TV UK, 28 March
As the BBC boss tunes into teenagers from Leicester, Channel 5 goes for quality TV.
I’ve always been a sucker for aspirational advertising, and my latest object of desire is the Brita water filter. The Brita filter couple are the Nescafe Gold Blend couple of our time: beautiful, cultured (they drink tea without milk) and witty.
Of course they are also white, southern and middle class, and as such they are just the sort of people who like to phone the BBC to complain about dumbing down. This according to Gavyn Davies, the corporation’s chairman, who hit the headlines last week when he complained to the Westminster Media Forum that the BBC was being hijacked by an elite minority of the viewing public.
Davies, who is no horny-handed son of toil himself, has been rightly condemned and ridiculed for his outburst, for which he subsequently apologised. Playing the class card is a particularly sneaky way to avoid criticism of the BBC’s output and ethos. After all, there is little doubt that the Brita brigade is on to something.
Such BBC luminaries as former foreign correspondent Martin Bell and veteran current affairs presenter David Dimbleby have been quick to pile in on behalf of their fellow white, middle-class, middle-aged viewers. (In a particularly crass moment in his speech, Gavyn Davies assured us that Asian teenagers from Leicester are on his side.)
According to Bell, who left the BBC five years ago to become an MP, ‘dumbing down is not only admitted but justified’ by the corporation (1). Bell quotes a news editor who told a producer: ‘cover the serious stories if you must, but can’t you do it with a lighter touch?’ Instead of serious stories, Bell observes, BBC news prefers crime, royalty, medical scares, showbusiness and sport stories.
I can just hear the BBC execs spitting out their Brita filtered water now: ‘You think crime isn’t serious? Tell that to the Asian teenager from Leicester who’s just has his mobile nicked…by skinheads!’ In fact the mobile phone theft panic is a perfect example of a banal local policing problem whipped up into a national crisis by BBC news. Of course, the rest of the media is hardly beyond reproach. The difference is that the BBC is supposed to be a public service broadcaster.
Accordingly, David Dimbleby has attacked the BBC for chasing ratings rather than concentrating on quality (2). ‘It will be the end of the BBC if it becomes defined by ratings. The BBC should be committed to programmes of quality, variety and accessibility. If not, people, will say it’s not worth the £109 licence fee.’ Quite. The problem is that the BBC top brass is chronically embarrassed about the corporation’s privileged status. Instead of exploiting the compulsory licence fee to produce programmes that commercial channels couldn’t, the BBC is falling over itself to justify the fee with ratings.
Responding to the Gavyn Davies furore, culture secretary Tessa Jowell quoted Patricia Hodgson, chief executive of the independent television commission, on the balance between ratings and public service: ‘Beating ITV with Blue Planet is a triumph. Beating it with Celebrity Sleepover is a tragedy.’ Now, Blue Planet was a decent documentary about fish and stuff, with impressive photography from the depths of the ocean, but there is something a bit fishy about presenting an easy-viewing natural history programme as the BBC’s intellectual flagship.
Perhaps the problem is that nobody knows what really clever broadcasting might look like. These days we are told it can be found on BBC4. Certainly there is good stuff to be had on the digital channel, but the casual assumption that BBC4 is packed with the kind of challenging programmes that are missing from the proper channels is unsound. One of the channel’s flagship series is Britart, shown on BBC4 on Fridays at 9pm and repeated on BBC2 on Saturdays at 7.10pm as a ‘teaser’.
This isn’t bad. It’s certainly informative, if a little gossipy, but it often seems like little more than an advert for Young British Art. Is it really an example of great public service broadcasting? In fact, the BBC’s commitment to putting art on TV is more than matched by Channel 5, the commercial channel that has been much maligned in the past for its reliance on late night ‘erotic thrillers’.
Following a pretty decent series on the Great Artists last year, presenter Tim Marlow is doing a four-part series based on Tate Modern’s controversial hanging policy (themed rather than chronological) and one-off programmes on the same gallery’s Matisse and Picasso exhibitions. There are also profiles of British artists, programmes on the influence of commercial design and a two-part examination of Antonio Gaudi. Most surprisingly, Channel 5 has commissioned a 13-part series on religious art – it can’t just be about nude angels.
Given that Channel 5 is also giving Channel 4 a run for its money in terms of great American imports (CSI, Law and Order), it seems that the channel’s bosses have decided there is a gap in the market for quality TV. That should worry the BBC.
If Gavyn Davies is still determined to second-guess the preferences of Asian teenagers from Leicester, though, he could do worse than watch You Know What I’m Saying, an engaging teen discussion programme shown on Sundays at noon on…Channel 5.
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)).
(1) Bell lambasts ‘dumb’ BBC, Guardian, 15 March 2002
(2) Dimbleby blasts BBC over Panorama, Guardian, 19 March 2002
(3) BBC chief attacks ‘southern, white, middle class’ critics, Guardian, 13 March 2002
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