insight to creep through – I think its as much the responsibility of the leader as it is of the team member to acknowledge the perspectives of the team.
  5. Rate cards are a polite fiction. No-one pays the rate – I’ve seen discounts in excess of 90% off rate card rates on established magazines, never mind a start-up, and I’m in PR! The ‘offers’ they got from the media buyers were polite lies – no responsible media buyer would have put money into either of those publications without some very convincing demonstrations that they could hit some kind of sensible demographic. A free magazine called ‘Hip Replacement’ given out to 60+ people in the street? No wonder a couple of them actually laughed them out of the pitch.

A bonus lesson: ‘agreeance’ is not a word. Jim is an idiot, and should have been out. Don’t get me wrong – they’re all idiots – but Jim’s silver-tongued, mind-numbingly inept handling of the chief role won him the big wooden finger point this week.

Amanda asked why they hugged after the firing – but after this week’s boardroom backstabbery and the fact two of them have to go back and work on the next task together, it seemed like a necessary step. Alan Sugar’s boardroom is not an easy place to be, that last time.

Sidebar: in an act of genuine entrepreneurship, some clever people are auctioning off the magazines they produced in the show. Copies of both ‘Covered’ and ‘HIP replacement’ are currently running at £56 and counting on eBay…

When does product placement annoy, when does it give you joy?


I was watching Chuck the other day and our favourite spies dropped in a reference to Microsoft’s cloud storage service – Skydrive. The reference jarred for any number of reasons: first, Skydrive?  Everyone knows Chuck would use Dropbox if given the choice . Second, they’re the CIA – they use a public cloud service? Didn’t they get the memo on the Federal Community Cloud?

Geekiness aside, I think the principle objection I had was one of subtlety; this is one of many clumsy modern references to sponsor products. Chuck also takes a chunk of cash from Subway, resulting in (amongst other people) the massively chubby store manager/assistant store manager, "Big Mike" chowing down on the latest sandwich chain from the fast (or is it fresh?) food chain (odd choice there, guys, after your years of working with Jared). I actually quite like Chuck’s veiled references to Alienware – at least I think that all the computers that Orion left for the family Bartowski were Alienware machines – because they allude to the awesomeness without writing it ‘on the nose’ – as Robert McKee would have otherwise complained (see commandment 9).

I’m probably more forgiving – and more aware – of product placement than most, but the ‘on the nose’ model of product placement always winds me up slightly. Nokia’s presence in the Star Trek reboot  for example – whilst the product wasn’t mentioned, the 23rd Century Nokia ringtone was just annoying. Ditto for the Bond films – every product is shot as lasciviously as they film Daniel Craig’s pectoral muscles.

I think product placement has so much more power when its incidental – and, in the case of the BBC, accidental (the beeb is not allowed to do sponsored product placement, despite the relaxing of that law for commercial TV in the UK). Although, that obviously cuts both ways – when I noticed Evil Janine from Eastenders using an Android phone last night it made me question the goodness of Google (not really, but, y’know)…

That said; if I used the products in question (if had had been Evernote or Dropbox) would I have been more forgiving? That glint of recognition that makes me feel validated in my choice of product or service? Perhaps. But then this isn’t an exercise in customer acquisition, its one of retention…

So my top tips on product placement, from a consumer’s perspective:

  1. Subtlety wins out over blatant plugs
  2. Brand relevance! How exactly do you want to position the product/service
  3. Minimise the cringe factor
  4. Context is vital. If it jars with the characters/plot of the show, fans will resent you instead of admire you
  5. It’s probably more about validating your existing customers and maybe – subliminally (although that’s definitely not allowed) influencing prospective customers – than about wholesale customer acquisition.

What do other people think? Would you be more likely to desire/buy a product if your favourite character on your favourite show was using it? Or would it only work if you already had it?

Metro front pages–tech is so mainstream

I love technology as much as the next man – my wife would say considerably more than the next man – but I’ve still been moderately baffled by the editorial decisions that planted not one, but two tech stories on the front page of Metro in recent weeks.

First – the Twitpic story (which seems to have been taken off the Metro website but is still visible in the search). In brief: Twitpic changed its terms of service so that it owned the rights to the pictures its users uploaded. Twitpic is a photo service built to work with Twitter. During the course of the day, as Chris charted so well, Twitpic redacted its changes and reverted to the original ToS. All sorts of bits have since emerged, including a letter Tom received from the Twitpic founders stating that the rights to all photos would be available through a specific photo agency (now gone from Twitpic?). So I totally agree there’s an interesting story here. BUT… front page? Twitter is a service used by a growing minority, but still a minority (I don’t believe the stories that say it has hit the mainstream in any meaningful way)… and Twitpic is used by a subset of those users. Doesn’t strike me as front page news by any stretch of the imagination. Still, let’s call it a slow news day.

Second: The dramatic front page: “Android phones ‘all leak secrets'” – later retconned/subedited on the web to “Android phones almost all vulnerable to hackers“  – I mean whoah. That’s one heck of a front page. PC Pro blogs explaining why people shouldn’t be concerned (I actually think PC Pro’s view of a world where people know they should not connect to an unsecured wifi network is more than a little naive) – but seriously, this is a) a story that affects a relatively small number of people (despite Android’s increasing user base) and b) in no way front page news. Seriously! If, every time Microsoft patched a flaw on Windows (and there have been more serious and more easily exploited vulnerabilities discovered on Windows XP, I’m sure of it) –> well then, we’d have a front page a month that would at least fit the criterion of relevance to the readership, if not one of the slightest bit of interest.

That said: the superinjunctions story (yeah, that one) did bring Twitter to the focus for the whole country, so those front pages – totally make sense. No confusion there.

On the whole, however, a little confused as to what the Metro editor was thinking here, and would love to know if its a tech agenda, a sense that it’s sexy to pick on web 2.0 companies in a Daily-Mail-sort-of-way, or if that really is how they see their readership; Smartphone wielding, picture sharing, Daily-Mail reading digital natives. Which, looking at the history of front pages on Metro that come up in Google images, might make sense: they feature evem more tech stories including £3 Amazon MP3 albums, “Planet Facebook” and an Android scare story from earlier this year.

Damn, tech is so mainstream.

Interview with Outcasts’ creator, Ben Richards

Further to all the discussion that happened on this blog on BBC’s Outcasts, show creator Ben Richards kindly agreed to take some questions from me (and various fans who submitted them online). He’s had various commitments holding him up and sends apologies for the delay, but below we have his views on the cancellation, the way the BBC handled it, the audience reaction, sci-fi and its fanbase, the show scheduling and more. Hope you find it enlightening – was v. interesting reading for me.

The “big news” is that Ben’s in discussions with Kudos on a way to resolve the series in a different format! More below.

If you want a quick recap of all the discussion that’s happened here, you can read my other posts on Outcasts here to understand where I came from with most of the questions:

New Sci-Fi – Outcasts
Outcasts – mid-season view
Will there be an Outcasts series 2
How to protest the Outcasts cancellation

…and more generally on the Beeb:
Why do ratings matter for the BBC?
Is the BBC good value for money?

Now, to the interview!

The show was written for a “mainstream” audience but didn’t get mainstream ratings. What would these have looked like and how far off were you?
We would probably have been OK if the unofficial overnights had stayed between 4 and 5 m but there is no hard and fast rule. Once we dropped into the low 3s though I knew we were in trouble.

Given the scheduling issues, why weren’t the iPlayer ratings taken into consideration when evaluating the show for renewal (or did it not make a difference?) – the show was cancelled before the show was taken off iPlayer and if the traffic and comments on my blog were any reflection people were watching long after the finale aired.
Don’t know the answer to this as I don’t know how they calculate iPlayer.

Given the BBC funding/license fee issues, and the length of production cycles, was the writing on the wall for a big budget series like this before you even went on the air?
I think the problems were more to do with the fact that it was an expensive show that could only find a niche audience and was therefore not right for 9pm BBC1. In many ways I wonder whether any serious sci-fi show can survive in that kind of primetime slot on a mainstream channel. Certainly, many of the big sci-fi shows have very low audiences but they are also expensive. In general though there are many lessons from Outcasts for ambitious dramas that seek to try something new and challenging. Some of these lessons may be a little scary and I really hope that the experience doesn’t discourage people from trying. Although I would add that very few series of this type will ever “catch” in their first episode and if I had one plea as a result of this it is for a little more patience, especially from those who bemoan the presence of too much procedural drama on TV. Sci-fi in particular often takes a little time to establish its place, bed in its characters, develop its themes etc. Many sci-fi shows really get into their stride in Series 2 or even 3. I genuinely believe that a second series of Outcasts would have made it a seminal TV show. I really do believe that and it saddens me that certain people were so anxious to take a gleeful hammer to it as soon as it took its first steps. But I’m also glad there were also many critics and internet sites who saw that and spoke out in its defence. For example, critics like Ian Wylie and sites like Den of Geek and Outpost Skaro were a massive support to us and I’ll always be thankful to them for it.

What was the show’s budget? (Appreciate this one might not be public domain)
Genuinely don’t know. It involved a lot of co-production.

When you conceived the series, did you plan it as a multi-season show (it feels like you were planning 2-3 series ahead)? How did the writing planning/structure work?
Yes it was supposed to be a slow-burner with stories that would span series. We had much more time to plan Series 2 and had some great character and story developments. And while I didn’t especially agree with some of the criticisms of the show with regard to pacing we had obviously learned some lessons from Series 1 and would have addressed certain issues. We followed a conventional British structure of story conferences involving all the writers and producers rather than the American writers room. This was mainly due to time issues.

How has the fan pressure affected the discussions with the BBC about resolving the plotlines from Outcasts? How many complaints have been received, what has it caused the Beeb to consider? Can I publish that you’re in discussion about some kind of web resolution for the series?
The BBC are certainly aware of the fan disappointment at cancellation but I’m also going to step in and defend the Beeb here because they are under a lot of conflicting pressures and we received a lot of support from them. They wanted the show to work and our BBC execs on the show were nothing but sympathetic and good to work with. They were as disappointed as us that the show hadn’t got a bigger audience although as I say I am beginning to think – especially given the number of people who started watching the show from its first minute – that this low figure was perhaps inevitable.

There were a lot of audience complaints at cancellation – not sure of the exact number but it was very satisfying to me that enough people cared enough to take that trouble. You can certainly publish that we are looking for ways to deal with the unanswered questions in other forms. I have a meeting next week about it and we’re really excited to be carrying it forward.

Was the show promoted enough by the Beeb?
Well I loved the trails and I don’t think more promotion would have changed much. The number who actually started watching the show was around 4.5 million. That’s a very low opening for a mainstream show and I suspect has more to do with the genre than the promotion. What it means though is that you can’t afford to lose any viewers (which almost all shows do) and therefore we knew pretty early on that it would struggle in that slot. We then had the misfortune the second night to be up against the extraordinary juggernaut that was Gypsy Weddings and once we had lost a million viewers on a second outing it was clear that things would be very difficult. Having said that, I was extremely pleased with the way the figures held when our slot was moved to late on Sunday night. To be getting around 1.5 million (which doesn’t include catch-up and i-player) in such a late slot on that day of the week was a testimony to the fact that there was a hardcore of viewers and that the show HAD found an audience (albeit a smaller one than we or the BBC would have liked). And – as we have seen from the response after the end of the show – a passionate one. There has to be a place for shows like Outcasts but I don’t know the answer and it is tricky in today’s climate as you have suggested above.

Who thought the show needed to be 8 1hr episodes (beeb vs kudos vs you vs…)? Had it been 13 43 minute episodes (virtually the same amount of television), do you think it would have helped with the pacing issues, and helped with International syndication/sales? Would that have supported renewal?
Yes I definitely think in retrospect the show would have benefited from shorter episodes. A full hour is standard for BBC1 though. Still, I never thought the pacing would be a big issue as I thought there would be enough interest in the themes we were developing and the emotional stories. Episode 5 was possibly the slowest paced but remains one of my favourite episodes because I think it is lyrical and elegiac and moving. But it could have stood being 45 minutes long as could most of the episodes. Eps 1 and 2 might also have worked better as a 90 minute pilot. I’ve said this before in other interviews but I was the lead writer on Spooks for three series and I know a thing or two about how to pace an episode for action and tension. But this was a different type of show and I do find it interesting that some critics will be incredibly tolerant of different pacing but only when the show in question is American.

What have you learnt about sci-fi / sci-fi fans since working on the show? I read somewhere that you conceived it as a pioneer show and the sci-fi was more or less incidental – yet the fan comments I’ve read kind of make me think that the character of your fans here is probably typical – passionate, absorbed, (somewhat) cerebral people…?
I think that’s a really interesting point. It was conceived as a pioneer show and I didn’t have a big sci-fi background. Even as a viewer I was not a great sci-fi addict although I would always put Bladerunner in my top five favourite films. We’ll put aside whether this was a good or bad thing but I never started with the idea of making a sci-fi series but of making a show about humans trying to start again. Another planet just seemed the best way of doing this and was in line with Hawking’s quote about the only way humanity might survive is in “reaching for the stars”.

When we started there were obviously some sci-fi fans who hated Outcasts because it didn’t have lasers and buggies and uniforms and battles in space etc. This is not to disparage that kind of show but it certainly wasn’t my particular preference or inspiration in any way. But as time went on it was also the sci-fi fraternity who swung most eloquently to our defence because obviously what we were doing was a particular type of sci-fi with a long tradition and I think people started to see that. We were exploring questions of morality and human identity and the possibilities of second chances. There were those who didn’t have the patience to see this though and that’s their right of course, people watch TV for different reasons, and I understand that it wasn’t going to please everybody. But I was glad that those who stuck with it saw what we were trying to do and responded well to it. Many sci-fi oriented internet sites gave us our most positive, thoughtful and considered criticism. And even when they weren’t always praising everything, they at least had the courtesy and respect to engage properly with the show rather than just giving a dismissive sneer or flip putdown. If anything fills me with a kind of existential angst it is that kind of carelessly self-satisfied negativity. I hate it even when it is not directed at me and in any field. I just think it is a form of semi-neurotic bullying and I despise those who choose it as their tone. But I came out of this with a real respect for those sci-fi fans – often derided as geeks and obsessives – who took the trouble to give a balanced and honest appraisal of the show and who appreciated it.

We made choices with Outcasts. We chose not to camp it up, we chose to take our subject seriously. That may have lost us some support I guess but I’m really glad that we did that. I’m a writer who likes humour as well and that perhaps got lost a little along the way but I’m still glad we didn’t go down the road of pastiche and irony and sending up our world. And there’s a significant sector of sci-fi fans who responded very well to that.

Any hints/spoilers as to the nature of the aliens / the fate of Earth you want to share??
I can’t give too much away because we are planning to do something with regards to this. But as I’ve already said the new transporter contains further details from earth and their fate will be linked to that of the host force. The big theme for a Series 2 in whatever form it takes is that of transhumanism – an attempt to create a new species from the Carpathian human stock and the battles to control this process.

With ref to the fan questions, I have answered these mostly but will just add a few general points. The response of those who loved the show has been so brilliant for me and I really want to thank all of those who took the trouble to write and express their views and to campaign for the show. In spite of the difficult first weeks, the growing support for the show – especially on line – was such a relief and has really helped with our plans to answer some of the questions you have in one form or another.

In general the ratings tell us that shows like this will probably never get high enough figures to survive in a primetime position; sci-fi in general struggle with this. Even the most iconic shows tend to have low viewing figures and rely on the passion of their viewers to get them through. Sadly we lost that battle but I’m still intensely proud of what we achieved and grateful to the passionate and eloquent viewers who stayed with us to have their questions only partially answered in Epsiode 8!!! I hope we’ll be able to answer more of them further down the line.

Many thanks Ben for taking the time!

Sarawak wikileaks story and the Malaysian media

So, whilst we were visiting Malaysia what could have been a major media story broke. Activist blog Sarawak Report, which campaigns on environmental issues in Malaysia’s Eastern states, published a wikileaks style dump of data showing supposed “land grabs” – places where the chief minister of the state, amongst others, took land or benefits from the sale/development of land – much of it primary rainforest – for themselves.

If you think of the UK where the Telegraph’s report on ministerial expenses exposed small-scale corruption – duck ponds, travel, houses and the like – this story should have been immense. This is (at least potentially) the systematic destruction of the rainforest for massive personal gain. If the story is libellous, then the campaign sould have been investigated and discredited in the media. At least, that’s what you’d expect.

Instead, the major Malaysian newspapers have been almost completely silent on the story, with the exception of a few luke-warm stories reporting Government investigations into Radio Free Sarawak, a radio station campaigning on the Sarawak Report “allegations” and challenging corruption in the region, championed by Gordon Brown’s sister in law, Clare Rewcastle Brown.

The only outlet to cover the story was (paywall) MalaysiaKini, an online publication with a history of taking on the controversial and a few of whose reporters have paid the price for it – detained under the always-to-be-feared ‘ISA’ – Internal Security Act – which bascially grants the power to the government to do whatever it wants to whoever it wants. Thankfully Malaysian bloggers are now actively covering the story and hopefully awareness will break and something will happen, but somehow I’m doubtful. The papers probably exist in a combination of fear of the ISA and pressure from their political overlords – many of the Malaysian newspapers either are owned by or have strong affiliations with Malaysian political parties. Ref, Wikipedia, which adds this:

The national media are largely controlled by the government and by political parties in the Barisan Nasional/National Front ruling coalition and the opposition has little access to the media. The print media are controlled by the Government through the requirement of obtaining annual publication licences under the Printing and Presses Act. In 2007, a government agency — the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission — issued a directive to all private television and radio stations to refrain from broadcasting speeches made by opposition leaders.

It’s not surprising, as Malaysia persistently does poorly in global press-freedoms surveys, but it is depressing. This is why when I tell people I come from Malaysia, and they say “oh, that’s a beautiful place,” I sigh and say something non-committal. It’s difficult to think of a place as beautiful when its rotten to the core.