The Olympic medal for media innovation goes to…

New York Times Fine Line Simone Biles

A version of this post first appeared on The Media Briefing, where I write about the media developments in North America, especially as they pertain to the search for new media business models. 

The Olympics are over, and the medals have all been handed out. But for me, the Games are not just an opportunity to see the best athletes in the world but also to see some of the most cutting edge digital media innovation. The 2016 Rio games also showed some of the tectonic shifts in media with viewership dipping on traditional TV platforms and up on on-demand and mobile platforms.

These are not simply vanity projects. As we saw recently with Politico’s Apple Wallet-powered EU Tracker project in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, a smart strategy executed well during major events can help you reach new audiences and power your growth to the next level.

Not to mention, that just like gold medal athletes hoping for lucrative endorsement deals after the games, media organisations are hoping to cash in, and this Olympics also showed how organisations are seeking new sources of revenue through digital commercial innovation.

New York Times’ The Fine Line

The Olympics are one of those big set piece events when top news groups, start-ups and the digital platform giants have time to plan and create trail-breaking digital media experiences.

Amongst the legacy media groups, the New York Times has once again made as much of a splash with digital media watchers as Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky have made in the pool.

One of the most talked about and ground-breaking Olympics features by the Times were a series of visually-led features called, The Fine Line. In addition to the Fine Line features, the Times also created incredibly simple but effective animations to show how the swimming races played out, for instance how teen phenom Katie Ledecky dominated in the pool.

New York Times Olympics Bodies Rio Olympics 2016 featureBut that wasn’t all the Times did. Another feature effectively gave a game-like feel to the content with a visual quiz in which the audience was asked to guess what sport the athlete or para-athlete was involved in by their body characteristics. Did they have muscular legs and or arms? Were they tall or short and powerful? It was really nicely done, and the Times made a point to say that the athletes and para-athletes wore as many or as few clothes as they felt comfortable with.

Commercial innovation to drive digital revenue growth

But, as we’ve seen so often in 2016, the best editorial innovation isn’t enough to guarantee a sustainable business. Fortunately, the New York Times also displayed some incredible commercial innovation as well.

In the middle of the Fine Line features is a native advertising feature for Infiniti’s Q60 that seems right at home in the format. In addition to flowing the Infiniti ad into the middle of the stories, it is peppered throughout them, appearing both in the navigation and on the front of every Fine Line segment. The ad even fits thematically with the content: The “Making an Ironman” native advertising video shows a man training for the triathlon world championships with product placement of the Infiniti Q60.

Infiniti’s content also appears in various New York Times’ social channels, including Youtube and the NYTVR app.

VR, mobile, programmatic and native advertising are all part of the New York Times’ strategy to dramatically increase non-display digital ad revenue because display has shown lingering softness for many legacy print publishers in the face of the dominance of Google and Facebook.

The New York Times has not been immune, and it reported in its most recent quarterly results that digital ad revenue dropped 6.8 percent, which looks bad but not when compared with the 14.1 percent swoon in print adrevenue.

The Infiniti native advertising package across multiple digital channels looks like the kind of bigger deal that New York Times CEO Mark Thompson talked about recently when he predicted dramatic digital ad growth in the third quarter.

Thompson and Chief Revenue Officer Meredith Kopit Levien told Ad Age that these bigger, multifaceted packages were taking longer to close, slowing the pace of ad deals in the short term, but dramatically increasing revenue in the longer term.

Thompson said that these bigger deals were in the “million-plus range”, and they both said that the revenue would start to be reflected in the NYT’s second half results. It gave Thompson the confidence to predict that the NYT would deliver double-digit growth in digital ad revenue in the third quarter.

Power to the platforms

Rio Olympics media innovation

In its recent results, The New York Times pointed out that mobile was powering a lot of their growth, and Thompson said mobile is “growing at rates that even Mr. Zuckerberg’s little firm would recognise”.

Mobile content took centre stage at Rio 2016, and Facebook and other major  digital platforms were seen as key to helping Olympic broadcaster NBC to make sure that its content reaches younger, more mobile audiences.

Before the games, NBC’s deal with Buzzfeed and mobile messaging darling Snapchat grabbed a lot of coverage. Buzzfeed is curating content from Snapchat, and Snaps from Rio appear prominently in its Discover section. Buzzfeed’s involvement makes sense in light of NBCUniversal’s $200 m investment in the company.

This kind of distribution is officially a very big deal as it was was the first time that Olympics content would appear on a non-NBC platform, according to Gerry Smith of Bloomberg News. More than that, NBC isn’t requiring Snapchat to pay anything for the privilege, but the broadcaster, which paid $1.23 B for the broadcast rights, negotiated an ad revenue share with the mobile messaging and content platform.

Facebook’s ambitions in Rio were much more global, and it struck a deal with the IOC and 20 official Olympics broadcasters to offer content on Facebook Live and recap content on both Facebook and Instagram, according to L&F Capital Management on the investment blog Seeking Alpha. Facebook also reportedly paid some athletes, including Michael Phelps, to provide exclusive live interviews.

Looking to make live events and sports a bigger part of its offering, Twitter announced content across Moments, Vine and Periscope in its coverage before the games. Twitter also announced a pivot in the Moments product as well, as it said that Olympic Moments would stick around in users’ timelines for weeks rather than days.

When I wrote the piece for the Media Briefing, we really didn’t have a full picture of viewership on traditional linear TV and also how audiences were turning to consuming video on mobile platforms. But we quickly got a sense, and for NBC, it wasn’t entirely good.

Bloomberg noted that ratings were down 17 percent overall in primetime and down by 25 percent in the 18-49 demographic. Gerry Smith of Bloomberg questioned whether NBC Universal had got its money’s worth in terms of their $12 bn investment in the Olympics. Smith went on to say:

The Summer Olympics ratings slip, the first since 2000, raises fresh doubts about what used to be a sure thing: live sports would be a huge and growing draw no matter what.

But while traditional TV viewership was down, online viewership was up by 25 percent. Regardless of the obvious switch from linear TV to on-demand formats, NBC still ended up having to give away some air time to advertisers to make up for the viewership shortfall on traditional TV.

Of course, if you want a stinging rebuttal of Bloomberg’s thesis, read this Medium post on how terrible the NBC streaming experience was by Brenton Henry. The real issue for Henry seemed was that the streaming options were really only available for cable subscribers.

I was tempted to shorten this article, but then the lengths of measure I had to take to view something that is available for free over the airwaves show there is clearly a problem. I’m sure NBC were patting themselves on the backs for how easy it would be to watch online this year, but that’s only true for cable subscribers, a slowly shrinking percentage of the US population, especially for Millennials.

As we’ve seen with ESPN’s woes, pay TV use is starting to decline as more people rebel against the ever rising costs of a bundle of channels and services they simply don’t want. The business model for paid TV is going to come under increasing pressure. The Olympics and NBC’s model only highlights that.

Mobile kills the 24-hour-linear TV news channel

Last night, I was where I have been on so many election nights in the last two decades, I was in the newsroom working with my staff to deliver real-time election results to our audiences on desktop, social and mobile. We fired off mobile alerts to our subscribers as soon as we were confident of the result, and I realised that we’re at the beginning of the end for linear, 24-hour news channels. Mobile eats linear TV for breakfast. 

TV remains powerful, and I know the power of being able to go ‘LIVE’. I worked for the BBC, but I have long thought that the 24-hour news channel was a technological kludge, a sticking plaster before internet access was ubiquitous and video on demand became a much more elegant solution for getting news to readers and viewers when there was real news to break. Last night, that sticking plaster seemed to come off.

I’ve passed back and forth between broadcast and print through my career, but last night I was in a local newspaper newsroom for the first time since the mid-90s. We had CNN on in the background and I had my iPhone next to me. We groaned every time Wolf Blitzer said that they had a “major projection” as every projection became major, especially after it became abundantly clear that the Republicans would take control of the Senate. If we would have had a drinking game for every time Wolf had a “major projection”, we would have been plastered by half eight. What really grated was when the on-air banter went on-and-on while the “major projection” had come into my mobile phone 10, 15 or even 20 minutes before Wolf projected, the music played and the graphics on the telly showed me what I already knew.

The cable-beating alerts came from USA Today or NPR. (Disclaimer: I’m an executive editor over two Gannett newspapers, and USA Today is our flagship national newspaper.) But there you have had it. Real-time, rolling TV was beaten by print sending out mobile alerts. Now, CNN might have been beating their on-air projections with their own mobile alerts; I don’t have CNN’s app installed on my iPhone. 

The important thing is that mobile told me what I wanted to know earlier and more efficiently than cable news. The days of the technological kludge of 24-hour, rolling news channels are numbered. 

Waiting for VOD: Is time running out on 24-hour news channels?

For years, I’ve thought that 24-hour news channels were actually just a technical kludge. Most of the time, there just isn’t enough news to fill 24-hours so many of the channels are little more than a very expensive tape loop, with the stories running on repeat every 15-minutes on some channels. Sure, 24-hour news channels really shine during big events, during wars, elections, disasters or historic events like the Arab Spring. CNN really broke through during the first Gulf War. That being said, I remember watching the same cruise missile fired from the same frigate over and over and over. Well, to be fair, the cruise missile launches were punctuated by the similarly repetitive footage of a carrier-based aircraft taking off (I believe it was an F-14, but it’s really beside the point).

After the Gulf War, CNN’s ratings dropped, and now CNN is suffering a precipitous drop-off on ratings. Brian Stetler of the New York Times has this observation from an CNN insider. “Maybe CNN is just like an emergency room,” and Stelter adds:

When elections and explosions happen, people tune in to CNN, the same way they hurry to a hospital when they think they are having a heart attack. But people tend not to linger in either place — a reality that was reaffirmed for CNN this week when Nielsen ratings showed that April was the channel’s lowest-rated month in 10 years.

Domestically in the US, CNN is being outflanked by the partisan noise machines of Fox and MSNBC, which like the tabloids in the UK know their constituency and serve it well. I wonder how long it will take for a cable TV version of the Daily Mail, Mail 24, heavy on celebrity, skin and manufactured outrage. I’m sure someone is already cooking it up somewhere. It would certainly be a money spinner. I digress, and poynter has a good round-up of CNN’s ratings woes and various suggestions on how to solve them

Personally, I don’t really care about the political angle. Globally, CNN seems to be performing much better. It’s brand of more level-headed news playing well to international audiences who don’t know and don’t care about the partisan battles of the US. While CNN’s prime time US ratings might be suffering, financially it’s doing well. It’s set to make $600m in operating profit, a record, Brian Stelter reports. Will CNN reach a tipping point where the ratings start to undermine its ability to generate this kind of income? Is CNN where US newspapers were in say 2004, right before they started to fall off a cliff financially? Possibly.

In the longer term, I simply wonder about the cost of running a 24-hour news channel versus running a news website with video-on-demand and the ability to go live digitally on multiple platforms when big events happen. This especially gets interesting when you think of smart TVs and the blurring of the internet and TV that’s now possible (although not being used by consumers as much as they can yet). 

CNN’s financial success might come from its success on multiple platforms rather than its failing on TV. Greg D’Alba, CNN’s president of news and Turner digital ad sales told BusinessWeek:

CNN’s primary differentiation is the ability to connect multiple screens. More than 80 percent of our advertisers buy both TV and digital. That’s unlike virtually any other service out there.

For now, having a 24-hour news channel works, and it works in part because CNN is paid by cable and satellite companies to carry the channel. However, as TVs get smarter and consumers move to video-on-demand with greater tools for video discovery, I wonder if having a rolling channel will make economic in the future. I don’t think so. We’re not there yet, but the future looks less like a tape loop and more like an app. 

The Lord of the Rings OS: One OS to rule them all?

Convergence – the combination of multiple entertainment and communication devices and platforms – has been one of those terms tossed around for decades. I first wrote about it in the mid-1990s when I was at university. It has been a rather quixotic quest until now. The handheld devices weren’t powerful or flexible enough. They didn’t have enough storage. Set-top boxes and televisions were pretty dumb in terms of what they could do. They did one thing really well and weren’t extensible. However, we’re starting to see the first glimmer of the pieces falling into place. As Rob Andrews of wrote ahead of the recent launch of Google TV, “Innovation in the connected-TV space is about to explode, in to several, rival parts.” Moreover, it’s not just connected TVs but connected everything – TVs, tablets, phones and computers.

Apple, of course, has been knitting together its vision around OS X and its little brother, iOS. Microsoft has been trying to push this as well for years. While years in the making, their efforts are only now maturing to the point where they are actually compelling. Microsoft tying their new mobile OS to XBox 360 might be a very smart play. Apple’s iOS universe of iPhone, iPad and Apple TV shows their vision.

The two big consumer computer OS makers aren’t the only ones in this game. Motorola is showing off advanced demos of its phones and set-top boxes seamlessly share content, and KDDI in Japan has been using an earlier version of the system for its au Box service. Motorola is now adding its social-network mad Motoblur interface to its set-top boxes. Yes, indeed, it is all blurring together.

Google now has its TV offering with Sony, Logitech and other partners, and this brings together connected televisions, Blu-Ray players and the Android platform on the TV and mobile phones. You can now search broadcast and internet video content just as you search for things on the web. Google TV also runs Android apps and connects nicely to Android phones.

The dark horse in this race is MeeGo, the marriage of Intel’s Mobile and Nokia’s Maemo Linux-based efforts. The goal is the same, to knit together a seamless experience across mobile, home entertainment and other devices such as tablets and netbooks. MeeGo phones are expected to appear in early 2011. Intel believes that building an OS from the ground up for multiple platforms is superior to Google’s approach to drive Android to a range of platforms.

Intel and Nokia definitely have the hardware background, but the interface and content partnerships will be key to this. As recent reviews of its recently released flagship N8 smartphone show, Nokia has the hardware knowledge to make great phones, but it needs to radically rethink its user experience. With consumer electronics, you have to make powerful hardware that is so simple to use that it borders on seeming magical. Will MeeGo be a clean break from its past? We’ll have to see.

Whether you call it convergence or the post-PC era, to resurrect another decade-old phrase, the game is really on now with players from the computer, internet, consumer entertainment and content industries all approaching this from slightly different angles. This will remake technology, entertainment and information, and the battle is now on.

Battle for the Living Room: Apple TV shifting to app strategy?

The living room (lounge for UK readers) is one of the most interesting tech spaces right now, and it’s got nothing to do with 3-D TV. (Just for the record, I’ve been referring to this as the Battle for the Living Room for a while now, lest anyone think I’m just ripping off Mashable headlines.) The blurring of the lines between internet video and broadcast television and between computers and traditional televisions is bringing consumer electronics companies and computer companies into a new competitive space.

Nick Bilton at the New York Times’ Bits Blog looks at how Apple could be looking to re-invent its rather sleepy Apple TV line. One of the big changes is that a new Apple TV could be based on the iOS that powers Apple’s iPhone and iPad. Why is this important?

If Apple does use the iOS software, it would allow people to download applications like the Netflix app, which allows streaming movies and TV shows; ABC’s TV player; or Hulu’s latest video streaming application.

This space is getting very crowded. As both Mashable and Nick pointed out, Google and Sony are going to launch Google TV. It will be based on its Android operating system, and an Android marketplace for Google TV will launch in early 2011.

Alt media centre software maker Boxee has its own apps and has launched its own hardware, the first Boxee box is coming from D-Link. (It was supposed to be out in the second quarter of this year, but it has now been delayed until November.)

Here in the UK, the BBC has won approval to proceed with its own project to bring its iPlayer catch-up service to the living room with Project Canvas. What is Project Canvas? From a story on the BBC News website:

Project Canvas is a partnership between the BBC, ITV, BT, Five, Channel 4 and TalkTalk to develop a so-called Internet Protocol Television standard.

The technology will be built into a number of set-top boxes. However, Canvas is UK-only, and as Robert Andrews at paidContent points out, there is a pan-European standard that has beaten Canvas to market: HbbTV.

Of course, hyper-competitive also leaves the potential for consumer confusion, and this looks like it might make the VHS v Beta battle look like minor scrap. Right now, we’re in the gold rush period, with a mad dash by a lot of major players to dominate this space. It’s very early days, and a lot of the products are little more than announcements. What is very interesting is that we’ve got a lot of major companies coming from sectors that previously didn’t overlap that much apart from some of the major Japanese players. They will not back down without a fight. It will be very interesting to see what our living rooms look like in 2015.

Hulu Unveils Subscription Service For $9.99 a Month – Media Decoder Blog –

Kevin: Stunning move by Hulu. $10 a month buys you access (in the US) to every espisode of every show that its affiliated networks provide. That's on your computer, your iPhone, your iPad, some internet-connected TVs and soon the XBox and PS3. Woah. It will still have ads, but who cares? This is possibly the most clueful move by big content yet. Quincy Smith, a former chief executive of CBS Interactive and a founding partner of Code Advisors, said: " And it certainly concedes that the future of TV is video, not just on-air or on-demand, but also online and on mobile.”

Congratulations to a friend: Bill McKenna

I just found via Twitter (of course) that a friend and former colleague at the BBC, Bill McKenna, has won White House News Photographers Association ‘Editor of the Year’ award. Bill is more of an artist than an editor, and it’s great to see his skills recognised like this. Watch this piece and you’ll get just a small sense of what an incredible video editor can do. His ability to tell a story in pictures is amazing, and he also breaks the mold of television news editing. Most of the time, news video is simply a disjointed collage of pieces to camera, a couple of poorly framed shots and agency footage. He uses pictures to make you stop and pay attention to something that might otherwise have passed too quickly.
Bill is also a musician, and it shows not only in the way that he uses music in his editing, how he starts, stops and slows the action to the beat of the soundtrack he’s chosen but also how he uses music to bring an emotion to news video that usually isn’t there. He works with the excellent camera men and women at the BBC bureau in Washington and creates stunning pieces that are a joy to watch. He spends hour after hour in the edit suites producing these pieces. I’ll let Bill and this small sample of his work speak for itself. I just wanted to say congratulations to a great friend! Bill, it’s so glad to see your talent and dedication recognised.

Disrupt or be disrupted

more about “ Why do people listen to Michael Ros…“, posted with vodpod

Andy Dickinson has a post asking the question: Why do people listen to Michael Rosenblum? Andy thinks that Michael is worth listening to but that his approach doesn’t “work across the board”. At conferences, many in the room may be hearing Michael’s message for the first time, but Andy says:

As suprising as it may be to them, there are people in their organisations who are as knowledgable and passionate about video as he is. They may have more experience of the particular problems in their company and more direct suggestions to help solve them.

They may not give as good a show but they may give as good advice.

Suw sees the same thing in business. She is often called in as a consultant by people who agree with her, often passionately, but don’t have the political capital in their organisation to shake it from its inertia. They need a comrade in arms but have to buy one in.

Returning to Andy’s post, I think another, possibly more important question is: Why do people nod in agreement at conferences and then completely ignore Michael Rosenblum or other digital advocates, especially those in their own organisations? Frankly, Michael, Jeff Jarvis and many of us have been saying the same thing for years now. Digital technology will disrupt the business of journalism, and it presents a clear choice of either adopting and adapting the technology or watching your business crumble. However, we shouldn’t mistake the collapse of some businesses as evidence of lightning fast change. This has been a slow motion train wreck. This is the predictable outcome of the economics of disruptive digital technologies, which is why I’m mystified people continue to ignore this fact, carry on with business as usual and then feign surprise as their businesses implode.

We’ve had decades to watch the digital revolution play out. As Tom Coates wrote in debunking the attack of the snails argument:

So here’s the argument – that perhaps broadcast won’t last forever and that technology is changing faster than ever before. So fast, apparently, that it’s almost dazzlingly confusing for people.

I’m afraid I think this is certifiable bullshit. There’s nothing rapid about this transition at all. It’s been happening in the background for fifteen years. So let me rephrase it in ways that I understand. Shock revelation! A new set of technologies has started to displace older technologies and will continue to do so at a fairly slow rate over the next ten to thirty years!

Tom wrote his post two and a half years ago, and yet journalism and media organisations continue to bemoan the rapid pace of change. In fact, this change is just the logical conclusion of decades-long trends that have been clear to anyone who was actually paying attention.

In some ways, it’s understandable. If you have a wonderfully lucrative business model like television or the de facto monopolies of big metro daily newspapers in the US, the first reaction is to protect the existing business model rather than adapt to meet the challenge of digital insurgents. It’s a perfectly reasonable response.

In other ways, it’s a complete failure of management replicated almost identically across several sectors of the media industry. Newspapers have been suffering declining readership for decades. Television has been facing fragmenting audiences for years under the threat of cable and satellite. This is the failure of vision by media management: They have focused on digital consumption patterns without adopting digital production methods and undercutting their own costs. And as the erosion of audience has accelerated, they have mainly cut costs by cutting staff instead of by adopting digital production and distribution technology.

At this late hour for many media companies the critical question is, when are you going to stop nodding your heads at conferences and get on with it? Not many of us in media will be able to go hat in hand like Northern Rock or General Motors and ask for billions to bail us out. I think that Mindy McAdams raises an important issue in the comments on Andy’s post:

News organizations seem particularly susceptible to “a prophet is without honor in his own land” — people inside the organization who spread Michael’s same message might be completely ignored, but management will hire Michael to come in and do his excellent presentation, and THEN they will ooo and ahh about it, acting as if it is brand-new.

A few things to realise in the age of digital disruption:

  1. Higher costs of production do not necessarily result in higher quality of products.
  2. Quality and brand do not equal media success.
  3. Broadcast=wedding. Anytime you put broadcast near technology in the same sentence, it’s like saying you want something for a wedding. Just triple the cost.
  4. Disrupt or be disrupted. Actively look for ways to disrupt your own business model with digital technologies before someone else does.

Vlogging killed the blogging star

Actually, I think that wedding planning is killing my blogging, but for the last couple of weeks, vlogging has also cut into my spare blogging time both at home and at the day job. The Guardian has just started a vlogging project with Current TV. It’s been fun, if not a little challenging.

I sit in front of a webcam at work, or sometimes at home, and talk about something for a minute. It’s harder than you think. The first thing is to fight off the feeling that you’re making a complete tit of yourself talking at your computer, especially in an open plan office. Also, no matter how silly and excitable I think I sound, actually, I’m finding my delivery a little flat. It’s a fine balance between being conversational, which I want, and sounding too much like a broadcaster, which I don’t want. I guess I’ll become more comfortable over time.

We’ve just started, and I’m hoping that it generates some conversation. I really want this to be something engaging, rather than just video for the sake of video. I did and still do TV, but I want this to be something more like Seesmic, a video conversation. I’d definitely appreciate ideas from vloggers on how to make this a conversation like blogging rather than broadcasting at people over the internet.

A tangle with gravity

I wrote this post yesterday afternoon, but technical problems stopped me from being able to post it. Horizon was, by the way, fab.

Whilst Kev and I were at the gym this morning, we caught an interview with Dr Brian Cox on BBC Breakfast, talking to Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams about an episode of Horizon, What on Earth is wrong with gravity. I’m looking forward to seeing the programme tonight, having already seen a number of outtakes on Brian’s partner Gia’s blog. Thankfully, Gia has grabbed the interview and put it up on YouTube:

Now, gravity is tricky. It’s the sort of thing, like mass, that seem pretty obvious. You drop a pencil, as Bill did, and it falls until it hits a surface that stops it falling any further. We all know what gravity does. What’s less clear is what gravity is, how it works, what makes gravity pull things together. It’s actually a pretty difficult subject to tackle in a six minute segment.

Unfortunately, Bill and Sian – and whomever produced and researched the program – didn’t prepare any decent questions. Gravity is one of those subjects where seemingly simple questions have horrendously complex answers, if they have answers at all. Bill and Sian went for the simple questions, but Brian had only a few minutes – if that, given that they showed two clips of the programme – to try to answer.

Now, to my mind, the job of the presenter in these situations is to act as a proxy for the audience and to ask the questions that the audience want answered. The question that I suspect the audience most want answered about an episode of Horizon is: “Why should I watch this programme?” That was a question that Bill and Sian spectacularly failed to address, even indirectly, because they were focused on small but unanswerable questions instead.

Bill concentrated on dropping his pencil and asking querulously, “Why is it so complicated?” and then giggling like a schoolboy, I suspect because he felt a little out of his element. “I thought it was dead simple myself,” he says.

Brian has some great stories to illustrate his point. Most surprisingly, he talks about how if we didn’t correct for the way that time passes differently in orbit to on earth, our satnav systems would drift by 11km per day. But he’s forced to talk about spacetime without being able to fully explain what spacetime is and, frankly, anyone would be forgiven for struggling with that.

Sian then says, “I’m still not sure what causes gravity.” Well, you and the rest of the physics world. That’s not a smart question to ask, because there’s no answer, and the lack of an answer is going to flummox people. The point of this six minute segment is not to solve one of the universe’s greatest riddles, but to spark a little curiosity in people’s minds. And I can pretty much guarantee that no one woke up this morning and asked, “What causes gravity?”

Indeed, I did a straw poll of my friend son Twitter and Seesmic, and asked, “If I was an omniscient being, what scientific question would you like answered?”

From Twitter:

jrnoded: @suw why 42?
michaelocc: @Suw Is faster than light travel possible?
adamamyl: @Suw: why, on taking government office do incumbents forget they have principles/spines? Or, why int a resignation, a resignation, thesedays
zeroinfluencer: @Suw: How to make an affordable Holy Grail (Assorted Colours)
londonfilmgeek: @Suw Can i haz an Aperture Science Portal gun, kthanxbai
The_Shed: @Suw Are we even close to knowing the truth about anything?
johnbreslin: @Suw: Is this like “does anything eat wasps?” 🙂 how about, where does all the time go (inspired by the Time Snails in “Captain Bluebear”)?
aidg: @Suw Science q for the omniscient: How the universe was created or the story of creation from primordial soup to multicellular organisms.
meriwilliams: @Suw Why is life?
tara_kelly: @Suw Dear omniscient being: is time really as linear as we like to think it is?

From Seesmic, my question:

An amazing question from DeekDeekster, that I personally would love the answer to:

Jeff Hinz echoes MichaelOOC, but from the opposite angle:

Christian Payne takes the Prince Charles line:

Dave Shannon asks the hardest question:

You’ll notice that no one, not one single person, asked “What is gravity?”.

Then towards the end of the Breakfast interview, they bring up the entirely spurious issue of the asteroid that missed hitting the Earth by 334,000 miles at 8;33am this morning. Cue the stupidest question of the morning: “If gravity is such a big deal, how come that asteroid that Carol told us about didn’t crash into Earth?” That’s like saying, if the sky is blue, how come grass is green?

To add insult to injury, Sian ends up by saying, “See, that’s why he has a PhD and we haven’t, because he can understand these sorts of things and we’re still bamboozled” and Bill finishes up with, “You’d managed a major achievement this morning, which is that you’ve managed to explain something to all of us and made us both feel really thick.”

Poor Brian didn’t stand a chance. How can you manage to extract even a shred of dignity from that? How can you pull back from that and say something that will encourage people to watch your programme?

If the Breakfast team had thought for a moment and actually talked to Brian before the interview about what questions would make for an entertaining and interesting interview, ruling out questions that no physicist alive can answer, and including ones that perhaps the audience actually want to know the answer to, then I suspect things would have gone much better.

But to me, this is indicative of the attitude of the media towards science and technology: “Oh, look at those weirdos over there with their white coats and strange ways of talking. They’re not like us. They’re Boffins.” It’s an attitude based in ignorance and fear, and nurtured by the unnecessarily divisive split between science/tech and the humanities at school and then university.

Yet at times like this, the “I’m too dumb to understand you boffins” attitude is counterproductive. All Bill and Sian have done is put off people who might otherwise have watched Horizon, and pissed off the people who definitely will. Which is foolish, given that they are working for the very same organisation that commissioned Brian’s programme.