Keeping scoops in cheque

The Rebecca Loos interview on Sky One pretty well redefined the concept of tabloid TV. Kay Burley’s line of questioning was about as direct and intimate as you’re ever likely to see on British television.

Sky and the News of the World reportedly paid David Beckham’s former PA £500,000 for the exclusive sit-down interview about her sexual/ textual relationship with Goldenballs and even if the figure was less than half that, the deal was a landmark in many ways.

First and foremost, it helps clear up the myth that TV doesn’t really have to pay for its scoops. The subtext for this myth is that “paying for it” is a rather murky tabloid tradition and that TV is generally above that sort of thing.

I find myself agreeing with Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan when he points out that television has always been rather scathing and sanctimonious about the chequebook journalism practised by tabloid newspapers, often tut-tutting at the same time as reporting many of the more lurid allegations and reproducing the hottest images by showing the newspaper front pages.

The notion that chequebook journalism is somehow synonymous with muckraking doesn’t really hold up.

Back in 1999, Channel 4 paid £400,000 for an interview with Monica Lewinsky. Jon Snow conducted the interview and the outcome was distinctly “broadsheet”. In the end C4 recouped most of its outlay by flogging the interview around the world.

The Lewinsky deal was unusual and at that time there really wasn’t a significant market for the “kiss and tell” story on British television.

In the early Nineties some of the tabloids started filming their exclusive interviews and handing them over to ITN, the BBC and Sky News with their newspaper logos “burnt in”.

The thinking was that exposure on TV news was a highly valuable form of free marketing and worth a great deal of money to the relevant newspaper.

Around the same time, GMTV, under the guidance of former Daily Mail man Peter McHugh, began to dip its toe into buy-out journalism. For a modest one or two thousand pounds, a fallen pop idol, soap star or children’s TV presenter might well bare part of their soul to Eamon, Anthea or Fiona.

Other news programmes tended to be pretty sniffy about this sort of thing. At ITN I remember an extreme reluctance to open those particular floodgates. Lack of a competitive bidding culture kept GMTV’s costs down and gave it a pretty free run in that kind of popular journalism until the arrival of Tonight with Trevor McDonald. Tonight began life with a pukka scoop – the interview with the young men accused of murdering Stephen Lawrence – for which I’m sure it didn’t pay a penny. I doubt if Martin Bashir paid Michael Jackson or Major Charles Ingram either, but between these classic journalistic coups it has certainly forked out some very large sums of money for interviews and until this month was unquestionably the biggest and most generous chequebook in the business.

I should know because I’ve been outbid by Tonight many times.

Five-figure payments for decent TV scoops are not unusual and Tonight probably paid about £50,000 for its recent interview with one of the Soham parents.

Six-figure payments are relatively common in the print media but now that TV has joined the high rollers, the earnings potential of a kiss-and-tell star-bonker has increased massively.

So is there anything inherently wrong with this development? Personally, I really don’t see it as a cause for great alarm.

Journalism is subject to market forces like any other endeavour and in general, competition makes people try harder.

My own experience at Five News- the poor relative of British TV news for the past seven years – has taught me that money isn’t everything – but it certainly helps. Having deep pockets allows you to employ more reporters, spend longer on location, buy more satellite time and, yes, outbid the other guys for scoops.

So how do you judge value for money in chequebook journalism? The Loos deal emerged out of News International’s exclusive and it was a classic piece of Dawn Airey opportunism.

In return for its outlay, Sky got four plays of “Rebecca Loos: My Story” over the next five days. The first and most important transmission was on the Thursday at 10pm, which attracted 1.65 million viewers or five times the number normally watching Sky One at that time. But even that doesn’t really justify the outlay.

Much more important to Airey would have been the attention Sky One received as a result of nabbing this exclusive.

It made the front page of every tabloid on the day of transmission and the day after. The story also ran extensively in the broadsheets and on radio and TV news programmes.

That kind of publicity is worth an awful lot of money, especially when you’re a smaller player and your audience is actually shrinking.

Finally – as Channel 4 proved with Monica Lewinsky – this kind of scoop also has a secondary value and Sky has been busy selling on its exclusive to other broadcasters around the world.

In the end, chequebook journalism on TV will thrive or die depending on whether it delivers value or proves a waste of money.

I think Sky will feel its outlay was worth it (assuming the Beckhams don’t sue), so we can expect a few more big-money bidding wars between broadcasters and it is safe to assume the cheques will get bigger too. 

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Guest columnist Tony Livesey, Daily Sport editor-in-chief

 

by Chris Shaw

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