The Death of the BBC

…and the Case for Public Service Games

The BBC is a world-class broadcaster that produces some of the very best TV, radio and news. It’s also an organisation that is desperately holding on to its past glories, while ignoring the potential and importance of the internet.

What is the BBC for? According to its Royal Charter, the BBC’s purpose is to create and distribute content that will “inform, educate, and entertain,’ – content that would not exist without a broadcaster that is publicly funded by a compulsory TV licence fee. As the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, said recently:

The BBC exists to deliver […] programmes and content of real quality and value. Content that deepens understanding, changes attitudes, makes people encounter the world with new eyes and new ears. Content – news, music, drama, documentary – which would not be made and which they would never enjoy if the BBC did not exist.

Look around you. Look at commercial media both here and around the world. Is it possible in 2009 to believe that – with all its undoubted shortcomings – if you took the BBC away you would end up with anything other than a big black cultural hole?

The BBC’s mission is truly noble. It spends millions spent on science and nature documentaries that are the envy of the world, thoughtful examinations on history and politics, daring and challenging dramas, news that strives to be fair and impartial, and unabashedly intelligent radio and music. If you took the BBC away, there really would be a cultural gap because I really doubt that the commercial sector would take up the mantle.

But, of course, that’s not all what the BBC does. It also spends hundreds of millions on game shows, soap operas, dramas, chat shows, pop music, and light entertainment – genres that are served reasonably well by the commercial sector. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this, providing that the BBC’s programmes were somehow better or different than those on ITV, Channel 4, or Sky; but they’re not. Eastenders, Spooks, and Strictly Come Dancing may be great shows, but they’re not unique or distinctive when compared to Coronation Street, Primeval, and the X-Factor on ITV.

As it happens, most people seem perfectly fine with the current state of affairs, and they don’t care if the commercial sector is harmed by the BBC. To most, the BBC provides good value for money – it gives them a decent selection of shows that they watch regularly – some of which really are unique and ‘public service’, others which are simply entertaining – and they neither think nor care that this is unfair.

Nevertheless, the fact that the BBC openly competes with the commercial sector when it isn’t supposed to is a contradiction that has severe consequences. This contradiction is a legacy from when it was very expensive and difficult to make TV, and there were technical limits to the number of channels that could be broadcast; under those circumstances, it made sense to have the BBC create a wide range of programmes. But now that it’s easier to make TV and we have more or less unlimited channels via digital TV and the internet, the BBC’s production of decidedly ‘competitive’ TV and radio programmes seems less justifiable but somehow excusable given that it’s been doing so for the past several decades.

And so, we love the BBC for its documentaries and its worthy cultural content, and we ignore the fact that many show we enjoy, like The Weakest Link and Eastenders, are in fact perfectly possible outside of the BBC. Given popular sentiment, the BBC is not likely to stop making game shows and soap operas, so there’s nothing to worry about there.*

(*Except for the problem of the high salaries being paid to top performers like Jonathan Ross, which continues to draw negative attention from the media and the government. We’re outraged that a publicly-funded organisation is paying such a high salary to anyone, but it’s mainly because the BBC is competing with the commercial sector, and in the commercial sector, salaries can reach into the millions).

Putting aside the BBC’s anti-competitiveness for a moment, there are two other big problems.

The first is the issue of the TV licence fee and its murky future in a digital world. The second is the fear and lack of understanding the BBC’s upper echelons have of the rapid shift in audience attention to interactive forms of media and entertainment; that is, games. Continue reading “The Death of the BBC”