THE BLOG

The BBC Licence Fee Is Killing Creativity

27/05/2015 16:57 BST | Updated 27/05/2016 10:59 BST

Creativity. The clue is in the word - it's about creating something new. Never seen before. Original. Arresting. Shocking, even. When was the last time a BBC drama gave you that zinging sense of witnessing something dazzling, wonderful and challenging? Or opened up new areas of consciousness and forged hitherto unmade connections in your brain?

Time was when the BBC set out to do just this: use drama to open doors in our collective psyche and change our perspectives on the world. In 1978, GF Newman's four part drama, Law and Order, caused such a stir with its casual, deadpan depiction of police corruption that outraged questions were asked in the House of Commons and the Attorney General sought the BBC's assurance that the programmes would never be shown again. The BBC obliged. It would be more than 30 years before they saw the light of day. That's what you call a consciousness changer - a piece of drama that shakes society down to its boots in four short episodes. A similar thing happened with the Play for Today, Cathy Come Home, which helped bring the homeless charity, Shelter, into existence. Dennis Potter's, The Singing Detective, although not a polemic, delivered an insight into the delirious, tormented mind of an artist whose message is still being unpicked - a Jackson Pollock of the small screen.

The thing about television drama, you see, is that it's powerful. Awesomely powerful. When it's art rather than entertainment, when the artists' voices are heard purely, it delivers a blow like no other - it can sweep a nation like a tsunami. Art, by definition, can never be a lie; art is honesty; truth. The millions who watched Law and Order saw the truth from an artist years before the journalists dug it out. It lifted the lid, shone in the light and ,arguably, ended unquestioning deference to the police for good.

During the 1990s this sort of art slowly disappeared from the BBC output. It wasn't a cynical or calculated move, but rather came from the gradual 'professionalisation' of television. Armed with the science of marketing and sophisticated ratings analysis, all television channels were able to monitor themselves like never before and could predict, with some measure of accuracy, what would 'work', i.e. what would deliver an acceptable audience. Without consciously doing so, television did what pop music has done and learned to operate on the 85/15 principle: every piece of new output is 85% familiar and 15% original. Pieces of drama that buck this trend are thin on the ground.

This cautious, small-steps approach to creativity, is inevitably its nemesis. Art moves in giant steps after which there is a period of catch-up before another chunk of new ground is cut. Try to rein it in and package and sell it like fast food or fizzy lager and you end up with a product that's vaguely satisfying for the brief moment of consumption, but rarely challenging to the palate.

The BBC is especially hamstrung when it comes to journeying into the creative unknown. It feels obliged to deliver consistently large audiences across all its output in order to justify itself as a public service broadcaster (one that gives the public what it wants), while it also feels pressure from governments and other interests not to be overly controversial. Editorial guidelines apply as harshly to drama as they do to factual output. If a thorny issue is dealt with in drama, there is a requirement for counterbalance. For example, two episodes of BBC1's Judge John Deed have been banned from further broadcast and DVD release following a complaint from a single viewer. The episodes touched on the debate over MMR and were judged by the BBC's internal editorial complaints unit not to be in compliance with the requirement for balance.

Confining drama to the realm of well-made entertainment is therefore the safest and perhaps the only viable option open to the BBC. Why risk money, ratings and political hassle making a weekly one-off original drama when you can have Holby City delivering five million viewers every week? Hospital-based soap is demonstrably what the audience wants, or at least, what it thinks it wants: television as a perpetual comforter, delivering the same predictable rhythms week after week.

And yet all of us who work in and consume TV drama gaze longingly across the Atlantic where subscription channels have taken over as the home of the art of television. The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad have set the gold standard, and nearly all of these come out of HBO and AMC. Subscribers make a contract with these channels: I'll pay my monthly fee and you take some risks to entertain me. The shows are largely run by writers, who, while not completely unfettered, nevertheless experience something close to creative freedom. What emerges from their freedom are myths for our time that resonate across the globe.

US subscription channel drama has succeeded so well partly because of its willingness to embrace anti-heroes and delve into the dark unknowns. Would the BBC allow a writer to interpret the effect of recession on the middle classes through the character of a chemistry teacher who becomes a drug dealer and murderer? No. Out of the question. Too toxic. Too potent. Too disturbing. Too far from the comfortable middle ground. Too far from the what is expected of the BBC as a national, public service broadcaster, one of whose functions is to stabilise society. Fair enough. All of these pressures are understandable, but the far bigger question is whether as the country's biggest patron of the arts and the gatekeeper to so much output, the BBC should be content to be shackled like this? If modern myths require anti-heroes, should we be content that the BBC feels obliged to bow out of the game and re-make another Jane Austen?

The licence fee and all the obligations that go with it are feeling increasingly like a brake on creativity. There is broad consensus that the BBC is a good thing, but equally an uneasy feeling that a huge, state-funded broadcaster hemmed in by self-censorship feels in many respects like a relic from the previous century: the televisual equivalent of a well-maintained stately home. Pleasant, comforting, but ultimately rather dull.

Part of the answer to releasing creativity might be to cut the licence fee to say £75, but at the same time to free the BBC to create its own subscription service to rival Netflix with a brief to provide content not just for a UK audience but for the rest of the world, and free from stifling editorial guidelines. All the infrastructure and know-how for delivery already exists with iPlayer, and for £6 or £7 a month a large slice of the population would no doubt subscribe if it promised something as edgy, meaty and audacious as Breaking Bad every now and then.

I want the BBC to survive, but in the 21st century there has to be a genuine two-way street with the audience. That means partial subscription, ditching the creative handcuffs and diving back into the risk business.