A few weekends ago saw my first visit to the BFI & Radio Times TV Festival – and that’s hardly a surprise, because it’s a brand new festival.
It was, in all, a really fun day. We had only two events booked. The first was a panel / Q&A with four editors from the Radio Times – which, I admit, I’ve only bought at Christmas for years now, though I do keep a weather eye on the Facebook page / website and I have now signed up for a subscription out of curiosity – about the experience of writing about television. The other was a panel about Netflix sensation The Crown, with Suzanne Mackie, Philip Martin and the glorious Claire Foy (the last of whom I managed to walk straight past in the ladies without really registering this until I’d swept past, gone in the cubicle and was mid-pee, at which point my brain kicked in – that’s pre-occupation for you).
Although the latter panel had the star factor and plenty to talk about in terms of both specific production (Peter Morgan’s apparent 7-season plan, how re-casting is going to work for season 3 and beyond) and general consumption (the Netflix all-in-one delivery model), it was actually in the masterclass with Alison Graham et al – and in some of the audience questions and introductions from Radio Times editor Ben Preston – that some of the really interesting themes emerged.
In the masterclass panel it was obvious the youngest member of the panel was something of an odd one out; he was the only one who made regular set visits, as the soap opera specialist, and he was the only one who made videos or regular digital content. At one point Graham even commented that no-one knew where he was because he half-worked for the website – a snippet of insight into the print vs digital structure of the RT, and also a suggestion that digital is just… different from what was repeatedly referred to as “proper telly”. All used Twitter but, interestingly, only for work and only after the fact; two out of four grasped why people might make Twitter their second screen, but for one it was only for ‘event’ TV (talent shows etc); in this he was swiftly contradicted by the live TV specialist, who was horrified at the thought that you might look at Twitter before Strictly was already over – what if you missed a move?
This, from a team of people who still exercise an enormous influence over the TV watching habits of a significant chunk of people, was fascinating. It’s easy to be dismissive and assume the RT‘s readers are older and might not second screen on social anyway, but I think that’s a narrow-minded assumption; plus the busy stream of digital content across social channels from the publication suggests that either they have a busily active broad demographic or they’re trying to woo one. Netflix et al do make an appearance in the listings, and if there’s anyone who understands a binge-watch it’s someone who has to review shows in advance of broadcast. Yet, more than once, those words “proper telly” – eg traditional broadcast, released weekly – came up, with the clear perspective that this was (should be?) still the approved way of consuming television. Shades, perhaps, of the paperback vs Kindle debate that never seems to quite go away.
Diversity of viewing habit wasn’t the only intriguing morsel to be winkled out of an hour of chat. A young woman of colour, who wrote for a smaller publication and raised the woes of trying to engage consistently with PRs if you have to give a negative review, also asked about diversity, and whether the panel handed off to writers with more direct experience if a programme was of a particular cultural niche. The panel awkwardly scraped for ideas of how this might work, giving examples of Welsh and Scottish programming; somehow I don’t think that’s what she was getting at.
The idea that television is something to be delivered in discrete doses certainly wasn’t unique to the panel – and even some digital-only services have sought to emulate it too (my festival pal, Alex Totaro, has written about The Good Fight as a network show in disguise). Several audience members spoke almost guiltily about binge-watching The Crown – as it if was something not quite proper and that the show’s exceptional quality made this a rare treat (the man who stayed up all night to watch all 10 episodes back to back with his wife, and who thought all television other than this and Our Friends in the North to be thoroughly inferior was a fascinating study all on his own). This might have also been impacted by Preston’s introduction to the panel, in which he detailed how he couldn’t possibly sit and watch more than a single episode at a time, since this simply didn’t allow him to savour it appropriately.
I watched The Crown in three of four episode clusters; actually, it took me three goes at the first episode for it to grasp me, and had it been delivered in the traditional Sunday night format, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to give it the second and third goes (urged on by friends). There is still water-cooler, communal pressure to be had – and I can succumb to it with the best of them, or I’d never have got through the first three tedious episodes of The Night Manager and made it to the considerably more pacy pay-off.
I can’t very well think of a job I’d like more in the world than sitting in a room with blinds drawn and headphones on, succinctly summing up my thoughts so as to direct the viewing public in a helpful way. It is an immensely rich journalistic job to end up in – and the panel made it clear it does tend to be one you end up in rather than pursue; although, again, most of them came through a more traditional journalistic route than might the next generation who will be blogging their way through to digital-only publications, likely without first having a stint at Industrial Engineering Weekly or similar. What I’d love to see in the next BFI / RT festival is a panel that brings the print and digital teams of the RT (and, if they’re willing, other publications) together to discuss the similarities and differences of writing about TV on and offline, and for different audiences watching TV in different ways. Show us your future-proofing, RT – I’m ready to see it.