The penultimate day of 1996 saw the first major advertiser-funded
programme: BT’s Now We’re Talking, presented by a smug, shiny-faced
Philip Schofield. Forget the Internet, the launch of Channel 5 or
whether Steve Henry should direct ads, this is the most significant
happening in adland for years.
It is a considerable achievement that Adrian Hosford and his team at BT
TalkWorks (see article, left) got it on air at all. Hosford, a likeable
and able man, has been ultimately responsible for much that has been
good about BT’s marketing over recent years.
That said, what did this advertiser-funded programme achieve? What was
in it for BT? A programme about how we communicate is a logical leap
from the ’it’s good to talk’ campaign which aims to change the way
people use the phone. Judging by the number of times slimy Schofield and
his star guests plugging their pantos said ’communications’, they were
all on a bonus per mention. With a succession of clips involving the use
of the phone, sponsorship credit sequences, and a Bob Hoskins ad per
break, we got the message. Just in case we hadn’t, at the end a Michael
Aspel voiceover asked: ’If you’d like to get more out of life through
better conversation, call this toll-free number ...’
Patronising? That’s nothing compared with Schofield’s script: ’Is that
good communication?’, ’Why bother having a better relationship?’, ’We
are getting the picture now of what a good conversation is’, and my
favourite: ’Welcome back - so did you talk to each other during the
break?’ As Esther Rantzen, Terry Wogan and co all totted up their
appearance fees, only Liz Dawn (Vera Duckworth) rose above the general
level of condescension.
If the studio audience looked bemused, wait till they got home and found
their ’laughter’ canned. The 7.5 million viewers (not bad against
EastEnders) will have enjoyed classic clips from the likes of Bless This
House, but what else was in it for them?
Hosford, a sincere man, talks of not wanting to be didactic, and - as
market leader - trying to grow the overall market to something
approaching the three-times higher level of phone usage in the US. He
will know that part of this is down to flat-rate charges per call that
allow Americans to witter on for hours at no extra cost - not something
BT would wish to promote. The viewer’s response to his team might be,
’Yes, we can see what’s in it for BT if you choose to spend enough
money, but what’s in it for us?’ It’s a question that Carlton, which
gave over a prime-time hour in the week between Christmas and new year,
might mull over - as should any other broadcaster contemplating
commissioning an advertiser-funded programme.