Sailing in the wrong direction? 

7 June 2012

It’s certainly not unusual for the BBC to be the subject of criticism when it comes to the coverage of any royal event apart from the most straightforward occasions. Getting the tone exactly right is an absolute nightmare and you are never going to satisfy everyone all of the time, especially when dealing with something that’s the least bit contentious.

Too formal a presenting style would make most long events too much of an ordeal to watch unless it’s a state funeral, and an excessively light-hearted tone runs a real risk of showing lack of respect when it comes to heads of state.

And it certainly doesn’t help when BBC PR is still too dim-witted to mount an effective response to any critics, regardless of the merits of the argument(s), as also witnessed on numerous other occasions in recent history (‘Crowngate’, ‘Sachsgate’, etc.).

Case in point being last Sunday’s coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant. Some might argue that the boats were the centrepiece of the pageant and would be perfectly content to stare at boats for four hours whilst another group of viewers at home would be bored rigid by the very thought of such an idea.

Therefore the BBC decided to effectively present the pageant as “One’s Show”, namely mixing boat coverage with that of events elsewhere as well has having brief studio discussions very much in the style of The One Show. (A tried and tested formula for BBC One which has proven to be very popular.)

Indeed a lighter tone was adopted by the BBC this time round partly as a response to criticism of last year’s Royal Wedding coverage which was relatively sombre compared to ITV’s coverage of the same event.

In practice the BBC’s river pageant coverage turned out to be reasonably good and entertaining to watch, all things considered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was perfect by any means or that fundamental mistakes weren’t made at the editorial level given its main objectives.

Given that boats were obviously the main focus of the pageant, more time could and should have been spent with the boats given that they were the most important thing by far, and a lack of research was the most common theme relating to complaints about the BBC’s pageant coverage such as this blog entry from an ex-BBC employee.

(Especially as background information relating to the boats was easily obtainable and would have made the main spectacle much more interesting for the casual viewer.)

Claire Balding’s comments about the event all appear to chime in with these observations, with technical glitches perhaps also betraying some behind the scenes cost-cutting – “There were cameras on nine boats and we had three working” – the bad weather cannot be solely to blame for what had happened here.

Compare the BBC’s pageant coverage to that of the London Marathon, which devotes hours of airtime to almost exclusively showing people running along the streets of London as opposed to being littered with constant interruptions showing such things as babies, cake stalls and people trying to paint outside in the pouring rain.

It’s almost as if the producers were trying to hide their lack of knowledge about the boats or were too afraid of people getting bored and switching channels for some reason, though it has to be said that the pageant as a whole also included other land-based activities as well as the boats themselves.

Having said that, many of the boats were sponsored by private companies therefore the BBC theoretically might have wanted to downplay the boats themselves incase they unwittingly gave selected sponsors excessive airtime, relatively speaking, but this may not have been a problem in practice.

Then there was the choice of presenters for the event. Of course presenter choice can highly subjective, but the initial use of ‘serious’ Huw Edwards – even if perfectly capable of doing the job – didn’t appear to be a perfect match with the lighter atmosphere of the rest of the coverage.

It’s almost as if a committee had decided on a One Show clone format to give the pageant coverage a less formal style of presentation before finally deciding on Edwards as some form of antidote to avoid any accusations of excessive flippancy.

(Imagine Huw Edwards presenting The One Show on a regular basis; it wouldn’t work in a similar vein as to why you wouldn’t see Fearne Cotton presenting Newsnight.)

And talking of Fearne Cotton, she may be a competent presenter for certain programming formats but this still doesn’t explain the strange fixation she still seems to have with BBC producers despite repeated complaints about her casual presenting style perhaps being less than suitable for certain occasions.

From watching the BBC’s pageant coverage, it’s possible to get an impression that the BBC may no longer have a reasonably wide selection of presenters at its disposal, and the recent rise in the number of freelance presenters (like Claire Balding) may have some bearing on this, even if there’s little or no factual evidence to support such a claim.

(Two decades ago the BBC would have used someone like Mike Smith or Noel Edmonds to exclusively anchor the coverage.)

Unusual presenter choice, a lack of research, very obvious signs of costcutting and technical glitches giving its producer nightmares all conspired to make the BBC’s pageant coverage less than perfect, even if most people found the whole thing reasonably entertaining to watch as a whole.

All things considered, the BBC should be very concerned about these issues because they all potentially conspire to weaken the corporation’s long-standing reputation for top quality broadcasting of important occasions. This summer’s Olympics will have to be spot-on perfect if the BBC is to avoid another PR nightmare.

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