Pluralism and the BBC
One of the cornerstones of a pluralist view of the media is that the media produces only that which is acceptable to the viewing or reading public. If they didn’t do that, then their output would be unlikely to acquire advertising revenues or achieve high numbers of paper sales. The vast quantities of factors which this theory, which gives a democratic gloss to the actions of the market, does not take into account are staggering.
To give a short list, it misses out considerations of brand-loyalty; of the effects on consumer choice of a limited selection rather than the theorized infinite; of the fact that only a certain section of society can afford to build and run media interests; of methods whereby editors choose which stories are approved and which aren’t – only one of which is an attempt to guess what will be popular among the consumers of the media output.
Obviously this sort of thing is only the beginning of a critique of the pluralist view of the media – but I lead with it because I learned today that 74 percent of the hours of television commissioned for the BBC under its WOCC agreement are outsourced to private companies. This represents an additional 18 percent of total BBC broadcast time, on top of the 25 percent outsourced under the 2003 Communications Act. Private Eye ran an article on this, documenting how this has led to over five hundred job losses in the corporation’s BBC Vision production arm.
Advocates of a market-based approach to broadcasting would argue that these job losses have made the BBC more efficient. If it has to pay less for the same standard of viewing material (assuming constancy in editorial decisions and that cutting costs by outsourcing doesn’t mean affecting quality), then the BBC is saving the taxpayer money by going through this rigmarole. The pressure on the corporation to save money is always tied to the Damoclean sword of sharing out the licence fee with other broadcasters, or cutting it off altogether.
In many respects this is analogous to the pressure of shareholders on the private broadcasting corporations – and it must affect editorial decisions. Shows must appeal to the lowest common denominator or else viewing figures will drop. Viewing figures are thought to reflect the opinions of the masses, not just in a here-and-now just-for-this-show type of way but such that almost every channel will endlessly recycle a successful format coined by another channel. With some of those formats, even eight years on, the new series and their copycats are still going.
The dispute over how much to pay Jonathan Ross, the defections of Trinny and Susannah, the celebrity island / X-factor / insert carbon copy here remakes: all of these are intrinsically tied to assumptions made about viewing figures. Allowing viewing figures to rule in such a way dilutes the quality of television, in my view. The Sun always finds a column in which to complain about Only Fools and Horses repeats on the BBC, but it doesn’t take so much of an interest when ITV or Sky rehash a BBC format. It should.
With regard to the BBC, is it all just about getting the highest viewing figures for the lowest possible cost? BBC supporters would say no, and would point to the guidelines which allot a guaranteed amount of hours to each particular genre, ensuring that although the prime time slots may be filled with Strictly Come Dancing vying with X-Factor, there will still be nature, science, history and political shows. Even in those arenas, as any Radio 3 and 4 listener will attest, things aren’t always as well-done as they should be.
This leads me back to my concern with allotting a potential 50 percent of all BBC airtime to private producers. When the in-house production teams of the BBC, some of them extremely specialised but elite in their field such as the natural world bunch, are being cut back, how are we to expect that the BBC will not dilute its quality? The problem lies not with the private production companies but with the editorial decisions of the BBC – and they are subject to exactly the same conservatism as their private rivals.
Conservatism in decisions on what to broadcast is a product, as far as I can see, of fear of failure combined with an over-willingness to trust whatever has already been successful. The over-hyped, over-directed period dramas with their various sex scenes, starring actors that have made their names in other ‘sexy’ dramas such as Spooks are a case in point. It is something that needs to be fought, and outsourcing the BBC is not the way to combat institutional conservatism – it will reinforce it because now in-house production teams will be concerned with the same values as their private counterparts.
Whether or not that is a good thing is an individual, political choice. My answer is that it clearly isn’t, but I also have a problem in the fact that it’s a debate that gets zero attention in the mainstream. The BBC produces some world-class content: Zane Lowe on Radio 1 for those interested in new music, late night programming on Radio 3 for world music, radio-plays on Radio 4. Yet this is an innovative method almost unfamiliar to the BBC televisual arms, despite the glorious past in which they far outdistance their competition.
If we are to subscribe to the doctrines of pluralism in the media, then we should let the market take its course and get rid of the licence fee. If, on the other hand, we want a democratically responsive media that will not simply choose what it thinks people want but also tries to breach their comfort zones with original and incisive commentary and programming, we need to get away from the idea that people can choose to watch or not watch what they like – because that choice isn’t a free choice conducted in a vacuum.
Instead we need to begin discussing, as a democratic people, what broadcast values we would like to see the BBC deploy. This debate can easily be framed in wide terms relevant to all people in society, and if we don’t conduct it soon and on a scale much greater than merely the odd Private Eye article and Friends of Radio 3 campaign, then we’re likely to be drowned out by the interests and their media tools which wouldn’t mind seeing the BBC dismembered and in its place more Big Brothers, Pop Idols and escapades by ‘Doctor’ Gillian McKeith.
In a world of media where Ofcom have just relaxed the impositions on private broadcasters in respect to how much actual television they have to show in between the adverts, this has never been a more pressing concern.