BBC2 axe The Hour; (mild) outrage ensues

Abi Morgan's newsroom drama will not be returning for a third series.

There’s a lot of outrage on the New Statesman website today, but none of it comes close to how I feel at the news that the BBC has decided not to commission a third series of The Hour. The Radio Times reports:

It had been the original intention of the production company behind the programme, Kudos, to produce at least three series. Jane Featherstone, chief executive of Kudos Film and Television, said she was "sad and disappointed" by the decision.

The BBC said: "We loved the show but have to make hard choices to bring new shows through."

Digital Spy implies the decision had to do with the fact that the second series’ ratings didn’t live up to the promise of the first:

The first series of The Hour launched with 2.89 million viewers in July 2011, but the show's second run fared less well in the ratings, opening with just 1.68 million.

Regular readers will know that I’m something of a fan of The Hour I wrote a regular weekly blog on the second series – and thought it was one of the best new dramas the BBC had commissioned in ages. It’s not often you get new writing of such subtlety being acted by a cast who are mostly moonlighting from the silver screen (in the shape of Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai and Dominic West). And as I harped on about incessantly in the blog, Anna Chancellor and Peter Capaldi pretty much stole the show in the second series, too.

It’s no objective measure, to be sure, but the spike in traffic to my blog and Twitter when the series aired in America and Australia recently suggests The Hour’s appeal went far beyond a few lefty journalists who like Fifties outfits. Contrast it, if you will, with Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge, which the BBC inexplicably allowed to run over five episodes, despite the fact that it has no plot whatsoever. All the beautiful singing and close-ups of Chiwetel Ejiofor in the world can’t redeem a lengthy multi-part period drama where absolutely nothing happens and people inexplicably go for long picnics on trains. As the NS’s Rachel Cooke points out in her TV column in the magazine this week, Poliakoff created types, not characters – scratch the shiny surface away and there’s nothing there at all.

Abi Morgan’s Hour, by comparison, arguably had too many plots at the same time. If the BBC does indeed stick by its decision to cancel it (I can’t help but hope someone somewhere will realise the error of their ways shortly) we’ll never know whether Ben Whishaw’s face recovers from the beating it received in the line of duty, or whether he and Romola Garai ever manage to get it on. But most importantly, we’ll have lost a genuinely writerly drama from our screens – one that didn’t rely on bangs and flashes or ludicrous locations or stereotyped characters to draw you in. Personally, I would have watched The Hour just as avidly as a stage play, such is the strength of Morgan’s characters. The BBC's quote says they want to create space to "bring new shows through" - I, for one, will be surprised if they replace it with anything with quite so much class.

PS If this is indeed the end, I thought we should enjoy some of the best images from the second series. Try not to sob on your keyboards, now.

Oh, lovely Ben Whishaw. All photographs: BBC

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times