BIGBOARD: Are BBC PowerPoint-style news reports going from bad to worse?

The increasing use of PowerPoint-style presentations by BBC Television News programmes is something that's been bothering me for quite a while (for a selection of previous posts on which, see below).

We've known for years that there's much about the modern slide-dependent presentation that audiences detest (Lend Me Your Ears, 2004, Chapters 4-5). We know that it's wasting the UK economy billions of pounds a year (HERE). What I want to know now are the answers to four important questions:
  1. Where did the BBC and its television news producers get the idea that it would be a good idea to stand their reporters next to screens a few yards away from the evening's news reader showing slides to the millions watching at home (many of whom will already have quite enough of being on the receiving end of slide-driven presentations during the working day).
  2. Has the BBC done any research at all into what viewers think of such 'presentations'?
  3. If 'yes', can we see the results, please?
  4. If 'no', why not?
Last week, I learnt a new word from BBC Newnight's economics editor Paul Mason, who made the following announcement on Twitter: "OK - am getting ready to go on Newsnight to do bigboard about the regressive impact of the SR2010..."

'Bigboard'? Or did he mean 'Bigbored'? Is this the name of the all-singing-all-dancing graphics package that BBC presenters use in stead of PowerPoint, I wondered. So I tweeted Mr Mason to ask him, and he was gracious enough to tweet a reply: "No - there's no gfx package it is all done by our gfx artists from scratch."

But which comes first, the script or the graphics?
As there were only a few hours to go between his tweet and Newsnight going on air, this got me wondering whether he writes the script before the gfx artists go to work on it, or vice-versa? In any event, I thought, a Bigboard presentation sounded like something not to be missed.

So here's a 60 seconds sample from it - in which there seemed to be a few 'innovations' that I hadn't noticed before. But first, and before you scroll any further down the page, see if you notice anything different from the daily diet of slide-dependent presentations inflicted on us by BBC News programmes:

Innovation (1) A lectern
Whereas BBC reporters usually stand next to the screen during their slide shows, Newsnight has invested in an expensive looking circular lectern for the presenter to rest his hands on. Yes, there is a glass of water and some sheets of paper on it, but Mr Mason doesn't use either of them during his presentation and the sole purpose of the lectern is apparently to provide something for him to lean against.

Innovation (2) Camera angle zooms in from on high
As he starts replying to Gavin Esler's question, the camera cuts away to a different angle from somewhere up on the studio ceiling, before gradually zooming down towards him and the video clips that are starting to materialise on the screen behind him.

Innovation (3) Silent movies replace bullet points
In most BBC PowerPoint-style news presentations, the main focus is on bullet points that variously appear, disappear, whizz around the screen and/or explode before our very eyes (e.g. HERE andHERE).

What made this stand out as different was that 16 (yes, sixteen) silent film clips were crammed into the 45 seconds (at a rate of one every 2.8 seconds) it took for Mason got to his first and only bullet-point slide in the sequence.

So what?
A major problem associated with bullet points (and other slides with nothing but writing on them) is that the audience's attention is split between (1) trying to read what's on the screen at the same time as (2) listening to and following what the speaker is saying and (3) looking repetitively from speaker to screen and back again.

All too often, there is the added distraction of trying to to work out what the connection is between what you're reading and what you're hearing (Lend Me Your Ears, Chapter 4), which is one reason why pictorial visual aids tend to be much more helpful to audiences than written ones (Lend Me Your Ears, Chapter 5).

Although BBC news producers and designers seem oblivious to the hazards of slide-dependent presentations, there are others elsewhere in the corporation who are perfectly well aware that slide-dependent presentations can make life difficult for audiences: otherwise, why would their website magazine section have asked me to write a short piece on The problem with PowerPoint to mark the software's 25th anniversary last year?

But pictorial material on its own is no guarantee of success and can sometimes be just as distracting as slides made up of words and sentences as, for example, when the visuals don't illustrate or exemplify a point that's being made. Above all, whatever it is that the speaker is showing to the audience should make it easier for them to understand the message (for more on which, see HERE).

How did these clips relate to the commentary?
The sixteen consecutive clips that appeared while Paul Mason was talking did none of these things, and I can't believe that I was the only viewer who found it distracting trying to work out what the connection was (if any) between what we were watching and the commentary - especially when his reference to Nick Clegg was suddenly followed (illustrated?) by film of Iain Duncan Smith (at clip 11 below):
  1. Two people walking along a pavement
  2. Iain Duncan Smith talking to someone on a street corner
  3. Children on a balcony
  4. Two people outside a building with litter in foreground
  5. Four young men looking out of a window
  6. Two people looking at a building
  7. Building in a sloping grass field
  8. Window with white tube hanging out of it
  9. One end of a building with road barrier in foreground
  10. Empty balcony
  11. Iain Duncan Smith meeting some people
  12. Man at with a flip chart
  13. Iain Duncan Smith at a table with two men
  14. Different camera angle on Iain Duncan Smith and people at a table
  15. Another camera angle on Iain Duncan Smith and people at a table
  16. Deserted balcony gets blanked out by brightly coloured slide
If the minds of viewers start to focus on finding some sense or orderliness in the disjointed images they are watching (and how they relate to the words coming from the person they are supposed to be watching and listening to at the same time) there's a very high probability that the points being made by the speaker will pass them by.

This is exactly what happened to me when I saw this sequence for the first time - and a single viewing is, of course, all that the vast majority of viewers (other than the few of us with fingers on the 'record' button) ever do get to see.

Practical exercise
So, assuming that you've only watched this Bigboard show once, see how you get on at answering the following questions:
  • How much of Mr Mason's presentation can you remember?
  • What was his general point?
  • What details did he deploy to support it?
Glimmer of hope from IpsosMORI?
The concluding slide with the latest news from Britain's top polling company left me wondering why on earth the BBC doesn't commission IspsosMORI to do some independent research into what viewers actually think of this style of news presentation. While they were at it, they could also check on whether there's been any decline in audience ratings for news programmes since BBC journalists started reporting from slide screens at the other of the studio.

The cost of such a project would surely be far less than the BBC's daily spending on the production of ever-more elaborate news-related graphics (not to mention expensive and pointless furnishings like designer lecterns).

At a time when the BBC is also having to prune its budget, here's a chance for them to save millions of pounds worth of licence fees a year - with the added bonus of making their news output easier to follow and less distracting than they are at present.


From Alan Firth via link (@diponte - who'd only watched the 'trailer' video posted yesterday - i.e. before any possibility of being influenced by what I'd written above): I couldn't really concentrate on what Paul Mason was saying while the moving images appeared next to him on screen - and I'm wide awake and I'm usually reasonably good at concentrating. It was just 'too busy' - he was talking fast, packing in information, and the images were ever changing. Not a great package, can do better, Paul.

From Cordelia Ditton (@DillyTalk): love this post

From Mary Ann Sieghart (@MASieghart): I so agree! I found that montage of clips incredibly distracting and couldn't remember what Paul Mason had said afterwards.

From Matt Roper (@mattjroper): It's a good post, but I know it's hard to illustrate 'non-visual' stories on television. What would be the alternative?

From Sarah Jones (@SarahTVNews): Good points. It's all far too distracting with pics of no relevance. Yes it may not ... be a picture friendly story but there are creative ways to bring a pkg to life.

From Chris Atherton (@finiteattention): Bottom line: too many pieces of unconnected info at once... If we had the big picture, maybe it'd be easier to retain the individual chunks of information. But there's no real overview.

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