TV UK, 28 February

BBC4 could be good for TV - but it won't save politics.

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

This Saturday sees the launch of the BBC’s new digital channel BBC4. I was going to say ‘its new highbrow channel BBC4’, but the BBC has scrupulously avoided any such tag.

Originally, I suppose, BBC4 was supposed to be identified with Radio 4, the BBC’s serious talk-based radio station. But everybody knows that only old farts listen to Radio 4, whereas the audience for BBC4 is going to be young and funky and cool. Hooray!

Dodgy marketing aside (the invitation to the launch party is a Tracey Emin hanky), the channel seems to have a lot going for it. It boasts a combination of films, concerts, studio discussions and documentaries. On Monday 4 February, Christopher Hitchens puts former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger on trial for war crimes, which should be intriguing.

More worrying than the content is the context in which BBC4 emerges. The BBC has been rightly criticised for exiling its intellectual content on a digital channel rather than putting it on the flagship terrestrial channels, but the current mantra is choice rather than any patrician idea of quality. The BBC has always justified its compulsory license fee on the grounds that it is a public service broadcaster, but what is meant by public service has changed dramatically since the BBC was founded. The consensus now is that the BBC has to find out what people want and then give it to them. That sounds all very well, except that it is just what the commercial channels do anyway.

I attended a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) seminar on 25 February at which the keynote speech was given by Gary Carter, a senior executive at Endemol Entertainment who was in part responsible for Big Brother. For Carter, the future of TV lies in giving more control to the viewer. He regards the interactive aspect of Big Brother as having been crucial to its success.

Personally, if I’d wanted to choose one talentless airhead over another, I’d have gone out and voted in the general election. Much has been made of the idea (based on rather suspect calculations) that more people voted in the Big Brother poll than in last year’s elections for parliament. In fact, the two things have more in common than is acknowledged.

At the risk of being accused of inventing a golden age of politics, what made politics exciting in the past was the sense that people were more than just individuals voting for the most appealing candidate, but were part of something bigger. What contemporary politics lacks is the vision to bring people together to fight for something. The idea that a TV show can do that is fanciful. A programme like Big Brother has even less relation to real life than goings on at Westminster.

Like politicians, though, TV executives are desperate to connect with their audiences in some profound way, and they imagine that offering control over programmes is the way to do it. Of course, this control is illusory. When they tell us, ‘You the viewer decide!’ they are talking to several million people simultaneously. And the problem is precisely that we don’t think of ourselves as part of a multitude. Telephone voting means nothing to us as real individuals.

Frankly it’s a stupid idea anyway. TV can connect with audiences, but not by pretending to be democratic. It can engage us by telling us something true, which is easier said than done. If BBC4 concentrates on that instead of worrying about what kind of trainers its audience is wearing, it might just succeed.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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