Between two stools 

1 January 2004

British broadcasting, and specifically British television, was for many years regarded as the best in the world. This may well still be the case, but its quality has been eroded, paradoxically, by choice. Still, the standard-bearer for British television has continued to remain the BBC.

Although there has always been a tendency to criticise the BBC, this criticism seems to have become a good deal more intense over the past decade or two. Most of the time, the criticism has centred on governments and others disliking the BBC’s reporting of events in which they are involved. Margaret Thatcher once introduced Rupert Murdoch to an international visitor to Number 10 with the words, “Here is Mr Murdoch, who gives us Sky News, the only unbiased news in the UK” and it is possible that Murdoch’s erstwhile support for Blair and the wake of the Gilligan affair gave the present government a similar point of view.

The fact that a government might well become displeased with how the BBC reported its activities was borne in mind by its founders. They established a mechanism that made it very difficult to withdraw funding, or threaten to do so, if the Corporation did not toe the line – at least in the short term. This mechanism, disliked by some and misunderstood by many more, is the licence fee. Although sometimes referred to as a tax, it is not one: it has its own collection mechanism and is, at least in theory, completely separate from government-legislated taxation. It is reviewed along with the BBC’s Charter – something that happens next in 2006. The licence fee is regularly criticised – it is easy for detractors to contrast it with allegedly ‘free’ commercial broadcasting – but it is difficult to think of a method that would safeguard a sensible level of public funding without putting it at risk of withdrawal by a Government in a fit of pique. It may not be the best indicator in the world, but the fact that the BBC has been criticised over the years from every colour of the political spectrum does suggest that at the very least, it is not in anyone’s pocket. Maintaining this independence is an important consideration for any alternative funding proposal to address.

But governments are not the only people whose wrath is vented on the BBC. There are plenty of pundits who will criticise it for either being too populist or for wasting the public’s money. Some of these critics are in the pay of commercial broadcasting entities and simply want the Corporation’s wings clipped so that it loses market share and unbalances the playing field in their favour. But it is reasonable to ask where the BBC should stand among other broadcasters. Commonly, answers to this question come down on one of two horns of a dilemma.

One of the primary reasons for the establishment of the BBC was “to avoid the chaos that has happened in America”, as the Postmaster General of the day put it. By this he not only meant the establishment of a broadcasting monopoly in the United Kingdom – one that was not to be broken until the advent of commercial television in September 1955. He also, no doubt, saw the establishment of the BBC as setting a standard for quality broadcasting. And if he did not, then Lord Reith certainly did. We can sum up Reith’s concept of broadcasting quality in a simple phrase, and though he probably never said it, he could quite easily have done:

“Good broadcasting gives people what they do not yet know they need.”

This approach, of course, asks more questions than it answers. But the idea of offering quality programming not only covered the BBC: it extended to the early commercial television stations, which were required by the regulator to include a suitable amount of “quality” programming, and some ITV contractors were happy to do this without being told.

This was all very well in a television landscape consisting of one or two – or perhaps even three or four – channels. The paternalistic attitude inherent in this approach was also, perhaps, very much a mark of the times. Those times have long since passed. Today, we have a multichannel environment in which the goal is not “quality programming”, but something else. Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol, contrasted the past with the present thus:

“If you go and look at some of the television programmes of the 50s and 60s, their quite appalling technical standard, their lack of creativity, their arrogant ignorance of what the audience liked or disliked – you know, ‘we’re putting this on TV, and you’ll have it or not’ – which you could do when there were only one or two channels. Things are immeasurably better [now]. Choice is better, all these channels, all these different programmes on.”

While we might go along with Bazalgette’s criticism of early technical quality and even mastery of the medium, although in my view these shortcomings should be excused, he almost certainly gets the motivation wrong. The public service ethic was not one of merely giving people something and not caring whether they liked it or not: that did not come into the equation. What broadcasters had was a sense of duty to their viewers and listeners.

There is a part of this duty that is arguably even more important than merely offering ‘quality broadcasting’, and has grown more important over the years. That is the role of broadcasting in a democracy. The British people are entitled to accurate information about, and multipartite discussion of, the society in which they live, and more than ever this is provided via broadcasting rather than by other media. This duty – to inform and educate – is clearly at odds with the need to increase returns to shareholders and maximise profitability.

Bazalgette says “choice is better”. But the fact is that more choice means that people are today less likely to get “what they do not yet know they need”; instead they are likely to get more and more of what they think they want – a very different matter.

For more choice in the world of commercial television means more concern with ratings. Where does public service broadcasting stand when it comes to ratings? Should a public service broadcaster offer the public what they think they want – in other words join the commercial stations in chasing ratings – or should it aim for quality broadcasting, the kind of programming that is “what they do not yet know they need”?

In practical terms, the BBC has two options: should it, on the one hand, make popular programmes, or on the other, should it make the programmes that commercial broadcasters cannot afford to make because they would not receive enough income from advertising to justify them?

The BBC is bound almost by definition to fall between these two stools. If the BBC gets good ratings, this line of commentary goes, it is producing popular programming and thus it is doing things that any broadcaster could do – something that the commercial broadcasters are already doing ‘for nothing’, so it is not justifying its funding. On the other hand, if it specialises in producing programmes that nobody else would do, which often (but by no means always) result in poor ratings, it is criticised for being elitist, and not producing programmes that people want to watch, and thereby not justifying its funding.

Nowhere in this argument is any sense of the BBC’s public service role in a democracy or the Reithian idea of giving people quality broadcasting. In reality, the BBC’s funding should not really be linked to its popular ‘success’. But, inevitably, it is. Popularity is only the market’s indicator that a broadcaster is getting it right – and that, quite simply, misses the point of public service broadcasting.

It is a fact that by requiring, implicitly or explicitly, the BBC to produce “popular” (ie ‘high rating’) programming, its role as a public service broadcaster is compromised as it is less able to contemplate the production of programming that is not going to be popular.

Of course there is programming that is unpopular because it is bad, as well as programming that is unpopular simply because people don’t want to know. In reality what happens is that there is a good old British compromise. The BBC produces both popular and less-popular (but high quality) programmes. With luck, enough of the former to keep people quiet, and enough of the latter to keep other people quiet – although on unlucky days it can upset both camps (and we’ll forget the simply bad for a moment).

But there is another aspect to this difficult balance, and it is one that is subtle but important. If the BBC can produce quality programming, and at the same time command decent ratings, then it does more than merely hold its own and justify its funding to its critics. If the BBC has a significant market share, and in the present multichannel environment this probably needs to be about a third, then it is a force to be reckoned with. Overall, as a broadcaster, it has enough momentum to continue to set the standards for British broadcasting. The people who want quality programming can get it. The fact that they can get it from the BBC raises the audience’s expectations of other broadcasters. And the people who need to participate in our democracy – which means all of us – get what we need too.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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