Public private partnership 

29 June 2003

What is a ‘public service broadcaster’? Once upon a time, that was relatively easy to answer. The BBC was funded, as it had been since the twenties and still is today, by the licence fee, an ingenious – if not perfect – method of providing public funding without having a government in the way. Had it been funded by tax, it could have been used by Government to control the broadcaster.

As the only one of its kind, it had to serve the population at large – all of it – and while before WWII it was arguably a vehicle to speed, and hide, the development of radar, after the War began an expansion programme that sought to enable it to do just that. But with one channel, broadcasting for a few hours a day, it was difficult to be all things to all “lookers-in”.

Arguably, in these earliest days of all, the BBC had to produce a lot of entertainment to attract new viewers. But that entertainment was always liberally sprinkled with serious programming. Even in the early days of commercial TV, broadcasters like Associated-Rediffusion produced both dross and diamonds. But in those days, even “entertainment” had more content, and certainly “serious programming” did.

Today, there are a great many channels – and nothing on. But a broadcaster no longer has to be all things to all viewers: it can specialise. So what is the role of a public service broadcaster – specifically, in the context of the UK broadcast environment, the BBC – in a multichannel world?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because whatever it does, the BBC will be criticised for doing the wrong thing.

In the increasingly ratings-driven, increasingly unregulated, increasingly amorphous world of British commercial television, success is measured by the ratings which attract the advertisers, and there is enormous pressure to broadcast programming that costs as little as possible to produce, and which as many people as possible will watch.

Today, that translates into “reality TV”, though not quite as predicted by Nigel Kneale’s prescient 1968 play The Year of the Sex Olympics; or game shows; or increasingly outrageous talk-shows. In such an environment, there is an opportunity for the BBC to focus on quality programming that is not viable for a commercial broadcaster to manage: it can “fill in the gaps”, so to speak, with material that is educational, culturally valid, and stimulates us to think rather than merely absorb and consume.

But the trouble is that this will attract a smaller audience, and if the quality programming is difficult, asks awkward questions, and promotes controversy, the political Right will leap on such efforts with the excuse that the BBC is wasting public money and ignoring a vast proportion of its audience. Of course it hardly needs me to note that their real reason is that they object to the ideas being aired, and wish to put a stop to them.

And even if it does not suffer such a concerted attack as this, a publicly-funded ‘public service’ broadcaster is always going to be under pressure to justify its publicly-funded status, which will be under question if too few people watch it. This criticism may not be helpful, but it must be addressed.

The alternative is for the Corporation to play the ratings game – and recently it has got quite good at this, beating ITV1 regularly in a number of key prime-time slots, which in its modern, amorphous, homogenised form must be relatively easy to do. The BBC can do popular programming too – and do it well.

But if it focuses on producing popular programming, it will be criticised – and not only from the remains of the Left – for simply replicating what the commercial channels are doing, and not producing challenging, difficult work that is artistically and culturally valid; and that it should not be in the business of dumbing-down its programming for mass audiences.

And, whatever is said to the contrary, there can be no denying that such dumbing-down has indeed happened: whatever happened to the quality programming like Horizon and Tomorrow’s World? And can you imagine drama of the currency of the 70s Play For Today thread appearing today? No, I didn’t think so.

A BBC Television Newsreel segment from 1950, for example, didn’t just comment on the recent first-ever live linkup from Calais to the UK: it told you how it was done, with just a quick few seconds at the end containing footage of the actual content from across the Channel.

No news producer in their right mind would attempt that level of detail today, in a world where viewers are assumed to have an attention span of a few milliseconds, and to need DOGs, promos and other obnoxious devices to stop them from wandering away. But of course the real reason people might wander away and don’t know where they are, is that everything looks the same.

Quite evidently, the BBC is in a lose/lose situation here: it is damned if it does one thing, and damned if it does the other. And no doubt it will be damned from both sides if it tries a balancing act and does both – surely the traditional solution to the dilemma.

My own, personal view is that I am totally happy for the BBC to get my licence money in return for producing challenging programming of artistic and cultural merit, especially as there are plenty of channels doing the other stuff that I never watch.

The BBC can even, as far as I’m concerned, produce programming that people “ought” to watch, in the old Reithian mode, even if the audience by and large ignores it. (In fact I don’t think everyone would ignore it: the public is too often underestimated).

But is the traditional balancing act – in which each channel has a spread from “popular” to “serious” – the only feasible solution in a multichannel world? Perhaps not.

Today, there are more than enough channels to go round. The BBC has several of them, and ignoring the joint ventures, the important News24 and the children’s channels, there are four obvious outlets (conveniently numbered 1 to 4) over which this balancing act can be played out, without resorting to the tactic of making all available channels broad-spectrum as was required in the old days – the very old days before BBC2.

Indeed, this solution has been available for some time, and it used to work quite well: most popular programming on 1 and the highbrow stuff on 2. Commercial television (as opposed to the commercial television companies) were able to do it with ITV and Channel 4. But today, in the race for ratings and the race to add more and more channels, someone seems to have forgotten that you can now spread your remit a little more widely than before.

There is an argument in favour of keeping BBC One, the primary channel, as “all things to all people”. Although arguably everyone who can get BBC One can also get Two, there is something to be said for tradition, and keeping the general interest programming, with a little of this and a little of that, on One and the more cultural and demanding material on Two, thus returning Two to something like its original role, would not be a bad thing.

Indeed, Two today includes a certain amount of filler material that could be dispensed with and replaced by the generally excellent content on BBC Four, much of which is deserving of a wider audience. This would make Two more highbrow than it was even in Attenborough’s time. Wonderful! It would also leave a channel spare for something else. BBC Three, with its younger agenda, could stay more or less as at present.

That’s just one idea, of course – there are many others. But for the BBC to be able to wholeheartedly throw itself into any higher-brow role than at present, it has to be freed from any perceived requirement to justify itself in terms of ratings, with the possible exception of BBC One in the above scheme.

That does not, however, mean that it should be free of some degree of accountability, and for that purpose an editorial board of some kind might do the trick, as long as the content of that board is not determined either by government nor by commercial interests: instead it should be formulated according to cultural, educational and artistic criteria.

In any event, we cannot allow UK broadcasting to become increasingly devoid of culturally-valid content, and, arguably, nobody other than a BBC, freed from the apparent need to justify its activities in ratings terms, is going to do it.

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