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”

The BBC Civil War

It’s a shame to see what’s happening at the BBC now. With the TV license fee not increasing anywhere near as much as the BBC had hoped, something’s got to give, and people are all trying to point the finger at anyone but themselves. Jon Humphrys from the Radio 4 Today Programme suggested killing off BBC3 and BBC4 lest any further budget cuts affect his own work, which has sparked off a furious debate about the worth of the channels. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be at BBC3 while this is on – a media frenzy is probably the worst way of figuring out a sensible solution.

Yesterday, Jeremy Paxman, whose own Newsnight is facing the same 20% budget cuts as the Today Programme, responded in Ariel:

Well, hold the front page! John Humphrys thinks his programme shouldn’thave its budget cut. That’s not even up there with Dog Bites Man.

Perhaps the Greatest Living Welshman would like to consider how clever it is for us all to start fighting like rats in a sack because this organisation apparently finds it impossible to live on an assured income of £3.5 billion a year.

Might it be wiser to ask that senior management make some strategic judgements about what we’re FOR?

In his Edinburgh Festival lecture, Paxman said:

I guess there’ll certainly be one more licence fee settlement. But can we really be certain there’ll be a fourth? Or a fifth?

In other words, how long will the BBC be funded by the universal TV licence fee? It made some sense in the past, when production and broadcasting costs were high, but nowadays, costs are lower and competition is higher. The BBC is too expensive at the low end and it can’t compete with the US at the high end – nothing they produce comes close to Lost, 24, Heroes, Deadwood, South Park or The Sopranos. Thanks to the internet, young people have both the desire and the ability to watch those programmes.

A couple of weeks ago, I logged on to BBC iPlayer to check out what was on. Only a fraction of the BBC’s broadcast output was available for download. Bafflingly, there were a couple of Doctor Who episodes from the second season. The only reason they were there was beacuse they’d been repeated in the past week.

This is absurd. Why carry over a practice that’s used to fill in the scarce gaps in BBC3’s live schedule to the internet, which has no scarcity whatsoever? The BBC has all the Doctor Who episodes digitised. It could put them all online, not just the paltry one or two that happened to be repeated.

The BBC fundamentally does not understand content. A TV is nothing more than a really big computer monitor that has in-built streaming of live, high quality video. The notion that we should be slaves to TV schedules and arbitrary channels is insane, when there are so many other ways of getting content now. Who cares whether something is on BBC2 or BBC3 when we’re all going to have Freeview and Tivo and the iPlayer in a few years?

All of this running around, trying to hoard as much money for as long as possible, completely misses the point: the BBC is quickly becoming irrelevant. That’s why the budget is decreasing.

This is the BBC’s future: they’ll keep radio. They’ll keep the news. They’ll keep the very best and most popular dramas and documentaries (e.g. Planet Earth, Top Gear, Doctor Who, Who do you think you are?, Eastenders). They’ll probably still fund some experimental programming. They may or may not decide to enter gaming, but they’ll meet some stiff opposition for anything but ‘serious games’. And that’s about it.

After Our Time

After listening to an edition of In Our Time about the Jacobite Rebellion, I found myself writing yet another post on this weblog inspired by that wonderful Radio 4 programme. As I was finishing it, I thought that with all the posts I was making relating to In Our Time, I should really make a new category for it. Or better yet, a new weblog…

A couple of weeks later, and I’ve set up a weblog – plus a forum and wiki – dedicated to In Our Time. Following much deliberation, I decided to name it After Our Time (thanks Naomi!) and I’ve already stocked it up with a few posts. I won’t spend too much time describing it here, since you can find that information on After Our Time’s first welcome post, but I have high hopes for it. In Our Time is a very unique programme with, I hope, very interesting listeners. I’m looking forward to meeting them on the website, even if – like all online communities – it does take time to grow. If you don’t want to keep checking After Our Time or subscribe to its RSS feed, you can always glance over to the sidebar on this site, where you’ll find links to the latest After Our Time posts.

The main impact on will be that I write a little less here; or more precisely, all of the posts that I would have written about In Our Time will go on the other weblog. So there’s really no loss, providing that you liked those posts in the first place – and if you didn’t, it’s actually a gain!

And if you wanted to read my post about the Jacobite Rebellion, and Scottish Bioweapons, here it is…

BBC iPlayer: well over a day late and a dollar short

As has been widely noted, the BBC’s iPlayer application, which lets people watch the last seven days of TV over the internet, didn’t actually launch on 27th July. It’s still currently in beta, and if you apply to test it, it’ll take a couple of days to receive your login details. This is not particularly surprising, given the long delays the project has suffered over the past few years.

In any event, I got into the beta and launched Windows XP on my iMac (using VMWare). I’d heard that the process of getting iPlayer to run was a little complicated, so I wanted to see for myself. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Register at
  2. Receive login details via email a couple of days later
  3. Visit the BBC iPlayer page, enter the custom username and password to get into the secure site
  4. Get to the point of finding a programme I want to watch (not easy – why not show a list or grid of programmes divided by channel and ordered by time?), click on download, and get told that I need to be running Internet Explorer. Sigh.
  5. Revisit programme page using Internet Explorer (I chose ‘The Museum’)
  6. Install Windows Media Player 11
  7. Download BBC iPlayer application and install it
  8. Refresh programme page again
  9. Give IE permission to install the ‘Kontiki ActiveX addon’ (I happen to know what this is – a P2P application – but what happens if other users are suspicious?)
  10. Log in using my BBC online account (it wasn’t immediately clear whether I had to make a new iPlayer-specific account – thankfully not)
  11. Finally, click on download in IE
  12. One hour later, view the programme from the iPlayer application. It works, even inside VMWare, and the quality is fine, but noticeably worse than anything you could get via Bittorrent (or Tivo, for that matter)

I appreciate – or at least, hope – that the finished application won’t need custom login details. I also understand that most people will be using Internet Explorer by default, so they won’t have to launch it like I did; although it’s worth noting that almost 20% of people in the UK use Firefox, and another 5-10% will use some other non-IE browser.

Even with these caveats, the process is far too long. Users are expected to download and install an application, and install an ActiveX control. They’re also required to have a BBC online login, which most will not. On top of all of this is an irritatingly large amount of switching between applications and refreshing of pages, and a mediocre programme library.

I am, of course, ignoring the fact that the iPlayer doesn’t work on Macs. I have heard it argued from the BBC that they are not under any obligation to ensure that the iPlayer works for every single system, and that Mac users should blame Apple for not licensing the Windows Media Player 11 DRM. The problem is that the BBC is a public service institution and is expected, where possible, to provide content to the widest number of people. There are other ways of getting content to people using Macs besides Microsoft’s DRM.

To be honest, I doubt that anyone at the BBC even believes in these arguments. All of the BBC techs I’ve talked to about the iPlayer and Ashley Highfield tend to begin swearing profusely. Maybe it’s because most of them use Macs.

Ultimately, the iPlayer is irrelevant. ABC’s website already allows anyone in the US to stream high-definition versions of Lost, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty, among others. You don’t need to download anything, you don’t need to register or log in, and yes, it works on Macs. Now that’s a service that will entice people away from Bittorrent!

No doubt the BBC would say that they have different rights issues to ABC. There are two responses to this: firstly, if ABC figured out the legals so that they could stream programmes online, surely the BBC can? And secondly, it’s not as if the BBC even appears to care about rights in other arenas. The BBC’s copyright is already enforced completely schizophrenically: there’s nothing stopping someone with Sky Plus from recording all the episodes of Doctor Who at original quality and keeping them for years; or someone with a Sony DVD recorder from burning those same episodes to disc. People have been illegally downloading TV episodes for years – it’s easier, quicker, more flexible and higher-quality than the iPlayer – and you don’t even get caught any more! And if they can’t figure out Bittorrent, there’s always YouTube, Dailymotion and TVLinks. So why restrict computer users to downloading only a fraction of their content, and automatically deleting it after a month?

The BBC’s stance makes me think of the boy with his finger in the dike, proudly holding back the sea – except with the BBC, there’s water gushing through a thousand holes elsewhere. They think they’re doing people a favour by letting them rewatch programmes over the internet, as if this were a huge innovation. They think they stop people from copying their content by building restrictions into their outdated piece of software, the iPlayer. They can’t.

UK people ‘hate BBC’

When I saw a headline on BBC News entitled UK Asians ‘do not feel British’ I was pretty shocked – did a majority of UK Asians really not feel British? If so, this was cause for alarm. On reading the article though, things were much calmer:

Over a third of British Asians do not feel British, a BBC poll suggests.

The research for the Asian Network discovered 38% of the UK residents of South Asian origin polled felt only slightly or not at all British.

Over a third agreed that to get on in the UK they needed to be a “coconut”, a term for somebody who is “brown on the outside but white on the inside”.

Yet 84% are satisfied with life in Britain and almost half think they have more opportunities here.

So, despite that fact that while almost two thirds of UK Asians do feel British, the BBC sees fit to scaremonger with a title that suggests most UK Asians don’t. This is lazy and disappointing journalism. If the Daily Telegraph came out with a poll that revealed 38% of the British public hated the BBC – but 62% loved it – would BBC News write an article entitled ‘UK people ‘hate BBC”?

Who knows, maybe they’d be dumb enough to.

Update: The article was changed this morning, so that the headline reads ‘Many Asians ‘do not feel British’. It also notes that the survey was among under 34s only, and adds a pie-chart detailing the results. See screenshots of the article before and after the change.

I’m glad that it was changed quickly, but it’s still disappointing that the original article was written so poorly.

Their Say

I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned how much I hate the Have Your Say section on BBC News Online (surely a forum the BBC must be ashamed of) – if I haven’t, then I’ll have to do a post about it some time. Anyway, it occasionally throws up some real gems:

Q: Should we build 600 large electricity pylons from windfarms in the Highlands to Central Scotland, or should we bury the wires underground?

Most answers: Businesses make so much money, they should pay for burying the lines / I hate Scotland / I hate England / Windfarms don’t work anyway / Climate change would blow down the pylons

Best answer: I think the pylons should be built, because they have a real charm and beauty to them. Objecting to their appearance is like objecting to railway bridges and aqueducts. Also I think they should be painted red, white and blue, to celebrate 300 years of the Union. This would add to the gaiety of the Highland scenery, and be a good post-modern joke, enjoyable on several levels. And it would provide much-needed work for hundreds of Scotch labourers.

Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference

“No-one’s watching TV any more, and even worse, all this user-generated content is killing us.” That was the cheerful attitude at the C21 Futuremedia TV conference I went to last week. The audience was composed mainly of TV executives, with a smattering of smug ‘internet people’ like myself, who alternately confirmed their worst fears and then told them that they still had something to offer (well, some of them, anyway).

Everyone seemed to be reasonably aware of the difficulties facing the TV industry, although there were many differences on how best to adapt, let alone thrive. As the conference went on and we heard more and more speakers talking about user generated content and how wonderful it was, there was definitely a sour mood among some executives. Anyway, I’ll explain all of this in time. First, to the keynote! Continue reading “Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference”

Notes on the BBC Audio Drama Festival

On Tuesday, after about five hours of sleep following the Second Life ARG panel, I found myself at the BBC Audio Drama Festival in London. As usual, I was due to give a talk about ARGs. I did think it was a little strange that I was invited to speak, because while we do have audio drama in Perplex City, it’s not our focus, but what the hell – it seemed interesting, and I thought I might learn something.

And I did. I won’t go over my talk because it was the usual introductory stuff (although I might write up something about the audio components one of these days), but I’ll provide a few notes on the other speakers. Continue reading “Notes on the BBC Audio Drama Festival”

Doctor Who on Earth

Despite my dislike in the direction that Doctor Who is currently going (immature jokes, nonsensical plots), I found Russell T Davies’ remarks on why Doctor Who never seems to leave Earth very refreshing:

“People will say, ‘Why doesn’t he visit alien planets more often?'” he said. “But that’s because they are expensive. They’re hugely expensive.”

Davies also told Doctor Who magazine that these episodes gained the lowest viewing figures of the series.

“The programmes that do show alien planets are not prime-time programmes,” he said. “Star Trek and Stargate are subscription-based programmes for a dedicated audience.”
The writer added that he would not be using forests and quarries as stand-ins for alien landscapes, as was often the case in classic Doctor Who episodes.

“The mockery we would get walking into a forest and saying that we’re on the planet Zagfon! If you think we had one or two bad reviews in the second series, they would become like a machine gun the moment we started doing that.”

It’s not that I wish Doctor Who went away from Earth more – I think there are plenty of good stories to be told on it – but at least he has a reasonable excuse. Having said that, I still think that the show either takes the easy option (recycle old enemies/visit famous Victorian people) or the startlingly weird option. How about some interesting new enemies, eh? How about getting some new music other than the two tracks that the show always uses – namely, upbeat excited, and slow depressed? How about at least attempting to make the stories consistent and logical?

There’s nothing worse than a show that has unquestioned support and no competition. The Matrix was a fine movie, and so successful that the studio apparently left the Wachowski brothers alone to direct the two sequels without much interference. The result? Disastrous. I won’t pretend that Season 2 of Doctor Who was that bad, but I didn’t feel it improved much. And the news that there are not one, but two Doctor Who spinoffs now in production – Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures – simply confirms to me that the BBC lacks balls and imagination. There are surely other good ideas and directors out there – why not give them a chance? Doctor Who won’t be popular forever…

Let’s switch

I was watching X-Men with a friend this weekend when I suddenly realised that Doctor Who was on as well. I immediately took control of the remote and switched to BBC 1. This weekend’s episode was about the Cybermen, of course, and I was looking forward to this. After five minutes, my friend said “Why are we watching this? It’s terrible! I’ve tried watching it over and over again but it just looks awful.”

“Well, uh, that’s the way it’s supposed to look,” I said lamely.

“And what about the stories and dialogue?”

“Some of them are really good!”

But I have to be honest. I still have no good reason for why Doctor Who is as clunky as it is. Maybe it’s just the drama that Britain deserves, I don’t know, but it’s clear that it’s not faring particularly well in the US, averaging only a million or so viewers every week.