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Flogging a dead horse

Today I begin with a declaration of interest:

I have long held the view that the BBC had outlived its original “Voice of the Nation” (inform, educate and entertain) purpose by about 1970 and, underpinned by its unique position and funding privilege, has been abusing it ever since.

Let me explain.

At the outset it was a monopoly and, being charitable, a necessary and useful one. Between the 1920s and 1950s it proudly assumed the position and worldwide reputation of being impartial and impeccably straight.

Around the globe, whether you happened to be Joe Stalin, the President of the United States or just some average Mr Joe Public in the street of an impoverished Third World country, you accepted that – whatever other propaganda, “Fake News” (though it wasn’t called that in those days) or as yet unconfirmed rumours were being put out on the airwaves, you could tune in to “the Beeb” to and obtain the supposed truth.

This reputation endures to this day – rightly or wrongly, around the world the BBC’s World Service is still regarded by governments and ordinary folk as the one broadcaster that can be relied upon above all others.

However, the trigger-point for when the BBC ‘left the tracks’ and careered off into the jungle-thick undergrowth of commercial skulduggery, subterfuge and naked self-interest – viz. everything that the BBC originally stood against – was the arrival of ITV in 1955.

I say this because the BBC’s reaction to this departure – on the very night that ITC began broadcasting (22nd September 1955) – was to run against it an infamous episode of its staple ‘radio soap’ The Archers in which one of the leading characters Grace Archer died in a stable fire from which she was trying to save her horse Midnight as a ‘spoiler’.

From then onwards “Auntie” was engaged in a constant ratings battle with ITV and then the other terrestrial television companies that came along – never mind the subsequent broadcasting landscape we enjoy in 2019 in which Netflix and other global giants of entertainment bring more money to the table than King Croesus ever dreamed of – that it could never win.

In short, whether it was in light entertainment, the arts, sport or serious news & current affairs programming, the BBC was engaged in an across-the-board vicious war to retain its preeminent standing as “the Voice of the Nation”.

Whereas previously in the UK the ‘major talent’ had nowhere else to go – if you wanted to be on screen (or even behind it, e.g. conceiving, researching, producing, directing or editing great programmes) it was either the BBC or Palookaville, after ITV came along there was somewhere you could turn to.

And Lew Grade and his fellow ITV grandees knew it. They began stealing the BBC’s best talent by waving lorry-loads of £50 notes under its collective nose and providing the wherewithal – not least in the form of vastly-greater production budgets – to make bigger, better and potentially more attractive programmes.

The key battleground was the ratings.

As “Auntie”, the BBC’s top management was aghast at the impact of ITV’s approach and indeed its theoretical medium-term potential to undermine or even destroy the BBC’s standing as the go-to UK broadcaster.

After all, if ITV attracted bigger audiences, how could the BBC justify its position (and possibly its revenue-source, the TV licence fee) if it was no longer the “Voice of the Nation”?

Meanwhile, over at ITV – in which, if you like, each of the fifteen individual companies was an awkward (and often “at each other’s throats”) unlikely combination of programme-maker and then also seller of air-time around and during programmes to advertisers for the overwhelming bulk of its revenue – the programme ratings were not just vital for “bragging rights” but could easily determine whether their future was a trip to Carey Street or survival.

So what happened? Say ITV sought to “steal” a major light entertainment act like Morecambe & Wise from the BBC – as at one time it actually did – by offering heaps more loot, the BBC had to get its retaliation in first by offering their biggest stars more money and tying them in to longer contracts.

“Why is the BBC now spending so much money on such people?” was a question the man in the street might be entitled to ask … and did. The BBC justified itself to the world (and successive Governments) by saying they had to pay “the market rate”.

It still tries to do this today, despite the regular flak it receives for it.

That is where the BBC started going wrong – and continues doing so today in my view.

By trying to retain its position as the Nation’s broadcaster – and be all things to all men – it has been fighting an unequal and eventually losing battle for the past fifty years.

When production techniques are ever more multi-taking and easy – these days television programmes can be made with perhaps a tenth of the crew they deployed in the 1980s – why does the BBC still employ over 21,000 staff?

Partly because if a new technique or opportunity arises, the BBC creates a new department to develop it. It’s “bending of the knee” to commercial imperatives is patchy to non-existent because it relies upon the certainty of the TV licensing fee. This, of course, gives it a huge and unfair advantage when competing with commercial companies who can live and die overnight if their ‘series of the moment’ gets cancelled on a whim.

In my view the BBC should be given a substantial but fixed budget over a succession of five year periods by the Government and be restricted to providing an impartial but outstanding News, Current Affairs and documentary/educational programming service, plus perhaps Big Event coverage of major events such as Olympics and Commonwealth Games.

To do this it would need 400 to 500 people max, with the bulk of its programmes being commissioned from independent programme-makers.

Leave the problem of funding and producing risky entertainment programming to the commercial medias world.

At least then the BBC wouldn’t get subjected to classic “exposure/revelatory” Fleet Street campaigning journalism as  this piece by Ross Clark that appears today upon the website of the – DAILY MAIL




About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts