News junkies are conservative beasts. Whether it’s radio presenters moving to a different slot (!) or political TV shows being axed and then reincarnated, listeners and viewers tend to be very suspicious of change. They jump to conclusions before the first show has even been transmitted, and seem determined not to like it before they’ve even listened to or watched a single minute. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about, both as a participant in a recent high profile schedule change, but also as a consumer of political media more generally.
When I first saw the news about the changes in political programming, I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly gruntled. Axing the ‘Sunday Politics’, slashing programming on BBC Parliament and cutting weekday coverage from an hour to 45 minutes all seemed like cutting for cutting’s sake. And this was all to achieve cost savings of around £1.7 million. Sounds a lot of money, but I prefer to look at it as the same as Gary Lineker or Chris Evans earn from the BBC. The BBC News & Current Affairs department has been tasked with saving £80 million. The Millbank operation has had to retrench with 8 producers losing their jobs - although the majority were freelancers, I believe. And although I was very sad at the demise of much of BBC Parliament I had to then think to myself: “Do I actually watch it at all?” And the answer was no. Or very rarely.
I did understand the axing of the ‘Sunday Politics’. Sunday morning political TV was very crowded and it always seemed a bit after the Lord Mayor’s Show. Marr always got the best guests and even though Andrew Neil was a brilliant watch, he clearly became frustrated that Marr had the Prime Minister and he got Chris Grayling. Sarah Smith took over for the show’s final year and did a sterling job, but the writing was clearly on the wall.
The ‘Daily Politics’ had also become a tad jaded and tired. The format hadn’t really changed in more than a decade and there was a certain amount of box ticking about some of the features.
I have no idea how much the changes were driven by the need to save money, or by genuine editorial freshening up. A bit of both, I suspect. Anyway, the much hyped replacement for the ‘Daily Politics’, ‘Politics Live’ launched to much fanfare at the beginning of September.
Given that ‘Politics Live’ clashes with CNNTalk I haven’t seen every episode but I’ve watched three or four on catch-up. The format is much simpler than the ‘Daily Politics’ with far fewer films and reports. And it’s better for it.
Jo Coburn is the sole presenter and is joined by five people around a desk, which looks suspiciously like the one on CNNTalk. Indeed, the whole format was said to be modeled on NBC’s ‘Morning Joe’, although I can see far more similarities with CNNTalk. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery I guess!
Some of the five guests sometimes stay for the whole programme but others are replenished. This sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. It can be a little awkward (when there’s an empty chair for a few minutes), and although a decision has clearly been made by the editor that it doesn’t matter if the sound person is in shot while putting a microphone on the guest, or a cameraman appears in shot (this would have led to sackings a few years ago), it all seems a bit gimmicky. On CNNTalk this happens in the pre-show facebook section, where the makeup artists come on set to give us all a bit of a touch up, but it would never happen during the actual TV show.
The first episode of ‘Politics Live’ had an all female panel. The fact that this was such a source of comment is a sign that certain battles have yet to be won. Did anyone ever comment when the ‘Daily Politics’ had all male programmes? I don’t remember anyone doing so.
There’s no doubt that in most of the programmes I have seen women have always been in the majority, but I don’t see that as an issue. The most important thing in booking guests for any panel show is to get the right mix of guests - people who will converse and argue with each other.
The show is much more informal than its predecessor and that leads to more conversation rather than an actual grilling. It also means that the show’s host, Jo Coburn can come into her own.
Interestingly, the shows I have seen have had a good sprinkling of younger guests, including Jordan Stephens from the Rizzle Kicks and Westmonster’s Stephen Edginton. These weren’t gimmicky guests - both were eloquent and had something to say. I’m trying to do this on my Monday Night ‘Issue of the Hour’ panel on LBC too.
On the ‘Daily Politics’ Andrew Neil’s co-hosts always seemed to be in his shadow. Not because he was a man, but because of the sheer force of his personality and his brilliant way of skewering unprepared politicians.
Jo has a wicked sense of humour but is also an underrated interviewer, and my impression so far is that she’s finding ‘Politics Live’ a much more comfortable programme to present. It’s a good example of choosing a presenter and building the programme around her.
If Andrew Neil was the sole presenter, I’m not sure this format would work five days a week. It will be interesting to see what happens when he takes over the show on Wednesdays for PMQs. This show is extended to an hour and three quarters. Andrew is, of course, also continuing to present ‘This Week’ on a Thursday night.
The show has been reduced to 45 minutes in length, from an hour. I was initially sceptical about this, but having watched a few episodes now, I think that was the correct decision. You’re left wanting more. I was also a little sceptical about having five guests. Having been on panels like this, the more guests you have, the more they have to compete for screen time. On ‘Newsnight’ there are sometimes four guests on a ten minute long panel. Too many.
The key to this is whether the host can ensure that the more shy and retiring guests are heard when the more boisterous ones inevitable seek to dominate. Jo Coburn (pic above) does that very well, and isn’t afraid to offer the odd reprimand if needed. She combines a light touch with a steely stare from time to time.
So all in all, I’ve really enjoyed the four episodes I have seen and the fact that I’ve put it on Series Link indicates that I’m interested enough not to want to miss something.
Overall, I think politics is quite well serviced on the BBC with one exception. I could never understand the decision a few years ago to axe ‘Straight Talk’ where Andrew Neil interviewed a single politician for half an hour. BBC Parliament had a sprinkling of this type of interview, but the 15 minute interview on Marr is the longest interview you get on the BBC nowadays.
I’d love Rob Burley, the new head of political programming, to consider bringing back such a programme. I know Andrew Neil was gutted when it was axed, and if he wasn’t available to present it, I know plenty of people who’d love to give it a go (hint hint!). It’s about the cheapest TV you can do - a totally black background. Two chairs, one interviewer, one guest. It could even work as a web only programme if there’s no room on the terrestrial schedules. Just a thought to end on.