After the horse has bolted? 

1 June 2007

Ofcom managed to publish their highly critical verdict on Celebrity Big Brother six days before the eighth series of non-celebrity Big Brother 8 started on the 30th May. The result was the stiffest punishment they have ever given to any public service broadcaster.

Apology captions shown on three separate occasions – Big Brother 8 opening show, the reversioned repeat of this and the first eviction show – may not sound much of a punishment. However it’s the summary of judgement that is the most telling, revealing critical misjudgements and communication breakdowns.

Ofcom had to act sternly on this occasion for two reasons: there was the unprecedented volume of complaints received, and there was the public humiliation faced by government ministers as a result of the surrounding publicity. Only Channel 4’s willingness to make changes to its internal systems avoided the risk of stronger punishment.

These changes included a promise to reintroduce a ‘Right To Reply’ style programme that airs viewer’s grievances in relation to Channel 4 output. If something like that had been on air when Celebrity Big Brother had been running, Channel 4 management might have been alerted to the seriousness of the problem at an earlier stage, and taken remedial action sooner [had they wanted to – Ed.].

Although Channel 4 management didn’t initially know about the first racist comments made in the Celebrity Big Brother house that were logged as such, it was still indirectly being punished for them by Ofcom because its internal compliance systems ought to have picked up a problem at an earlier stage – even if Endemol was at fault for not passing them on.

We may also assume that Channel 4 knew that putting Shilpa Shetty into the Big Brother house might cause a ratings-boosting race-related conflict amongst its occupants, especially given the stressful situation some may say intentionally designed to bring out the worst behaviour in the participants so that they would be much more likely to say something that they may later regret.

Endemol has been judged to be as guilty as the network, but Channel 4 is a public service broadcaster and is expected by default to have higher standards than ITV or BSkyB. The issue translated into a ‘public service versus commercial pressure’ situation that became much more subject to the needs of the commercial pressure than public service.

Worthy of note is the fact that S4C in Wales will also have to show the apology captions because it didn’t take steps to ensure that its own output – namely rebroadcasting that of Channel 4 – complied with the standards of taste and decency expected from S4C, these being no lower than those expected from Channel 4 itself.

The earlier pronouncements made by Luke Johnson and Andy Duncan over Channel 4’s public service remit mean nothing if there’s no basic public service ethos, and it’s the latter which is the prime reason that the channel’s lapse of judgement was so serious. If ITV had made the same mistakes it would have been punished too, but the perceived ‘moral consequences’ might have been thought lesser.

It has been claimed that Ofcom’s action against Channel 4 has been the strongest made by any regulator past or present. This may be the case specifically for Channel 4 but it doesn’t take into account what happened to erstwhile ITV franchise holders under the older ITV regional system if they didn’t meet their ultimate expectations; they lost their franchise altogether.

Channel 4 hasn’t lost its licence to broadcast just yet, but there has been a veiled threat of privatisation, courtesy of a rumour that such a measure is one of the options being considered. The Big Brother fiasco certainly put such a possibility on the agenda even if it wasn’t there before and Channel 4’s recent actions certainly haven’t helped its public service credentials.

Andy Duncan appeared on Channel 4 News the same day that Ofcom announced its verdict. He seemed confident that Channel 4 had learned its lesson and as a result made any required changes – but there will always be a doubt in relation to the lapse of judgement in the first place.

There may still be a lingering suspicion – even if unjustified – that Channel 4 bosses and perhaps Endemol are concealing further wrongdoings. Andy Duncan’s insistence that, for example, that the term ‘Paki” was never used may be technically correct but any misjudgment of a particular situation could also relate to hidden aspects of the saga.

Channel 4 seemed out of its depth when confronted with an unfamiliar situation, but since it had nearly 25 years’ experience handling ‘difficult’ programming from independent producers, ‘The Word’ and the Brass Eye ‘paedophile special’ to name but two, this makes the related failures on this occasion all the more puzzling.

What can we learn from all of this? It may be true that both Channel 4 and Endemol ‘cocked up big time’ so to speak, but the very fact that both parties managed to get into the sticky situation they did is the result of years of so called ‘soft-touch’ regulation leading to a climate of complacency. Is it Ofcom that became the ‘soft touch’?

Combine complacency with an ever-worsening financial position and you have a potential recipe for disaster – but the problem with the Celebrity Big Brother fiasco is that Channel 4 ought to have seen the danger signs. Channel 4 and Endemol came unstuck under the pressure to deliver a ratings boost for a tired reality show format.

This judgement against Channel 4 may have helped to redefine the relationship between broadcaster and producer, and with the BBC and ITV now outsourcing more productions than ever before this may well prove to be a timely warning for them both.

Broadcasters have relied on producers to deliver the goods for too long without the close scrutiny now needed by fast-moving TV formats, and with ‘reality’ TV evolving at breakneck speed in an attempt to hang on to a dwindling audience, this can lead to boundaries of taste and decency being pushed to breaking point.

Although it’s clear that Channel 4 and Endemol together had several lapses of judgement in relation to Celebrity Big Brother, nobody seems to have attempted to criticise Ofcom’s handling of the affair, which seems to have exposed a fundamental weakness in the concept of ‘soft-touch regulation’: it is merely ‘regulation after the fact’.

If the use of barely-concealed racism within that series of Celebrity Big Brother was flagged as a major area of concern, shouldn’t Ofcom have taken some form of decisive action before the series had finished, instead of waiting until after the event was over, especially when the number of complaints had exceeded 20,000?

As for to Ofcom’s rulings, how these events have affected the relationship between Channel 4 and Endemol may never be fully disclosed, though it’s likely that some harsh words were exchanged when Channel 4 discovered that they weren’t told the whole truth about the early rows between the Big Brother housemates.

Ofcom’s judgement recognised that Channel 4’s remit is to be edgy and controversial but that freedom doesn’t extend to behaviour that oversteps the guidelines or isn’t counterbalanced within the context in which it is shown. Conflict created – and arguably deliberately encouraged – purely for entertainment value, which has the ability to offend viewers, is strictly off limits.

Other broadcasters – in particular the BBC, even though it isn’t directly regulated by Ofcom – may be watching these events not only with a great deal of interest but also with equal levels of anxiety, as possibly the future target of similar allegations; the Jerry Springer Opera was perhaps the closest the BBC has ever been to a parallel situation.

Modern broadcasting is often all about sleight of hand when it comes to creating what is regarded as ‘good television’; what may seem ‘live’ may actually be prerecorded and even gameshows such as The Weakest Link have scripted and pre-arranged elements which may not be noticed by the ‘average’ viewer at home. This puts broadcasters in a unique position of power.

With such power comes a huge responsibility: the comment from the then Endemol chief creative officer Peter Bazalgette whilst Celebrity Big Brother was still on air, that “We have obeyed the rules of broadcasting” says it all, and there is the omnipresent danger that absolute power can corrupt the very broadcasters that viewers used to trust implicitly.

It may actually be beneficial for Channel 4 if Big Brother 8 is a complete flop – meaning that it could find an excuse to drop the controversial and troublesome format from its schedule – but the uncomfortable reality is that Big Brother provides a good chunk of revenue for the channel and dropping the series would instantly make a potentially bad financial situation even worse.

Dropping Big Brother may, however, be the only way forward for Channel 4, since in the eyes of politicians Big Brother represents everything that is bad about the modern Channel 4, in turn increasing the future risk of privatisation for the channel. Channel 4 did make some changes in advance of Big Brother 8 but these may just be to avoid the worst excesses of manipulation.

If Big Brother was dropped purely as a goodwill gesture, then Channel 4 would need some assurances that both politicians and Ofcom would actively seek out alternative funding solutions for the channel and for those to be quickly made available. This may be next to impossible given central government’s reluctance to spend additional money on funding television channels.

Taking money from the BBC’s licence fee in the form of ‘top-slicing’ might have been an option a year or more ago but with the licence fee set in stone for the next few years Channel 4 will have to look elsewhere for money, much to the BBC’s relief.

Going fully commercial would have been a viable option for Channel 4 not so long ago purely from a financial perspective, and when the BBC’s Mark Thompson worked for Channel 4 he was effectively preparing Channel 4 for such a future. However a commercial Channel 4 would be very vulnerable to a takeover from any number of companies interested in buying a popular TV channel.

The current commercial television marketplace is nowhere near as secure as it once was. A private Channel 4 would suffer great financial pain when squeezed between ITV, Channel Five and BSkyB, and it would have to compromise its public service remit in a similar manner to what’s left of ITV’s remits.

On top of all of this the fallout from the Richard and Judy “You Say We Pay” phone quiz scandal follows the Big Brother verdict which helps to compound Channel 4’s misery, though at least other broadcasters are just as guilty of similar lapses of judgement with their use of premium rate phone services for interactivity and making money.

Just a year ago, Channel 4 was in a very enviable position as its market share rapidly gained at the expense of ITV, but it now seems to have suffered an abrupt reversal of fortunes which was unthinkable by most people at the time. In fact it took an independent audit to convince Ofcom and other broadcasters that Channel 4’s financial future was far from certain.

Big Brother now looks to be the channel’s biggest liability, as opposed to its biggest asset, and the channel’s commercial considerations have now crashed into its biggest distinction, the public service remit, causing both to start to crumble away like a cliff face at the point of erosion. Something drastic needs to be done, and soon.

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