In just four weeks time, the small Cumbrian town of Whitehaven will be the first place in the UK to have it’s analogue television signal switched off, with the full gamut of digital television channels replacing the current five. Great news you would think, but I have to hand it to one woman who was reported as saying:
I’ve got thirteen new channels, and there’s still nothing on.
Given the current broadcasting landscape, it’s hard to disagree with her.
Just as well then, that this week also saw an announcement from the BBC about it’s restructuring plans, leading to “a smaller and more distinctive BBC” in six years time. I’m hopeful that will be the case, but given the corporation’s plans to achieve it, I have my doubts.
I’m a big supporter of the BBC, and have always been happy to pay the licence fee whenever I’ve needed to. After-all, the BBC is a great British institution, respected by those it serves and admired around the world.
As television gets ever more commercial and populist in its nature, the more valuable a public-service broadcaster is becoming. By its very definition, the BBC needs to provide a service to the public, a service that is diminishing elsewhere and in my opinion, this announcement seems to completely ignore that.
For those not familiar about the BBC’s plans, they involve spreading itself thinner across an increasing range of networks (television, radio and online) with a 10% reduction in programmes commissioned alongside job cuts, many centred around its news and factual divisions. Other plans include looking at selling TV Center, and allowing advertising on the BBC News website for those using it outside of the UK (which is an entire debate in itself).
Less is More
Now, I wholeheartedly agree that the BBC needs to become a smaller organisation with more distinctive content, but you have to ask how it can become more distinctive by having less original programming and yet more repeats. Furthermore, how can the leadership talk of smaller having launched seven new television channels and five new national radio stations in the past five years?
Whilst these were designed to drive digital take-up, surely it should have been the commercial sector providing incentives for the public to upgrade to newer technology. Perhaps if that was the case, we wouldn’t have had them churn out hundreds of channels full of repeats, cheap American imports, and countless reality shows.
However, the newer BBC networks wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so wasteful.
A quick challenge to anybody reading this in Britain: turn over to BBC Three now and tell me what programme is showing. I would bet a hefty amount your answer is ‘Two Pints of Larger and a Packet of Crisps’. If not that then ‘Little Britain’. Whatever is showing, I can guarantee you it’s a repeat.
Then there are the questions as to why the BBC broadcasts a channel for 6-12 year olds during the daytime, when one would hope children are at school, not in front of a television.
At the same time, one of the more worthy services, BBC Parliament, the true essence of public service broadcasting, seems to be constantly sidelined. If not running in quarter screen for half of it’s life on Freeview, it’s now having to make way for BBC HD if and when it comes to digital terrestrial.
Auntie Knows Best
Let’s talk about distinctive, because distinctive does not always mean better.
I would call PBS here in the US distinctive, but I’m not being kind when doing so. Whilst it contains programming that is not available elsewhere amongst the dross that is US television (something commercial television in the UK seems hell-bent on replicating), it does so in a way that doesn’t compete with other channels. Where the BBC exists ‘to inform, educate and inform’, PBS can barely afford to meet any of these criteria, and as such quality entertainment (that may attract people to the service) is non-existent.
We rely on the BBC more than we probably realise. It’s the last remaining obstacle to a capitalists wet dream; a television landscape covered in promotions for its products, and news bent to its advantage. We need a publicly owned BBC in order to maintain broadcasting that is of value to the public, not commercial interests.
As such the BBC should be defining the standards for which commercial broadcasters need to follow if they are to compete with it. You need only look at the current revelations in the media about trustworthiness and honesty from our broadcasters to see why.
Whilst all networks, public and private can plead guilty to falling foul to bad practices and deceiving the public recently, remember that it was commercial broadcasters found to be defrauding the public, taking hard-earned cash out of peoples hands in dodgy phone-in competitions, and cheap competition channels (seemingly designed to encourage gambling at the mere site of a scantly clad woman).
Not one single failure at the BBC resulted in people losing money, but the corporation got just as much, if not more stick from the media about its failures. This is entirely fair, as we expect it to meet the highest standards. After all we are the ones paying for it.
With this in mind, you have to ask how making cuts within the news division is not going to lead to more mistakes, with corners continually trying to be cut.
It seems very likely that for the BBC’s Royal Charter to be renewed in 2017, it will involve the abolition of the licence fee, but this would be something much harder for the government to achieve should the public believe they are getting value for money.
That’s why I agree that the BBC should be smaller and more distinctive, but I question the manner in which its management is trying to achieve this. Surely by continuing to support the broad range of services it has set up in recent years, and spreading itself thinner across them with less original programming, does not constitute smaller and more distinctive. At least, not in a good way.