Last week, Pusan National University political science professor Robert Kelly was giving yet another live news interview via Skype about the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. An international expert in Korean politics, he was discussing the situation on BBC TV in a jacket and tie, broadcasting from what looked like an office. But then his daughter and son burst into the room behind him, followed by their frantic mother trying to shoo them out. The rest is (very recent) history. What Kelly has since called “a family blooper” became one of the most talked-about clips on the Internet over the weekend, covered in every major news outlet globally. Kelly’s family even had to hold a press conference about it in Pusan. Though the incident was an unplanned accident, all the insane publicity is because the BBC deliberately packaged it as a meme.
What’s gotten lost in all the crosstalk about what this clip represents in terms of Kelly’s work-life balance, or his wife’s parenting skills, or just the general adorableness of their daughter’s dance moves, is the fact that this was a perfectly architected social media blockbuster. BBC host James Menendez, who was interviewing Kelly when the kids waltzed in, admitted later that he could have cut away from the interview but decided to keep going to see what would happen next. He must have realized it would make a terrific viral video.
Minutes after the interview was broadcast, BBC News producer David Waddell tweeted at Kelly, “Nicely handled interruption, Professor! Do you have any objection to me sharing the clip of that moment on BBC News?” Kelly, who later described himself as mortified and worried the BBC would never contact him again, replied with confusion: “What would that mean, please? Re-broadcasting it on BBC TV, or just here on Twitter? Is this kinda thing that goes ‘viral’ and gets weird?” The answer, as it turned out, was yes and yes. The video blew up, especially in Korea, where a public reeling from political scandal was eager for comic relief of any kind.
The BBC built this meme out of its own blooper, but not just for the sake of slapstick gold. Kelly’s interview, now known as “the BBC dad” video, also underscores how much of today’s news is reported by ordinary people. Populist leaders throughout the world are trying to paint the media as a powerful adversary, an “opposition party” that can take on governments. But the reality is that the media relies on mostly underpaid experts working in their home offices. The kids are just outside the door, waltzing in when they can.
NPR producer Linda Holmes said Kelly’s experience on TV is a direct result of democratizing access to media and getting more voices into a story. Writing on Twitter, she said:
When you decide whom to use as sources, you make a profound decision. The more perfect, predictable, the more IDEAL the setup must be, the fewer people will be able to do it. Do you have a radio-quality phone line? Can we get a producer to you? All these things affect what breadth of humans you can talk to. Being open to stuff like people in home studios where kids might bust in is a thing that, to me, is important as part of not requiring everything to be super-perfect if the trade-off is the right guest.
Sure, the BBC could have brought in some political expert from London. But instead they wanted a well-informed commentator, immersed in the issues and living Korea. So they picked a guy whose knowledge was much greater than his access to recording technology. The result, as Holmes noted, is not “super-perfect.” But Kelly, who writes a blog about security issues in Korea as well as teaching political science, was the perfect person to talk about how the ouster of Park Geun-hye might affect relations between North and South Korea.
Then, in just a few seconds, Kelly demonstrated what countless commentators on the news never could. Reporters and experts are just average folks with families and Skype connections. The charmingly wholesome BBC dad video reveals that broadcasting the news isn’t a subversive activity done by paid operatives. It’s something that regular folks do, just to share what they know before putting the kids to bed. Considered in that light, it’s easy to see why the BBC didn’t consider the episode a humiliating disaster. Instead it was the perfect opportunity to manufacture a pro-media meme.
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