Auntie, why are you so scared of change?

The BBC should realise that shake-ups are good.

Andrew Orlowski

Topics Culture

Ask a BBC producer how to describe the UKIP-voting proles, and the chances are they’ll reply with some or all of the following: they’re sentimental, nostalgic, backward-looking, fearful of change, and hankering for a long-gone era. Out of touch with modernity, they’ll tell you, the hoi polloi now distracts itself with strange conspiracies. All of this is richly ironic, for all this can also describe the response of the BBC itself to change. Faced with the first Conservative government for 18 years, the media giant that loves to be called ‘Auntie’ is turning the volume on the sentimentality dial up to 11.

This fear of change is nothing new. The BBC has a long history of invoking the national interest when its entitlement is challenged, only to awake later, and find that it has been reinvigorated by adaptation. Today, the BBC is uniquely placed to dominate a fragmented, post-broadcast world, and reap the rewards of changes brought by digital technology, but it doesn’t want to budge an inch.

Lord Reith, the first director-general of the BBC, said the introduction of ITV, which broke the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly, would have the same effect on Britain as the bubonic plague. The establishment of the day, including the church, the vice chancellors of the universities, and the civil service, backed by the newspapers (including the Tory press), supported him in maintaining the BBC’s monopoly. What followed was a renaissance in TV. ITV started to give the BBC a run for its money; ‘Auntie’ was forced to compete against Granada and LWT to recruit the best talent. ‘The standards I set have been rubbished in favour of pandering to what the people – the people, forsooth! – want’, Reith had moaned. Yet for anyone growing up in the 1970s, as I did, the TV was an incredible educator, and a window on the world. The BBC shed its obsequiousness, and in journalism, science and drama enjoyed a Golden Age. The state and bureaucracies were challenged as vigorously as corporate power.

Faced with a hostile Conservative government in the 1980s, John Birt decided to pre-empt external change with a vigorous internal reform. Birt’s internal market and producer-choice system were much mocked at the time, but they helped spark a renaissance in British TV production.

It’s clear the British love TV and are good at making great TV. Our production industry thrives, while we export far more ideas (‘formats’, in the jargon) than we import. But the BBC has narrowed the debate by squatting on two key areas, where its view is rarely challenged. One we’ve just seen: ‘If the BBC is made to do something it doesn’t want to do, British TV gets worse.’ The second is the proposition that ‘the only way to fund the BBC is through a flat-rate tax, and any change in that is bad for both the BBC and British TV’. L’etat, c’est moi, the corporation insists. This has been strikingly effective. As a result it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about the future of British TV without being labelled as morally defective.

And just as you can hire a wailing chorus of mourners for a funeral, so the BBC can rely on a chorus of luvvies and grandees whenever change is suggested. The battalions were deployed last week, over a funding micro-drama. The moirologists were called upon to proclaim, once again, that the world was ending. The language was revealing. MP Paul Farrelly called it a ‘drive-by shooting’. To former BBC Trust vice chair Diane Coyle, it was ‘scandalous… a bullying backroom deal’, while it was a ‘millstone’ for Melvyn Bragg. In reality, they were crying wolf. The public had been hoodwinked, Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford discovered. The funding deal took some revenue out of the BBC, but it gave some back, too: it expanded the BBC’s entitlement to encompass computers and tablets, it took criminalisation off the agenda, and it guaranteed annual inflation-linked rises. The BBC admitted the deal was ‘revenue neutral’, and it wouldn’t really lose a penny.

In any case, a household tax tied to the number of UK households is guaranteed to see the BBC’s income rise, as the ONS predicts the number of UK households will rise faster than the UK population.

Ponsford pointed out that it suited both parties to act out this kabuki theatre: the TV luvvies can tell everyone their favourite institution is under threat (and by implication, how virtuous they are), and the government gets to pose as tough guys.

The bunker mentality exhibited whenever the BBC Charter is up for debate is emblematic of a wider fearfulness at W1A. The BBC of today is unrecognisable from the confident, risk-taking organisation of the 1970s. Conspiratorial thinking is rife. Today, it defines itself not by what it is, but by what it isn’t. Specifically, the BBC isn’t the Daily Mail – and it wants you to know that. However, its own obsessions can sometimes seem as bizarre as Paul Dacre’s. The BBC of the 1970s could confidently look British society in the face, and reflect it in popular drama such as Play For Today and Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement’s comedies. Today, the working class is only likely to appear in British drama as criminals, or as daytime-TV freak fodder, to be judged and condemned. The BBC is far more comfortable looking backwards than it is with exploring contemporary society, and prefers narrowcasting to what it considers a virtuous elite, over broadcasting.

With the publication of a Green Paper this week the future of BBC is once more under debate. And predictably, the Guardian intoned that ‘the situation for the BBC is perilous’. It isn’t at all, and here’s why.

Since the last charter review, the world has changed. Almost two thirds of households now access the telly through a costly pay-TV platform such as Virgin or Sky, and only a third through a free-to-air Freeview box. We’re now also used to paying for over-the-top (OTT) internet TV services like Netflix, and the cost of these adds up, too. The BBC is simply another subscription service that, depending on your point of view, is either fantastic value or very underpriced. For example, when someone declares – and it’s almost a cliche – that ‘Radio 4 is worth the price of the license fee alone’, they’re sending out a pretty strong price signal. The signal is telling the BBC it’s leaving money on the table in preference for its state-granted entitlements. Remove the restrictions on the BBC, and its revenue prospects begin to look compelling – and very bad news for its rivals.

If compulsion were removed, the BBC would undoubtedly lose revenue from some parts of the population, particularly younger viewers. But it would also gain elsewhere. Today the BBC subscription, sorry, license fee of £12 a month stacks up favourably against that £35 monthly fee for basic Sky or Virgin. And it looks even better against the cost of OTT services like Netflix, which offers a narrow and dusty selection of things-you’ve-seen, at £7.49 or £9, or Sky’s OTT version of itself – £7 a month for entertainment, or a tenner for sport or movies.

Veteran TV executive David Elstein, a long-time advocate of the BBC adopting voluntary subscriptions, told parliament last year that even if 20 per cent of license-fee payers stopped paying, 40 per cent paid double, and 10 per cent paid a figure comparable to a basic Sky or Virgin subscription, then the license-fee income would exceed £5.1 billion. If the ‘add BBC’ option was already ticked for subscribers when they joined a pay-TV service, would so many really opt-out? Removing compulsion would end the absurdity of chasing non-subscribers through the courts, and reflect income and usage. There’d be huge benefits, too: a BBC free from bureaucratic restrictions that doesn’t burden media rivals. ‘New Beeb’ could bundle broadband, or launch a Spotify-like music service. Both are effectively prohibited today. Perhaps New Beeb might even have the funds to match the quality of US shows, like The Wire, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. Or perhaps a well-funded BBC could lose its fear of offending somebody on Twitter, and make itself relevant again to people it wouldn’t invite to a dinner party. The rational option would be for the BBC to jump into the future before it’s pushed. But as Elstein says, fear paralyses the corporation – it ‘hangs on to Nurse for fear of something worse’.

As a result we’re in a strange position today where the BBC’s greatest supporters are the people most likely to cause it lasting long-term harm. Tony Blair once described his mission as ‘sweeping away the forces of conservatism’, but it’s his contemporaries in the political and media elites who have turned out to be the most conservative of all.

Andrew Orlowski is executive editor of The Register and was assistant producer of the BBC TV series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Picture by: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty

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Topics Culture


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