It fascinates me how the human race always presumes in the present that life as it is will never change and yet simultaneously also manages to embrace the new – technology, fashion, media obsessions, medical breakthroughs et al. – as it comes along with varying degrees of enthusiasm ranging from zero to breathless over-excitement.
As a personal fan of history, not least because of its propensity to prove so often that human nature changes little and “what goes around, comes around”, I am resolutely sceptical about Henry Ford’s celebrated comment “history is bunk” whilst being content to admit that part of the spirit driving our eternally inquisitive quest for knowledge, inventiveness, adventure and exploration is an inherent refusal to accept that the notion that what went before ever defines the future.
For good or ill, my topic de jour is the future of terrestrial television as represented in the UK by the BBC.
There was a brief period early in the 20th Century when – yes, on the back of its Empire, supposed mastery of the high seas, entrepreneurial zeal and instinctive respect for order, integrity and courtesy – Britain was still regarded as a world standard bearer for all that was best about ordered civilisation.
When the original British Broadcasting Company (and Lord Reith) came along in the Century’s third decade, it therefore naturally became respected at home and abroad as a prime example of what a national broadcaster should be.
Let us summarise this via its own estimation as “The Voice of the Nation” – or in the vernacular “Auntie”.
If the BBC ever announced it, it must be so. The theme lives on, even in 2020, through the BBC’s World Service (or thus we like to think).
The British traits for humility, reserve and integrity underpinned everything and spread its reputation for delivering a revered gold standard version of impartiality.
Very convenient, of course, at times of national significance, or indeed great peril such as World War Two, when inevitable and not-so-subtle (but necessary?) Governmental control of the airwaves meant that the BBC took to churning out everything from public health and safety notices (e.g. “Keep Calm And Carry On” and “Dig For Victory!”) to outright propaganda featuring flickering black and white footage of “our boys” taking off in their flimsy aircraft to take on the hordes of enemy threatening to subjugate us, always accompanied by stirring music and voice-overs designed to reassure both public and indeed the world that Britain would prevail.
And yet, of course, Time never stands still and things always change and evolve.
In 1955 along came a competitor – independent television (ITV).
The BBC didn’t like it, even via a famous catastrophic fire that suddenly afflicted its own popular radio series The Archers on the night ITV was launched, seeking to destabalise it, if not “strangle it at birth”.
The bun fight over “success” defined the relationship between the Beeb and ITV throughout the second half of the 20th Century.
The imperative for ITV, right from its inception, was inevitably the necessity of achieving high ratings for its programmes. Advertisers were eternally interested in “hitting” as many people as possible with their commercials, especially when they were being asked to pay (in the terms of those days) “through the nose” for them.
So the ITV companies began “buying” BBC light entertainment and other talent by waving wads of £50 notes in front of them.
The BBC weren’t going to take this lying down – it prided itself on taking “the best of everything British” to the nation.
And with every new programme strand or bought-in American TV series that ITV offered, the BBC fought back by offering more of the same – or indeed bidding more cash in order to deny ITV the best US shows.
And so to my point.
All this was fine until the late 1960s, when first colour television and a new terrestrial competitor (Channel Four) emerged and changed the UK’s broadcasting landscape.
As did the later arrival of Channel Five … and then BSkyB … and then Sky.
Suddenly tens – and then hundreds – of TV channels were available to the British public, often via subscription.
And all the while the BBC was still relying upon the TV Licence – and selling its programmes abroad, as all producers of programmes did – for its funding.
These days the advent of huge and infinitely wealthy new interlopers in the world of broadcasting – including Netflix, Amazon and Apple (and there will be others soon) – has taken the business of television-broadcasting to places almost beyond recognition.
And yet the BBC powers-that-be – and those who love it – still retain the ridiculous and stupidly rose-tinted conviction that the BBC is, and ought to, be the UK’s provider of all types of programming.
In my view the BBC needs a radical and nitty-gritty, root-and-branch, rethink.
There is still a place for a publicly-funded national broadcaster in this country but it should be a much-reduced and limited one devoted purely to a highest-quality news and documentary output.
The BBC should accept its 21st Century limitations and let the Netflixes and Apples of this world take the commercial risk of investing the mountains of cash inevitably needed to make infinite amounts of entertainment and other programming to flog around the word.