23 Oct 2016

Doing the business in the digital age

From Mediawatch, 9:08 am on 23 October 2016

Shows devoted to business news vanished from our TV screens years ago because people can get it online anytime - and because it's often boring. Mediawatch asks BBC business frontman Ben Thompson if business broadcasting has a future.

The new face of BBC business news Ben Thompson.

The new face of BBC business news Ben Thompson. Photo: supplied / BBC

Five years ago, both TVNZ and TV3 had shows devoted to business news in the morning. Major banks and insurers took turns sponsoring the shows.

But by 2012, they were gone. Too few people were watching, say the broadcasters, and the sums didn't add up for the sponsors. 

These days there’s no need to sit in front of a TV as dawn breaks just to get the crucial news and numbers from the business world. They are available via the internet at any time, from dozens of global sources.

The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the Financial Times have all become multimedia operations. Here in New Zealand, the National Business Review is putting more and more content online every day for subscribers as well as putting out a printed paper each Friday.  

Do the numbers stack up for big broadcasters?

The BBC's Business Live show on location in London.

The BBC's Business Live show on location in London. Photo: supplied / BBC

BBC Business News correspondent Ben Thompson hosts the BBC’s daily show Business Live, broadcast in the UK and around the world from London on BBC’s global channel BBC World TV.

"I can find out how the Dow closed on my smartphone but that doesn't tell me why it matters," he told Mediawatch.

"What's happening in the world economy today means making sense of it for people is more important than ever".

Ben Thompson says business news needs to be rebranded as "money news".

"It's easy to get caught up in slowing inflation and two percent growth. But people are really worried about their mortgages and credit cards and the price of milk at the shop. Decisions they make about holidays or buying a smartphone are also business decisions," he says. 

Before moving to London to host the show, Ben Thompson was a business correspondent in the Middle East and New York.

He admits big business news outfits - the BBC included - were blindsided by the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the Arab Spring from 2010 and this year's unexpected Brexit vote in the UK.

"We'd been on the [Brexit] campaign trail for weeks with the referendum at the end. We thought that was the point where it would stop and we could relax. It turned out to be the point where the hard work began," says Ben Thompson.

"No-one saw the GFC coming - even the people paid the big bucks day-in and day-out in places like Wall Street and the City of London," he says 

"But that's the nature of news," he says. "If we always know what was going to happen, we'd be redundant."

Finding the audience

The BBC's groundbreaking business show Working Lunch.

The BBC's groundbreaking business show Working Lunch. Photo: screenshot

In the 1990s the BBC created its first show about money and business which was not aimed at people in business. 

Working Lunch screened at lunchtime and focused on household issues and personal finance rather than the stock market and major companies. It was aimed at the self-employed, parents and retired people watching at home.

It loosened up broadcast coverage of business with skits, quizzes and even spoof interviews. The experiment lasted 16 years, but came to an end in 2010.

"There was a really under-served audience there which the BBC identified," says Ben Thompson.

"Those people are now being served by personal finance sections in papers and websites. Also, it was tough because people want financial advice, and the BBC can't do that". 

But he says the programme left a legacy at the BBC, which means his show Business Live can tackle issues like the ethics of exploiting free public wifi.

One enduring problem with business news on TV is the lack of arresting images. All too often broadcasters fall back on stock footage of freshly minted coins, blurred pictures of random shoppers and the front doors of bank HQs.

"If it's boring to look at, no-one will listen to the best narrative in the world. You have to have a discerning voice in any given story and you have to have characters. You have to have the people affected by (the issue), the players involved and an expert voice on why it matters," says Ben Thompson.

Catching them out

Business figures seldom let their guard down because the cost of speaking frankly can move markets and damage brands.

But occasionally they do reveal more than they planned. 

Sports goods tycoon and football club owner Mike Ashley recently slipped up on Ben Thompson's show. 

Under fire for zero-hour contracts and working conditions condemned as "Victorian", Mr Ashley told BBC Business Live he was committed to change.

He allowed cameras to accompany him to one of his factories to see conditions and staff for himself. Emptying his pockets at the security gates, he took out a money clip of 50 pound notes. 

Mike Ashley's photo opportunity goes horribly wrong.

Mike Ashley's photo opportunity goes horribly wrong. Photo: screenshot

"I've just been to the casino," he explained to the guard, before turning to the crowd of journalists who'd been invited to the photo opportunity.

"Please don't write that," he begged.

Too late.

Sometimes business news really can be entertaining.