Sunday, August 02, 2009

Ed Vaizey suggests Hotel Babylon is the way ahead

Also tucked into Ed Vaizey's proposals for what media might look like under a Tory DCMS was the suggestion that rules on product placement be relaxed for commercial television. Rubbing his hands together, he suggests that this might bring millions of pounds flowing in to ITV and its brethren.

Well, yes - although since that money is going to come from somewhere, it might just mean a shift from traditional advertising and sponsorship to product placement, meaning a sacrifice of editorial independence for no actual financial gain.

And the early experiences of what happens when companies gain too much control of the editorial - or think they should - are well-known. Perhaps Ed Vaizey needs to reacquaint himself with the Hotel Babylon disaster of 1996.

This was a 1996 series made by Bob Geldof's Planet 24 for late-night ITV. It was sponsored by Heineken, but they weren't entirely happy with the first programme:

Justus Kos, from Heineken's sponsorship department at its head office in Amsterdam, faxed Planet 24 demanding more "Heineken- ising" of the show. "More evidence of beer is not just requested but needed."

Part of the problem, it seemed, was not just the lack of enough beer in the programme, but the fleshy presence of the presenter blocking views of the Heineken logos and - heaven forbid - men in the audience drinking wine.

I mean, wine. Can you imagine?

If that was bad, though, worse was to come in the fax:
"The audience should be aspirational but not too much on the edge. There was a too high proportion of negroes. Although the audience group seems to be a mixture, director and/or camera crew have a tendency towards selecting just extravagant people. Also 'normal' people should be filmed."

Too high a proportion of negroes?

Yes. He did.

Bob Geldof told the The Independent of his response:
Sir Bob Geldof, a founder and still major shareholder in Planet 24, yesterday said Heineken could "go fuck themselves" as far as he was concerned. "I heard about the infamous fax and I hooted with derision. It is our programme, not Heineken's."

I'm not sure that "hooting with derision" when being told there are too many black people in your audience is quite the reaction you'd hope for. Trouble is, of course, that the programme actually was Heinekens, what with it having been bought and paid for, and designed around their branding. To paraphrase Churchill, the nature of the relationship had already been decided, Kos was merely haggling.

After the fax complaining about black faces was made public, Heineken swung into brand-salvage mode:
Last night Karel Vuursteen, chief executive of Heineken worldwide, reacted to the fax with dismay. Replying to Mr Grant, he said: "Having read the original, only one thing can be said about it: it should never have been written. I am truly shocked about the content of the paragraph you refer to, since it is totally against everything Heineken stands for. Heineken denounces all discrimination and will live up to that. I hope you can accept my sincere apology and I can assure you that proper steps will be taken to prevent recurrence."

And, to be sure, nothing like that has ever been put into writing since.

A sorry tale, then, and a warning from history about what happens when you let corporations think they can buy editorial placement. Not the model a serious politician would be suggesting for the future, surely?


Simon said...

The other thing people remember Hotel Babylon for was Dani Behr was the presenter and at the same time was one of the managers on Fantasy Football League, and her agent faxed FFL one week to get
Frank and David to refer to her only as 'Hotel Babylon's Dani Behr'. And they made sure they did.

Bruce Everiss said...

More about what Vaizey will do when he comes to power in this recent interview:

brian gladys said...

Thank you, your article is very good

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