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M.R. Hall

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The BBC Needs a New USP

Posted: 15/11/2012 00:00

I have been writing television drama for the BBC off and on for 13 years and in common with most freelancers who work for it but not in it, have found it an increasingly puzzling institution. We've all been afraid to voice our concerns in public for fear of losing a valuable employer, but if now isn't the moment to engage in a wider debate on the future of the BBC, there will never be one. We all pay for it and are entitled to air views (I hope!) that won't count against us.

The BBC in 2012 lacks a clear USP. It has spent the last decade and a half competing directly with commercial 'rivals' and has lost something of its uniqueness in the process. It has slid towards becoming another broadcaster. In remains a peerless force in radio, but in television it is lagging in nearly every sphere. Sky (which has an annual turnover larger than that of the BBC's), has acquired all the most desirable sports rights, operates a news service that feels less partial, and is now pouring money into the arts and drama as well as transmitting the best US shows. The buzz is definitely in Brentford, not White City.

Much of the BBC's output, especially in television, is made by independent production companies (mostly a few big ones, often peopled with former BBC staff), which 'compete' in the loosest sense for huge commissions. An hour of television drama can cost up to £1m, making a run of six-eight episodes a huge prize. The commissioning process makes the politics of the Tudor court look open and straightforward. There is no one in the business who won't tell you in private that whatever the truth of the matter, the system's opacity makes it feel like a stitch-up between a tight circle of associates. It's process crying out for regulation and a formalised tendering process, possibly one that involves the audience more actively in picking high-budget shows.

The distinctive 'BBC tone' still survives in small pockets, mostly in the radio stations and among a handful of TV stalwarts - Dimbleby, Attenborough, Marr, Guerin, Simpson et al - but as this summer's river pageant fiasco demonstrated, the forces of mediocrity are in the ascendant. That's not to say there's a full-blown kulturkampf within the BBC, rather one senses there is a vacuum in some areas which the vacuous are being allowed to fill without resistance.

In short, the BBC is flush with cash - nearly £5 billion each year - but doesn't quite know what it should be doing with it. It's not quite sure if it's a quasi-business or a public service, it's nervous of sounding patrician and it's terrified of taking big creative risks for fear of losing ratings. It feels it ought to be in the swim of popular culture and prevailing trends, but tends to fight shy of controversy. It wants to be hip, but certainly can't be called radical.

How to stop the drift and find a new and distinguishing purpose? Rather than gearing every decision to ensuring its continued survival (a policy which will no longer do), the BBC should use its public money to fund excellence in all its spheres of endeavour. In creative businesses, excellence is something that arises when the shackles are loosened to allow the freest possible expression, sometimes at the cost of a little anarchy. To do its work excellently, the BBC has to forget about presenting one face to the world and to hand programme making back to the creatives. It needs to make a new deal with its audience: we'll spend your licence fee on the best and most challenging content there is, and you the audience will take far more of a role in determining content.

In no particular order, here's the top-ten on my wish list for a new-look BBC:

1. Sack the marketers and forget about branding. The BBC has become increasingly obsessed with marketing. The idea that giving the BBC a distinctive brand identity will create a single set of positive associations that will bring an audience back day after day is inappropriate and misplaced. Audiences want a degree of reassurance, but they want a massive dose of surprise and excitement as well. The BBC's marketing obsession has infused its television programming with sameness and discouraged originality.

2. Clean up the commissioning process. As a trustee of public money, the BBC should commission independent production companies to make programmes according to the highest standards of honestly and transparency. For big-money commissions, factual or drama, we should experiment with new methods of commissioning such as letting the audience decide which projects go to series based on reactions to mini-pilots.

3. Encourage creative competition within the BBC. The Birt reforms gave the BBC pyramid-shaped structures which pass the only power that counts - that of green-lighting programmes - into the hands of a tiny few. It's not right that a handful of people necessarily nervous of their responsibility determine the content on which hundreds of millions of pounds are spent. Far healthier to return to a system in which a much larger number of producers are given commissioning power and are encouraged to compete with each other for prestige.

4. Scrap some of the long-running TV series. A quarter of the BBC drama budget goes on East Enders, Casualty and Holby City. They score well in the ratings, but in all conscience, there are too many of them. A public service broadcaster should be spending on original, risky, controversial drama that wouldn't necessarily be made in the commercial sphere.

5. Make the watershed work properly. Pre-9 o'clock broadcasts need to be suitable for children and maiden aunts. Post 9 o'clock, the restraints need to come off to allow whatever programmes require for proper expression. Intelligent adult audiences want to be challenged and sometimes shocked. The landmark BBC dramas of the past all caused some offence, and some were even banned. (The 1978 BBC2 drama, Law and Order, was locked away for 23 years following protests in the House of Commons at its portrayal of corrupt detectives).

6. Cover major national events with dignity. Some aspects of the British character don't change with passing fashion. There is an appropriate tone to be struck at royal and state events; it is for other broadcasters, not the BBC, to experiment with subverting it.

7. Create more content for an intelligent audience on the mainstream channels. This means programming that demands concentration. Among my good friends I number factory workers, builders, probation officers, lawyers and doctors. They all like complex, thoughtful programmes and know when they are being patronised. The audience does not have the attention span of a goldfish, but rather craves well-informed material delivered by presenters who know their subjects and who haven't necessarily been pop stars. In drama, we need challenging single films on a regular basis that provide an outlet for the most controversial and talented contemporary voices.

8. Institute a rigorous policy against inanity and rudeness. The BBC has an historical reputation for being authoritative and well-informed that isn't fully deserved today. Too often, particularly on live radio, presenters are lightweight and ignorant of the subjects they are discussing. Radio 5 often descends into bar-room level gossip with presenters unashamed to say they aren't in possession of the facts. The Ross/Brand affair dealt with the most crass examples of rudeness, but it still creeps in - even the usually benign Ian Hislop has unpleasant bullying outbursts on HIGNFY that trespass from humour to insult.

9. Allow autonomy for the regions. BBC executives in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have virtually no commissioning power for network shows. They may recommend and 'champion' programme proposals, but cannot give the green light. The UK is made up of separate countries each of which seeks and deserves its unique expression to the whole nation. The BBC should be a fully devolved and de-centralised institution, not a London-centric one ruled by diktat.

10. Never be afraid to fail. Along with an obsession with marketing, it is a fear of failure and 'turning off' audiences which has blunted the BBC's cutting edge. The best broadcasters in the world such as HBO are thriving on their risk-taking. The BBC is so powerful in our UK marketplace and so much of our creative talent is dependent on it for a livelihood, that it owes a positive duty to allow that talent free expression. To impose institutional caution is cultural oppression and the opposite of what a modern BBC should stand for.

 
 
 

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