Tellytubby television 

18 May 2003


Recent changes in the ecology of the broadcasting industry have only reflected changes in society say their protagonists. But are these changes for the better of the citizenry as a whole? Or is the very concept of the “citizenry” now itself outmoded?

Some people under 30 have very little awareness of the profound degree to which this country has changed in the last thirty years.

In many areas of life the change has been mainly for the better but in certain fields this may not be a safe assumption. Broadcasting and journalism are an example. One idea so beloved of television executives today is that the viewer doesn’t care about historic detail or documentary accuracy as long as the programme is ‘entertaining’ and keeps you in your seat. This has led to background music in documentaries, jaw dropping exaggeration in factual programmes and a cavalier attitude towards reporting the past.

It is said that this is of no consequence, as “only the chattering classes care”. Apart from the breathtaking arrogance of such a defence made routinely by schedulers of “light factual” programming, this may represent the start of a slippery slope that ends with an Orwellian nightmare; Society and its concerns eventually being perceived as “what the elite deem it to be” rather than what it really is like.


From the title sequence of Horizon


In documentaries the erosion of the authoritative voiceover written by specialists in the field, by a newer vox pop or ‘one man’s view’ approach, is an attempt to popularise the genre at the expense of credibility. The catastrophic decline of BBC’s “Horizon” as a programming strand of undisputed scientific authority epitomises this approach. The equally paranoid belief that the average viewer has a short attention span, so why bother with challenging or long running material, now has a stranglehold on the programming assumptions of the television industry.


The Second World War in Colour title card


The discovery by documentary makers a couple of years ago of 300 hours of unpublished colour film of world war two – a major historic find in its own right – resulted in two immediate television series to exploit the material of a mere three one hour episodes per series with a third very short series commissioned some time later, after the corporate toe was dipped in the water. There was no question of a major and long running series to exploit the find. It was feared that today’s audience would tire of bigger bites at this particular cherry. On the commercial terrestrial channels at least, it would not hit its audience target among the required demographic.

It is not so long since such news would have had the BBC, Rediffusion, Granada or Thames commissioning a 26 part series on the back of the discovery. In a world of Carlton television or the ‘new era’ Granada however, viewer interest is discounted before you begin. It is a cliché to say that Sidney Bernstein, Howard Thomas or Cyril Bennett would be turning in their graves, but in this instance, I suspect Lew Grade would also be spinning.

In Britain, the economic imperatives of the last 25 years, which ironically were not really imperative at all, have diluted the sense of Shared communal interest that used to be so strong. At a cultural level, the population has been atomised, as the right to almost infinite “choice” has effectively closed down the broadcasting industry and replaced it by one predicated on the assumptions of publishing rather than broadcasting.

This is very much at one with the broader ideological changes of the age, where collective interests and social endeavours have been replaced with a new belief in the right of consumers to exercise various economic freedoms without regard to their social effect on society as a whole. There are now no citizens, only consumers.

Mrs Thatcher

Mrs. Thatcher may not literally have said, “there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families” (a famous misquote) but she might as well have done.

Historically, this is an ‘atomisation’ of the former citizenry into a rampant individualism and self-regard with little care for national consequence. Any social democrat or liberal must deplore the philosophy that has caused the change.

The ethos of the post 1979 governments – of all colours – has been the biggest engineer of all this change, in thrall as they have been to business and commerce, with no faith in the state or municipality as instruments of betterment.

It is ironic that these recent degradations of traditional citizenry have followed a period of 50 years unparalleled advance in the quality of material life.

Medical and technological advances have improved the lives of all those with access to them – sadly not all citizens – and even the very internet you read this on – has added immeasurably to our understanding of the planet and its contents. You do however need the resources and education to access the information on offer and use it to advantage.

That the medical advances are the greatest benefit of the “improved” post war Britain is not in doubt. To recall how many children were routinely dying of leukaemia in the 60s for example and the fact that cancer is not always terminal now, is ample demonstration of progress in a vital field.

There are the liberal social advances in race relations, divorce, contraception, abortion, employment, disabled, women’s and gay rights – all of which have massively improved people’s lives. Even school life with all it’s faults, is less harsh on most children than it once was.

The judgement on broadcasting and the press is more mixed though, with too much attention to quantity and so called “choice” at the expense of quality. The executives in charge now just don’t ‘get it’ about paternalism, which they see not as the stronger helping the weak, but as indicative of some imagined elite dictating the agenda.

In giving the audience mainly what it is perceived to want, on mass networks, while moving challenging programming to the ghettoes of niche channels, opportunity is lost for television to be the tool of enlightenment for the citizen that it once was – or even an educative process of last resort for those who had little or no formal education.

All is not lost though. There are still free services of subtle educative value to be found. Parts of BBC 2 and 4, Radios 2, 3, 4 and BBC7, News 24 and BBC online, all remain potential centres of enlightenment.

Management errors can still often seem to happen – the over obsessive targeting of audience age profile – the culture of the demographic – so beloved of advertisers, can lead to broadcasting ghettoes… The admirable Channel 4 of old is almost unrecognisable since it ditched “progressive” for “youth oriented” as a central philosophy.

One notes that Independent Television is no longer represented in this list. It would have been a few years ago when it too was public service oriented but the great rush down market has seen to that, as its unique British combination of public service and commercial income, has been systematically trashed by a young management with little historical awareness and too much concern for shareholder value.

This all leads to the ultimate question: “what is broadcasting for?” If it is to make money, or in the BBC’s case, to justify the licence fee with populist programming – then the industry is doing rather well.

The age of paternalism may be dead, but for those of us who believe that broadcasting is the cultural crucible of the nation, a forum for debate and enlightenment, and an educative resource of last resort for those who may have missed out in formal education – then the picture is decidedly more mixed. Many gems still exist among the dross – but the louder they are trumpeted by executives, the more one realises that there are less of them. This surely is a cause for concern.

As OfCom takes over the regulatory reins, surely this is the time to ensure that content regulation should not be allowed to die and that shareholder value should not always be the psychological “bottom line” in commercial broadcasting.


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