New enlightenment from Media Guru

Settling down in front of the TV at a certain time with the rest of the family to watch the big entertainment show of the day is generally a thing of the past.
Today’s television consumers expect to be able to watch what they want, when they want and how they want. You can pause live programmes, watch shows on your mobile phone and catch up on anything you have missed via various on-demand services. The media industry has changed – and is still changing. So what does the future hold for the next generation of media students preparing to take flight into what has always been a hugely competitive and demanding business?
Dorothy Hobson is Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, and faces the task of preparing students for the challenge. Her advice to budding journalists, producers, presenters and public relations officers is to know your stuff – and eat, sleep and breathe it.


“We encourage students to be aspirational – we tell them they can do anything they want, but they have to work hard to get there. I know lots of people in the media industry and you have to be almost obsessive about it – think it and live it. I tell students that the industry is competitive and networking is important – not everything we do is part of an assessment but it is part of their future.”


Like most industries, broadcasting and journalism is experiencing the effects of the economic downturn. Major broadcasters like ITV have announced significant job cuts and scaled back their regional news presence in a bid to save money. But the increase in the number of ways people can watch and read their news and other content had already taken its toll before the credit crunch hit.


“There is a massive threat from the internet and other ways of spending leisure time, such as gaming and watching DVDs,” Dorothy explains. “The industry is going through a difficult time, particularly broadcasters like ITV as their success is based on the advertising they can sell. However good their programmes are and however many millions of people watch them, if they have no money to spend on making them then there is a problem. The programme makers long for an X Factor or an I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here every week, as they need those big audiences to sell advertising space around the programmes.”


An on-going debate within the industry centres around the BBC’s licence fee. Other broadcasters such as Channel Four would like a slice of this money, paid to the Corporation by the television-viewing public. But Dorothy is strongly in favour of the licence fee – but only for the BBC.


“The BBC has to be left with the licence fee intact and not touched because it is no good undermining one strong broadcaster because others are suffering. Critics attack the fact that it is publicly funded, but it is also publicly owned so the licence fee payers are the stakeholders. So if it makes a profit that goes back into broadcasting. I believe it needs to be supported because other broadcasters will never survive without the BBC being strong. It is an assured asset and has nearly 100 years of reputation behind it, and needs to be kept as it is.”


“We encourage students to be aspirational – we tell them they can do anything they want, but they have to work hard to get there.”


The media has certainly evolved since Dorothy began researching the area. She was one of the first people to be writing and talking about popular television in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and one of her early interviews has recently been selected for inclusion in the British Library Sound Archive. Her Masters involved researching how young women made the transition from school to motherhood when they were around 17, 18 and 19 years old. It became apparent that television and radio were extremely important in their lives.


They picked out the programmes that were significant for them – dramas, quiz shows and documentaries about families. Dorothy was given access to the TV companies and was approaching the issue from the point of view of the audience, which was then quite a novel idea. And at that time, the concept of television being about ‘ordinary’ people didn’t really exist. But since the emergence of Reality TV, this is now an almost dominant form. “I’m not a fan of ‘Reality TV’,” Dorothy, from the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, says. “What has happened is that people who want to be famous have to be ‘extra’-ordinary and over the top before they will be considered. In the beginning, no-one knew how it would go but Reality TV has become a self-perpetuating monster. Big Brother has become a parody of itself – it goes too far and then pulls back, and becomes boring. If people still watch these shows, the producers will keep making them. “ITV has been quite careful about what it makes, with big entertainment shows like X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent proving to be big successes, and I would never attack these in the same way. They follow the tradition of people working their way through different entertainment opportunities that perhaps don’t exist anymore.


“I still think that programmes like soap operas do push the boundaries. They have storylines that are revealing and handle issues that other series don’t, such as the recent child abuse storyline in Eastenders. Doctors, which is a daytime series, also has the ability to handle light and strong stories well.”


And as the industry moves forward, what words of wisdom does Dorothy have for the next generation of media stars? One central piece of advice is to immerse yourself in the subject, particularly the newest forms such as social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. The industry is always looking for the next big thing, and it is important to be on top of emerging technologies and trends. Mars Elkins, development producer from Aquila, a Midlands Independent Production Company, recently came to speak to Dorothy’s MA Contemporary Media students and stressed how important social networking sites were for finding out what is going on. Dorothy sees this as being in the favour of young people going into the industry, who already have the knowledge of contemporary communication sites. The MA has a number of visiting Industry speakers, because Dorothy believes that students can learn from those who are involved in the media business as well as from academics. It also enables students to learn to ‘network’ which is essential if they are to progress in their chosen careers.


Importantly in a time of recession, there are many areas where media students can flourish and transfer the skills they have learnt as part of their University course.


“The media is, increasingly, an integral part of everybody’s lives and businesses, so our students can go on to work in any business as most have that sort of presence, for example in media relations, public relations or media training. You always had to be good, but now you have to be the best because the competition is vast.


“But, on the plus side, there are more opportunities for doing your own news publications such as blogs. In some ways, it is a hard time but in others there has never been a better time to make your own programmes and documentaries – you just have to have the talent and know the industry. The advantages of the degrees our students have studied is that they have combined academic theory, media practice and learning from media practitioners.


“The new ideas that are coming from our graduates are what the future of the media will be.”