Thursday, 16 July 2015

Bye Bye Beeb

Too many depressing things are happening at the moment, though there are bright spots (I refereed 57 straight fights at the Much Wenlock Olympian Games fencing the other day and only made one result-changing cock-up; I turned 40 on Tuesday too) and I can't keep up. Attacks on organised labour, on healthcare, on public service broadcasting, on education… It's like the Tories, with a majority of 12, bought a copy of The Shock Doctrine and are using it as a guidebook. If you haven't read it, it traces how the CIA-supported 1973 fascist coup in Chile gave American monetarist economists (known as the Chicago Boys) the opportunity to try out all their ideas in one go, untrammelled by democracy, debate, human rights, concern for the people or any of those outdated ideas. Capital loved the Cold War: it enabled them to link freedom, democracy and capitalism, when they have no natural connection at all. China's the most successful capitalist nation on earth – because its people are neither free nor democratic.

So that's what's happening in the UK (and Greece, obviously). A government is using a tiny mandate to rush through the privatisation of public services and the abolition of the very concept of the public good (here's the excellent open letter on the marketisation of Higher Education). Here's a short piece I've written for a university magazine, with a few additions and subtractions for this different kind of outlet.

Some years ago, the Daily Telegraph ran a click-bait style piece entitled ‘Five of the Worst BBC3 Programmes’. For the sake of posterity, they picked Coming of Age, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Tittybangbang (‘Awful, all-female sketch show'), Danny Dyer: I Believe in UFOs and Little Miss Jocelyn whose crimes seem to include youth, being female and black.

Some, perhaps all of these shows might be your idea of hell, and no doubt readers also tend to shudder at the thought of a night in front of Snog, Marry, Avoid or Dog Borstal though I would point out that all the shouty smugness can often be a diversionary tactic: those sneaky TV-types are smuggling educational stuff in under the cover of crass rubbish. I used to be quite good at spotting weaselly indoctrination in kids' TV and boycotting shows when I was young: give me Ren and Stimpy over Grange Hill any day. You don't have to like everything on TV: you just don't have the right to demand that anything you don't like should be shut down. 

Anyway, fair enough. Being a white middle-class 40 year-old, Radio 1's current disposition makes me want to cut off my ears rather than endure a second’s more ‘banter’ and self-promotion by one of their interchangeable smug DJs playing bland rubbish. I once listened to nothing but Radio 1. John Peel, Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session, Mark and Lard in the afternoon. The commercial stations didn’t play the kind of thing I liked, and I’m allergic to advertising. As I aged, Radio 1 fulfilled its requirement to cater for a younger demographic, but I still had Radio 3. Well, at least Late Junction: the rest of it has been ruined by market forces. Classic FM has destroyed classical music by its strict policy of only every playing snippets of music that has featured on adverts. Nothing unfamiliar, unhappy or untuneful can be tolerated. If it happened in visual art, our galleries would be full of nothing but dogs playing cards and selfies. Classic FM attracts listeners by giving them soothing background muzak and R3 has largely followed suit, at least in the daytime.

I still have Radio 4 (except for the damned Archers) and sometimes 6Music. My tastes in TV changed too: where once I watched little but science fiction, Westerns and smart-arse American cartoons, I’m became addicted to The Wire (BBC2), Newsnight (BBC2) and New Tricks (BBC1). I shout at the TV and radio quite a lot, because I think that the BBC has a markedly conservative tendency at the moment, but as long as the other half of the population is shouting at it because it’s full of lefties, it’s probably getting things about right.

And now theCulture Secretary wants to strip the BBC back to making programmes that ‘the market’ won’t make. The BBC, he declares, should stop making popular and populist shows that ITV or Channel 5 or (and I suspect this is the major point) Sky could do. The Voice has been mentioned, amongst that plethora of talent shows. What it should do, he thinks, is produce the unprofitable shows that are good for us. No doubt he means wall-to-wall Question Time, Antiques Roadshow, Songs of Praise gardening programmes, golf, golf, more golf and property speculation shows designed to make us view the panoply of human life solely in monetary terms. He and his friends want coverage of the stuff they like on the BBC, and want everyone else to shut up or pay Sky. They hate the BBC because they think it's run by communists: as far as I can see, it's run by Daily Mail readers. They also hate it because they resent the popular will being embodied in collective non-commercial provision of public goods. It's an example of a largely successful popular institution which reproaches the market by simply existing. Like the NHS it's got to go, because it implies that there is an alternative to the market.

Essentially, the new government wants a BBC which panders solely to the tastes of rich, white, conservative, southern people, especially men. Women, ethnic minorities, Welsh-speakers, homosexuals and liberals should try their luck in the fabled ‘market’. Children too can get lost. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but children’s TV has largely disappeared from the commercial airwaves: hampered by pesky regulations (soon to be abolished, I presume) about not advertising sugary drinks and foods means that there’s no money in it. What little kids’ TV there is tends to be cheap rubbish designed to sell toys. Only the BBC – thanks to its public service broadcasting requirement – provides high-quality children's programming, often with an educational bent. News, too, is under threat: imagine running a report on aircraft safety, for instance, if you depend on Ryanair adverts, or on hidden sugars when you know that Coca-Cola is one of your major clients?

The attack on the BBC is an attack on the idea of universality. You and I might hate every programme on BBC3, but that’s OK: it’s audience might hate everything we watch. We all pay the licence fee (in theory) and part of the public service ethos is that all our needs are served equally. I pay for Dog Borstal and Dog Borstal fans pay for my University Challenge. Viewers of Dog Borstal and University keep paying, and might even watch the other’s types of show. In the brave new world of subscription-funded broadcasting, those with cash will get the programming they want; the rest may as well go for a walk.

John Whittingdale objects to The Voice because he thinks the BBC shouldn’t make shows replicating what the commercial channels are doing. While the rash of talent shows may be annoying, he perhaps forgets that most TV formats are trialled on licence-funded channels, where ratings are slightly less important than quality. What seems tediously familiar now was once innovative. Take Mad Men, for instance. Made by an American commercial station, only BBC2 took a chance on it in the UK. Once it was a critical hit, Sky swooped in to outbid the BBC for later series: the BBC built the audience up, and Sky took the credit (though not the viewers, interestingly). Whittingdale also forgets that popular hits pay for expensive unpopular but important shows. No Top Gear, Sherlock and Doctor Who, selling round the world, no Newsnight or Desert Island Discs. Nor, I would add, any highly trained directors, producers, engineers, actors, editors and sound recordists: the commercial sector is subsidised by the BBC’s world-class training programme.

Infuriating though it often is, the BBC represents the very best of British culture (despite it being Establishment, Unionist, a capitalist shill and all the other things about it I hate). It believes in equality of representation, universality, and that very old-fashioned concept, ‘public service’. Without a broadcaster committed to serving us all uninfluenced by the profit motive or chasing ratings, we are all poorer. 

The same model is being applied to education, by the way.


Anonymous said...

As a supporter of the BBC, I'm genuinely sorry to have to point out that most of this post is ill-informed nonsense. Some random examples:

"Classic FM has destroyed classical music by its strict policy of only ever playing snippets of music that has featured on adverts." That's simply untrue - why do you say so?

"Children’s TV has largely disappeared from the commercial airwaves." Completely untrue. Check out CITV.

"Most TV formats are trialled on licence-funded channels." Rubbish. What about, say, the triumphantly successful Big Brother, or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Unlike, say, University Challenge, which is an American commercial format the BBC has licensed.

"Take Mad Men...only BBC2 took a chance on it in the UK". Really? And your evidence that no other UK channel was interested would be - what?

"Once (Madmen) was a critical hit, Sky swooped in to outbid the BBC for later series". Surely you mean that when Madmen was a ratings disaster on BBC Four, the likelihood was that the BBC declined to renew the series and it was sold off cheap to Sky?

"Essentially, the new government wants a BBC which panders solely to the tastes of rich, white, conservative, southern people, especially men." You mean it doesn't already?

And so on.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and while I remember, you mention The Voice in connection with your remark that "most TV formats are trialled on licence-funded channels". Well yes, The Voice was "trialled" by the BBC but only following a bidding war with ITV, and for a two year license on the format the BBC ended up paying...well look it up for yourself.

Metatone said...

Anonymous clearly hasn't sat down with the kids and watched CITV anytime recently. The quality difference (not to mention the volume of imported dross) is clear. The shuffle where we stopped acknowledging that quality children's TV is possibly one of the most important public service issues is a sign of how our priorities have been broken.

Big Brother was trialled elsewhere - on a channel in the Netherlands that had been a public channel up until a year previously. It was the public broadcasting ethic that allowed the gamble. (And I worked on the original Dutch version...)

WWTBAM by contrast clearly could only come out of commercial television. It's not the business of the BBC to be operating a high cash payment show, subsidised by expensive phone line competitions etc. It's ITV at it's best (and worst) - yet it's rather odd to suggest that the BBC should have be trialling it.

As for your rewriting of the MadMen story - go look up how much Sky paid. It was a conscious strategy (replicating the sports one) to subsidise a fledgling channel (Sky Atlantic) with a blockbuster acquisition - and at around 1/4 million £ per episode, it was not something the BBC could match.

Anonymous said...

Metatone: I don't know what to make of your post, as you seem to accept all the points I made.

OK, you prefer CBBC to CITV. That's your opinion, but it doesn't mean to say that, as the original post claimed, "children’s TV has largely disappeared from the commercial airwaves". It hasn't. Indeed, apart from CITV, there are seventeen other commercial children's channels available in the UK.

You also say that Big Brother was trialled on a Dutch Channel that "had been a public channel up until a year was the public broadcasting ethic that allowed the gamble". Well, no. The Dutch Channel Veronica which launched the show went private in 1995; Big Brother was first broadcast in 1999. I make that four years, not one. And if you think that Veronica's motives in commissioning the programme derived from a public service ethos, I give up.

As for Madmen, I'm intrigued that you know how much Sky paid. Most industry commentators seem to think that Madmen formed part of an output deal between Sky and HBO. I look forward to your evidence.