Too many cooks? 

30 September 2010

Dave Hastings assesses a timely warning, delivered recently by Sir David Attenborough – who recently topped a poll as “Britain’s most trusted man”…

After two recent lectures supposedly supportive of public service broadcasting but possibly hitting the self-destruct switch instead, we now have words from a stalwart supporter of the public service media role in it’s purest form.

David Attenborough was arguably the greatest controller that BBC2 ever had, though it has to be borne in mind that what he did at the time for the channel was fully appropriate for the particular era of the late 1960s and if exactly the same rules were applied today they wouldn’t have the same effect in a ‘multichannel environment’…

Or would they?

It’s difficult to assess this one since nobody has yet been brave enough to try it. The recent appointment of Roly Keating as controller of the same channel may be the closest approximation that the BBC would dare to attempt in a ratings-obsessed era.

The real reason for the current situation relating to BBC Two and the other BBC television channels not only relates back to when the remits for BBC Three and Four were being drawn up but also to the basic philosophy that most viewers would switch off anything vaguely intellectual and hare off in pursuit of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or ‘The X Factor’.

In one sense it’s a pity that the continuing popularity of the terrestrial channels wasn’t exploited to provide a greater mix of ‘intellectual’ content, although the channel controllers were probably too petrified of viewers deserting them as digital take-up increased. This may become less of an issue with the digital switch-over close at hand.

Nowadays if you want a ‘place to think’ it just has to be BBC Four, but sometimes you can’t help but think that a little more of its philosophy wouldn’t go amiss on the mainstream channels. It would certainly be preferable to yet another reminder of how inferior your home is or how poor your cooking might be, the lifestyle staples (or so it seems) on much of BBC1 these days.

Indeed with property prices starting to fall, programmes that major on property speculation may now be looking perilously out of touch with reality. In terms of encouraging a broader choice of programme genres this can only be a good thing. Take note Channel 4.

The issue of independent production quotas helping to erode the talent base that the BBC once had, is indeed a worry but one that could potentially be undone at some point in the future – I’m optimistic that the damage is not yet terminal but it will take a fundamental change for the effects to be reversed.

It’s the broad-brush approach of the independent production quota that’s the real problem and indicative of the ideological nature of the policy. Established independent production companies are commercially orientated and tend to specialise in distinct fields. ‘Kudos’ for drama, ‘Princess’ for chat shows and so on. This makes programme diversity harder to achieve within quotas.

Then there’s the problem with ‘Tomorrow’s World’. The BBC burned its bridges by tinkering with a format in much the same manner as ‘Top of the Pops’ but worse still was the fact that there weren’t any equivalent free-to-air science programming alternatives. At least there were music channels to blame for Top of the Pops’ demise.

Recently Channel Five has tried to fill the gap in the field of popular science. ITV gave up trying years ago and Sky’s ‘Brainiac’ is arguably too lightweight and has been cancelled anyway. It’s ironic that the BBC should stuff its schedules full of cooking fodder and property porn whilst ignoring the sort of things that the commercial sector also seems to ignore.

There’s supposedly a new science show in preparation from the BBC but until it actually appears the jury will remain out on what that will do to enrich the field of popular science on television. Taking the public library comparison a step further, would the general public be happy in funding a library that is almost devoid of science books?

Maybe the problem with science in this medium is that most people in charge of commissioning come from an arts background and therefore may find it instinctively harder to commission anything with a technological element to the subject matter.

Then there’s the lack of presenters with the required technical background. Carol Vorderman and Patrick Moore are perhaps the only famous presenters left with such credentials. The era of Johnny Ball, James Burke, Judith Hann, Magnus Pike, Raymond Baxter and Michael Rodd seems to have all but died out in broadcasting, with the passing into retirement of that generation of specialist television compères.

Indeed the biggest lost opportunity has to be on BBC Three. In not commissioning further scientific programming and with its controllers appearing to be more concerned with ‘box-ticking’ their channel remits as opposed to encouraging further innovation, another opportunity to encourage diversity and programmes of educational value has been lost.

It now seems old fashioned and paternalistic to value television output in terms of it’s subtle and unpromoted ‘educational value’ but the controllers of today would be doing both the country and their industry a favour if one ‘yardstick of quality’ could once again be the support any programme gives to education in it’s broadest sense, that of boosting awareness of issues and disciplines among the citizens.

Oh but I forgot, there are no ‘citizens’ any more. We are all consumers now. I keep forgetting that.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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