Yesterday, Tim Davie, the new DG, outlined the direction he wants the BBC to take, in a conversation with Nicky Morgan at the Conservative thinktank Reform. It’s unsurprising that he chose to do so in this forum: he himself comes from a corporate background and has been a Conservative politician at local level. When announcing cutbacks and a diminution of the BBC’s role, this was a safe audience.
“I’m not talking about a narrower provision – we are still chasing universal values – but I think in certain areas we can make less,” he said. Less what? Well, programmes that “get a low audience but feel like a very ‘worthwhile’ thing to do”. Specifically, as Broadcast put it, this means reducing the number of niche, low-cost factual programmes. In other words, exactly what Curly Lizard Films does. So thanks for that, Tim!
For a DG to announce a reduction in the BBC’s range and aspirations is shocking. And it panders to the government’s culture warriors.
Underlying this announcement is, I believe, a profound misunderstanding of (or conscious attack on) the BBC’s role. The BBC is the very definition of a public service broadcaster. Who else, for example, could have put so much learning material onto the children’s channels to help out those of us having to contend with lockdown home schooling? And when it comes to general programming, the BBC is precisely there to do things that are very ‘worthwhile’, as Davie puts it. Obviously he is riffing on the idea of ‘worthy-but-dull’ – but anything that falls into that category is simply poorly made. By all means, don’t make those programmes. But ‘niche’ programmes? Who on earth else will make those if not the BBC?
I’m not saying that the BBC shouldn’t make blockbusters. Far from it: long ago, David Attenborough’s natural history programming was niche, until it took over the world. Now few challenge the BBC’s status at producing this kind of programming, and selling it around the world brings money into the coffers.
The thing is, that money should be put to use serving all audiences. ALL audiences. If the BBC abandons all its special interest groups, there will be nowhere for them to go. And the BBC just becomes another profit-oriented provider, alongside many others. Every diminution of the BBC’s PSB role chips away at the organisation’s special status with licence-fee funding: if the BBC is just another provider, well, why not make it a subscription service like all the rest? It’s a declared goal of many on the government side of the house.
So why not take this route? We’d still have some great BBC programmes. Well, because history is more than just Henry VIII and Lucy Worsley hopping into costume. Science is more than a wind-swept Brian Cox on a mountain-top and Michael Mosely being explored internally with an endoscope. There are many, many niches that yes, might each appeal to only tens of thousands. But the key here is, these programmes are indeed low-cost. If they are cut, the savings will not be massive, and the statistics show that such programmes do well long-term, especially internationally. And the cultural loss will be enormous. These programmes, as well as the blockbusters, are the BBC’s raison d’être. Wilful failure to understand that is a simple assault on the concept of the BBC, and risk undermining it fatally.
For data-based comments on this, please refer to Peter Hamilton’s Documentary Business blog posting.