It’s 15 years since the late Dennis Potter, British TV’s finest dramatist, attacked former director general John Birt as a “croak-voiced Dalek” for allegedly destroying the BBC’s creative culture through subjugation to the market.
Last year Jeremy Paxman (like Potter before him, in the annual MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh) doubted the BBC’s future, calling for a recovered sense of purpose. Now John Simpson has claimed publicly that the BBC “is in its last stages.” Is it?
Traditional television broadcasting is an old medium. Mobile phones, personal computers and iPods are now centre screen. But while delivery modes are changing, broadcasting is far from obsolescent. TV viewing is still high, here and worldwide. Established “terrestrial” broadcasters have so far retained more of the audience than expected. Radio is more interesting too as a result of DAB and the internet.
Nonetheless, market events are further worsening a broadcasting cash crisis, as income streams narrow. Audiences slowly decline and fragment. Demographics have changed. The BBC isn’t alone in responding uncertainly. Broadcasters seem determined to chase a youth audience that effortlessly resists TV. An older audience is satisfied neither by choice nor quality.
TV is something people accept rather than actively like, and watch if having nothing better to do. Its executives, lacking time to watch television, encourage programming for consumers they assume to be less demanding than themselves. They run scared of ratings decline, avoiding risk, repeating exhausted formats. British broadcasters currently seem neither to produce nor import the quality necessary to revitalize the medium.
Why does it take lesser-known TV channels like FX to have the imagination to run The Wire and Dexter? It’s sad, too, when viewers of BBC News 24 desert for CNN or Al Jazeera in search of hard news. Convinced that audiences really want human interest stories, BBC executives encourage editors to ration hard news. The extensive foreign reporter network which the BBC boasts about, underpinning an important public service commitment, is often sidelined in favour of health service stories, pointless vox pops, and viewer emails. No wonder John Simpson becomes discouraged.
Similar lack of ambition stunts arts programming. The Avengers has its devoted audience, but if BBC Four hasn’t product enough to fill its schedule, why not construct vigorously marketed movie seasons, featuring scores of fine European art house hits, hardly seen now in the UK? That would be a public service broadcasting commitment welcomed by many.
Several minority appeal offerings by the BBC—Storyville on BBC Four, for example—are excellent. Generally, though, arts and culture programmes allow ratings fears to confuse their mission, unable to match, say, the simple quality of Tim Marlow’s long-running art history shows for Channel Five. In news and current affairs, there’s nothing on the BBC to equal Channel 4 News or Dispatches, either. Even in such a crucial popular battleground as sport, Sky Sports programming often displays more energy and flair (and Andy Gray).
The corporation, with sufficient TV and radio channels, could more effectively differentiate between broadcasting and narrowcasting than at present. Radio Three, for example, is a jewel in the crown. It shouldn’t matter that its audience is sometimes undetectable, provided Sir Terry is pulling them in on Radio Two. There is no better music programme than R3’s Late Junction. Some things are worth protecting because they are irreplaceable. (Late Junction has listeners, too). Likewise, the World Service and Radio Four.
Are there parallels for television? BBC1 is what people watch, but Strictly Come Dancing underpins an argument about popularity, failing, however, to reassure critics that the BBC has any unique case for public funding. Rival bids for public resources are increasingly persuasive.
What a difficult time, therefore, for the Scottish Broadcasting Commission (SBC), also just after the advent of BBC Alba, to have argued the case for a new Scottish channel.
However, shortcomings in UK broadcasting are yet worse in Scotland, and the Scottish audience is unhappy. The First Minister has responded to the SBC report, but we’re nowhere remotely near a process of implementation. In theory, Westminster could allocate the projected £75m per year from income derived directly from media and communications transactions. Now is not good timing though.
The democratic issue: should Holyrood have political oversight of the Scottish media? This responsibility currently remains in Westminster. TV and radio are still core public media with enormous political, economic and cultural importance.
In tough times for bankers and broadcasters alike, the Scottish broadcasting question will need to shout to make itself heard. Let’s hope the SBC report is decently supported by MSPs.
Meanwhile, were there a mantra for the resuscitation of quality public service television broadcasting in the UK, it might be this: we’ve tried everything else, and it isn’t working.
Let’s bring back intelligence.
(Now, back to Planet Rock for me.)