Media Analysis: Political shows shift media agenda

The BBC has announced plans to move its 'godfather' of political interviewers Sir David Frost to a later slot next year. But does TV scheduling necessarily mean a wider reach of audience? Richard Cann reports.

With the BBC's decision to switch Sir David Frost, the godfather of political interviewers, from his traditional Sunday morning slot to the evening, after the next general election, the onus will turn from setting the media agenda to pulling in more viewers to its programme.

In a Sunday evening slot, Frost will miss Monday newspaper deadlines, indicating that the BBC aims to create a more widely watched weekly TV event.

Media agenda

'Most political TV shows don't have high penetration among ordinary consumers, but the issues get picked up by other media outlets and in dinner-party conversation among decision makers,' says Luther Pendragon partner Simon Buckby, who worked as a journalist on BBC political TV before running the Britain in Europe coalition.

He says this is particularly true of Breakfast with Frost, which at 9am on a Sunday is 'watched by virtually nobody', but journalists mine its content for the Monday papers.

Political TV, however, is not the easiest-to-influence medium for PROs and lobbyists. 'These are serious journalists with their own agenda,' says Buckby, adding that media relations is consequently simple and above board. 'You try to have as good a relationship as possible so that when a relevant issue comes up, they will turn to you first.'

Foresight Communications MD Mark Adams, who has served as private secretary to PMs John Major and Tony Blair, admits that it's often a case of casting your net widely and seeing which programme bites: 'The top end of political media is very well regarded and getting invited onto these shows is a mark of your client's importance and demonstrates credibility behind their message.'

Adams suggests that coverage is easier to attain if you are saying something a little different as, more than any other medium, TV strives to present two sides of an argument.

Then, of course, PROs just need to concentrate on preparing their clients - be they politicians, pressure groups or business figures - for the grilling they tend to receive.


Presenter: Sir David Frost

Audience: 1.5 million

Slot: BBC 1, Sunday 9am

Editor: Barney Jones

What range of interview subjects are you interested in?

It's not just political figures. Recent interviews include former King Constantine of Greece, Britain's former envoy to Baghdad Sir Jeremy Greenstock and the FA's Sir Trevor Brooking. However, Frost does feature at least one heavyweight political interview every week.

Why do people come on Frost?

Frost's reputation stems from a 40-year career, during which he has interviewed the last six British PMs and last seven US presidents.

How far ahead do you plan?

It has to be flexible as it is a programme that breaks news. You will often see quotes from Frost in the Monday papers and we want to contribute to the news agenda so you have to be able to make changes up to the last minute.

How much contact do you have with PROs?

Very little. Frost is so well established and well known that lining up guests is never a problem. Every British PM goes on this programme.


Presenter: Andrew Neil

Audience: 1.8 million

Slot: BBC 1, Thursday 11.30pm

Editor: Jamie Donald

How do you approach politics?

We get into raw politics, outside party boundaries, and cover issues in more depth, but in an accessible way. We are always trying to cover the single outstanding story of the week. It has to be something that most people will have an opinion on.

Where does your content come from?

We get most of our information from other journalists, because almost all special interest groups have four or five MPs on side and we already have a pretty good idea which MPs represent which interests.

What could PROs offer?

Issues about young people or ethnic minorities are underrepresented in Westminster and consequently under-represented on a programme like ours. If there were more PROs operating in these areas, we would welcome more information.

When is the show put together?

We normally begin our planning on Tuesday morning and have usually settled on a topic for our main story by Wednesday lunchtime.


Presenter: Jeremy Vine

Audience: 1.2 million

Slot: BBC 1, Sunday 12pm

Deputy Editor: Gareth Butler

Who watches the show?

It's unlikely that people watch unless they are interested in politics.

Our audience tends to be relatively up-market and older. We have tried to remove some of the obstacles for younger viewers, but it is not our remit to convert people to politics.

Where can PROs contribute?

We'll turn to pressure groups, the private sector, think tanks and organisations for the short films that precede the interviews, but it's unusual for PROs to come to us because with only two or three stories a week, it would have to be something pretty important.

How's your relationship with spin doctors?

It's not always the warmest. The most frustrating thing is not spin, because that is pretty obvious, but people being generally crap and disorganised.

When do you plan content?

We start thinking about content two to three weeks beforehand, but have to be flexible enough to drop something if a big story breaks.

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