BBC’s Blues

9 minute read
Catherine Mayer / London

There’s no surer sign of a fading soap opera than a lurid plot twist. Unlike their glossy American counterparts, British soaps like the long-running, top-rated EastEnders traditionally aim for stolid social realism, depicting ordinary folk pursuing humdrum lives. Now, though, dwindling audiences are spurring EastEnders’ producers to unleash implausible killers and gothic disasters on their workaday protagonists. In a recent plotline, a character was taken hostage by his deranged stepson and saw his wife shot as she came to his rescue.

In the past few months, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has itself resembled a superannuated soap, with the long-term future of the 85-year-old institution called into question as it lurches from embarrassing revelations about editorial lapses to high-level resignations and job cuts. Management has apologized for such breaches of trust as falsifying the results of a public vote held to name a cat on the children’s show Blue Peter (producers rejected the winning entry, Cookie, in favor of Socks) and showing a trailer for the documentary A Year with the Queen with scenes shown out of sequence to suggest (deceptively) that the monarch had stormed out of a photo session.

That scandal claimed the scalp of BBC1 boss Peter Fincham, who resigned on Oct. 5. Two weeks later, BBC director-general Mark Thompson announced plans to kill off some 2,500 jobs, mostly in news and nonfiction programming, and to sell the BBC’s iconic West London headquarters, Television Centre. Management is now trawling its staff for volunteers for layoffs. Says Roy Greenslade, a former editor of the Daily Mirror newspaper and currently a journalism professor at London’s City University: “The BBC’s problems are manifold. There are more dramas at the BBC than ever get shown on the screen.”

How did an institution revered for the quality of its output, a global role model for public-service broadcasting, the backbone and guardian of British life–“monolithic and ingrained into our culture,” in Greenslade’s words–suddenly seem so vulnerable? One source of the BBC’s problems can be seen on EastEnders: only 9 million viewers tuned in to the finale of the hostage plotline–far shy of EastEnders’ record episode in 1986, when more than 30 million watched nothing more dramatic than the marital breakdown of a pub owner and his barmaid wife.

Back then, viewers had only four channels to choose from and no cable, and all the channels were required to include some socially redeeming content: BBC1, home of the BBC’s most popular output; the more esoteric BBC2; the commercial network ITV; and Channel 4, then only four years old and set up to break the duopoly of the BBC and ITV.

Today the Beeb is menaced by the same digital revolution that’s wreaking global havoc in newspapers, magazines, film and music. Challenged by technologies that allow anyone to read news, watch TV or listen to music on a variety of devices, these businesses are frantically scrambling to reinvent themselves. Mark Byford, the BBC’s deputy director-general and head of journalism, says there’s particularly a noticeable “falling away” of TV viewers who are “under 35 and especially under 25.”

That’s not a drain the BBC can tolerate. The BBC derives 78.5% of its $8.5 billion in income from an annual $275 license fee payable by any household equipped to receive TV. In return, the BBC is obliged to cater to all ages and socioeconomic groups. “In a world of fragmentation, a world of more choice, of a revolution in how people are accessing content, one of our big, big challenges is to hold that reach,” Byford says.

An even more fundamental challenge is to convince the government and the public that the BBC should continue to exist largely as is after its present 10-year charter expires in 2016. For almost two decades, the BBC expanded its operations rapidly as it tried to adapt to convulsive changes in technology and viewing habits. It funded these adventures with cash from license payers. It was already beginning to slim down again when, in 2006, the government limited increases in license fees over the next six years, leaving the broadcaster with a $4 billion shortfall. Cutting jobs and selling property will keep the Beeb afloat for now, but underpinning today’s turbulence is a deeper question that even its own managers are asking: In this brave new digital world, just what is the point of the BBC?

U.S. viewers tend to associate the BBC with wonderfully acted period dramas like Sense and Sensibility and exquisite nature shows like Planet Earth. But how about Help Me Anthea–I’m Infested or Help, My Dog’s as Fat as Me or Freaky Eaters? The latter programs have something in common besides the power of their titles to make BBC executives blush: they were all commissioned by the digital TV channel BBC3. Set up in 2003 to cater to those fickle younger audiences, BBC3 has scored several successes, including the exuberantly tasteless comedy Little Britain. Featuring such popular characters as a pugnacious, latex-clad homosexual named Dafydd Thomas, who has the deluded belief he is “the only gay in the village,” Little Britain has won a mass following, yet BBC3 attracts only a 3.7% share of 16-to-24-year-olds. Veteran broadcaster John Humphrys advocated that BBC3 and its posher, arts-oriented sister BBC4 should be axed to save money. After all, he harrumphed, they’re watched by “only six men and a dog.”

That would hardly help the network attract more younger viewers, counters Danny Cohen, BBC3’s 33-year-old head: “We don’t make our programs with 50-year-old viewers in mind.” Among the channel’s new projects are not only dramas and comedies but also a Web-based experiment, which Cohen describes as a “weird mixture of YouTube and talent show.” Part of the BBC’s updated mission is to boost “media literacy” and push its flock to digital technology as analog is phased out. BBC3 intends to set trends and not just follow them.

The BBC’s enduring belief that it must stay in the forefront of changes in media has driven its growth. The Beeb ballooned in the 1990s, adding staff and diversifying its operations and output. In came the rolling news service BBC News 24, along with a commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. In the drive for ratings, nobody stopped to ask if the corporation could sustain such growth or stretch itself in so many directions.

Thompson’s new plan reduces staffing (23,000 before the new round of cuts) and budgets but leaves the range of activities pretty much intact. There’s a constant tension between the BBC’s aim of making what Byford calls “brilliant, outstanding, special, standout content” and the need to justify its existence by attracting mass audiences, which, as Fox Television has proved, tend to gather at the bottom of the taste pyramid. Consider the huge popularity of reality TV, which is cheap to produce and capable of provoking controversy that hooks big audiences. Controversy is, of course, hard to control. Channel 4’s last run of Celebrity Big Brother sparked riots in India after Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty was subjected to racial abuse from fellow contestants.

The British government isn’t particularly happy with its national treasure either. In 2003 it fell out with the BBC over its coverage of the Iraq war. The current Prime Minister Gordon Brown seems to share his predecessor’s lack of enthusiasm. At a September press conference Brown gestured to a journalist that it was his turn at the microphone. As the journalist identified himself, Brown motioned him to stop. The event had barely begun, and the PM had already answered questions from four BBC correspondents. Now here was a fifth. Brown didn’t care that each journalist represented different BBC outlets catering to different audiences. To him, the BBC was the BBC, and enough was enough.

Byford concedes that BBC swarms at news events can seem “incoherent and duplicative.” Plans to fuse TV, radio and online newsrooms and cut up to 490 jobs “should have been done earlier,” says Byford. “We’re a multimedia broadcaster increasingly organizing around a multimedia platform.” But whether or not these cuts deliver the benefits he envisages, the spectacle of the BBC targeting core services and preserving frothier output fuels concerns that it has lost its reason for being. Richard North, author of the 2007 book Scrap the BBC!, calls the broadcaster a “grotesque monopoly” and advocates its privatization. “Broadcasting now needs no more control or support than the print media,” he says.

It is an argument that has also been targeted at the U.S.’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The veteran nature-series broadcaster David Attenborough, whose critically acclaimed documentaries have appeared on public television in both the U.K. and U.S, insists that wide-spectrum public-service broadcasting still plays an irreplaceable role in British cultural life. So what if some people switch off nature shows? “The notion that you shouldn’t pay for something if you don’t use it is uncivilized,” says Attenborough. It’s no different, he adds, from having some of his tax money spent on, say, a public swimming pool or library “even though I don’t use either.”

The new vision for the BBC articulated by Thompson is that it will go on doing what it has been doing but with fewer people, a greater impact and higher standards. Quality is the key, whether it’s straight news or comedy that spills out of a character’s absurdly tight latex outfit. It’s the only way the Beeb can bear out this claim by Byford: “The BBC is here to make the world a better place.” Perhaps it has to start at home.

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