Second rate or second to none? 

7 May 2012

As the digital TV switchover nears final completion, the BBC’s second channel appears to be coasting along in reasonable shape and can still draw a sizeable audience for programmes such as Top Gear. But is BBC Two fulfilling a long-held promise or still in dire need of a complete rethink?

In this interview for the Guardian, it’s stated that controller Janice Hadlow “has finally got BBC2 where she wants it”, but of course this might conceivably be a place that could be somewhat inappropriate or alternatively forced in to out of sheer necessity.

To be fair, the channel has been both a victim of cutbacks and a recent revision of the BBC’s general strategy. BBC Four has now become a ‘twin channel’ to BBC Two (likewise BBC Three to BBC One), though this particular approach has been forced upon the corporation for budgetary reasons more than anything else.

This is self-evident in the increased number of repeats across the board; daytime BBC Two is going to have almost nothing but repeats fairly soon, presumably also replacing CBBC/CBeebies content when digital switchover’s complete. (It would be great if we could have regular peak time repeats of comedy other than Dad’s Army sometime soon.)

BBC Two controller Janice Hadlow describes the channel as “intelligent pleasure”, which to a certain extent sums up elements of a lifestyle/factual mix that seems to be all the rage nowadays. But BBC Two used to be much more than this, mixing Open University with Play School, Gardener’s World, avant-garde comedy and intelligent thinking.

And that seems to be a key problem nowadays, namely BBC Two being more of a children’s paddling pool as opposed to the deep blue ocean it was 30 years ago – it nearly all seems so superficial with a lack of depth characterised by an almost pathological aversion to challenging viewers too much.

Perhaps with BBC Four now being a paired channel, some of that “place to think” ethos can filter back to BBC Two, because television could and should have substance as well as pleasure, especially given the fact that BBC Two still features documentaries. Big budget, large audiences and real substance should happily co-exist if done correctly.

Documentaries like Horizon can still be worthwhile nowadays but are too often stuffed full of visual tropes and gratutious repetition to the point of annoyance. Count the number of facts contained in a modern edition and you may be shocked at just how few there actually are in an hours’ worth of television.

Some of this can be attributed to the demands made by foreign broadcasters for resale and (especially) if a programme is co-produced; room needs to be made for commercial breaks and a requirement to ‘recap’ many things in order to avoid alienating new viewers, or so the theory goes in relation to commercial broadcasting in particular.

Talking of broadcaster requirements, I’m personally suspicious of channel controllers being pressured into shaping programme formats so that they can be easily resold to other broadcasters, eg. commissioning comedy panel games featuring “witty banter” so that they can be easily be sold on to the Dave channel and foreign broadcasters.

Such pressure could have been a major factor in a recent change of the Room 101 format from a fairly intimate chat show-style discussion between two people to more of a generic panel game, introducing an element of competition and that so-called “witty banter” factor that seems to be endemic in modern television.

Then there was a problem with BBC Two having its contents ‘snatched’ by newer digital channels; comedies with a young demographic became BBC Three’s speciality whilst opera and serious drama moved to BBC Four. The Open University switched to night-time broadcasting before withdrawing to the internet and computer-based interactive learning.

(It also didn’t help that most sporting events were also being acquired by BSkyB, leaving even more space in the schedules.)

This left BBC Two with holes to be filled, and the removal of key contents also gave a strong impression of something that lacked any real sense of direction as well as just being a dumping ground for anything that didn’t quite fit neatly elsewhere. (When CBBC/CBeebies content moves away shortly there will be even more empty space.)

Janice Hadlow’s tenure at BBC Two hasn’t been exactly uncontroversial either. Aside from commissioning Life’s Too Short, she axed the comedy quiz Shooting Stars shortly before it won an award at the British Comedy Awards which was somewhat embarrassing to say the least, even if her decision was probably based on financial reasoning.

She may have described Life’s Too Short as a place “where you feel you are not quite sure”, but I would strongly argue that as a whole it was an extremely safe ‘risk’ to take; the Ricky Gervais fanclub guarantees a modest degree of success as a bare minimum unless the idea is completely rotten to begin with.

Real risk is taking three little-known comedians off the street, giving them an experienced producer and a blank sheet of paper to come up with a completely new idea for primetime television which is developed and aired as a series; trusting people as opposed to watching and checking up on their every move.

The recent post-Sachsgate compliance clampdown has also scared several independent comedy producers into the open arms of Sky, armed with a fat chequebook and a mission to beef up its original programming (Stella, Spy, Trollied, etc.) in order to further increase its attractiveness to subscribers.

So BBC Two has been forced to play it relatively safe with comedy, though to its credit the channel has still managed to develop worthwhile ideas such as Rev and Grandma’s House despite all the obstacles, financial or otherwise.

As for the channel’s current schedule, BBC Two still relies too heavily on derivative lifestyle programming, especially cookery (Great British Menu, Hairy Bikers, Instant Restaurant, Saturday Kitchen, Two Greedy Italians, etc., etc.), and antiques (Antiques Road Trip, Flog It, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, etc.) in particular.

It seems then that BBC Two still has some way to go before it can really claim to be a champion of quality, though the BBC really needs to concentrate more on addressing rarely-mentioned issues such as quality control in relation to the use of independent producers that effectively applies to all BBC channels in equal measure.

And by that I don’t mean adding and maintaining layers of bureaucracy just to prevent another Sachsgate from happening. Indeed, compliance structures need to be simplified instead and this process needs to extend further back through the management structure than it has allowed to so far.

But for major change to become reality, the BBC needs a new director-general that refocuses on quality across the board as opposed to merely planning cutbacks and ideological whims under the banner of so-called necessary progress, therefore it could be a while yet before we discover exactly what the BBC is still capable of doing.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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