31 August 2009

BBC attacks miss the point

James Murdoch's attack on the BBC was stunningly unoriginal. I'm not talking about the substance of his fusillade. The traditional right-wing accusations include a socialist agenda and manic political correctness (this, from the broadcaster that brings you Jeremy Clarkson...). His entirely capitalistic rant was something relatively new.

No, the unoriginality stems from the style of his tirade. By using over-the-top language to describe the BBC - including its "chilling" ambitions to, er, inform, educate and entertain through various media - he was aping the tactics used so frequently on that other arm of the Murdoch empire, Fox News. It's all about strategic use of hyperbole to whip up the audience into a frenzy without actually delivering any answers. Once the mob is unleashed, the smart money can choose the solutions it wants without worrying that the mob has an agenda behind its destructive fury.

Or, as the Yorkshire Ranter puts it, you "provide a focus for indignation; something to get worked up about, or in other words, a piece of politics-without-thinking."

The other advantage of wild hyperbole is that it makes the merely stupid or self-interested views of those on your side of the argument seem more credible by comparison. So we now have Dawn Airey wading in with calls for the BBC to charge for services outside its main two TV stations and five radio channels.

It's stupid for a whole bunch of reasons, but mainly because Dawn seems to think that the web is a bit like TV only on a computer. I guess her thinking is that if you force people to pay for the BBC web site they'll stop going there and visit... the web sites of commercial TV stations where they can be fed contextual advertising? Huh?

If you shut down the BBC web site tomorrow, my guess is that the biggest beneficiary would be Google (although its servers would probably barely register the rise), followed by the national newspapers and then a slew of bigger-name bloggers. My guess is that Five's web site wouldn't see one iota of change.

What about a pay wall? Well, lots of people wouldn't bother any more, of course (in which case, see above). But those who did pay extra - who could afford to pay extra - would probably get their money's worth more by spending more time there than they do presently. Assuming there are a finite number of pay web sites these users are willing to subscribe to, such a policy would also rob a "commercial" web site of potential paying subscriber. And the BBC would generate revenue to invest in... even better commercial services!

In fact that's the last thing Dawn and her commercial TV buddies need. So what really ails them?

It's not the BBC. Well, not only the BBC. Beeb ratings are a fraction of what they were 25 years ago - and more people and watching more telly these days. The answer, of course, is multichannel television.

I have about 40 channels on Freeview. Eight are BBC channels - so its share of the bandwidth is 20%, against 50% 25 years ago. For homes with a satellite dish, it's a fraction of a percent now. It seems stunningly obvious to me that the real reason commercial TV is in trouble is that it's spread itself far too thin.

Sure, in the early days, stealing share from the BBC was an easy way to fund new channels. But there came a point of diminishing returns. Cannibalising their commercial brethren was inevitable. Advertisers still had a limited budget (have you any idea how cheap it is to put on a commercial at the moment?).

And when Sky spoiled (as in child; also, as in ruined) football in order to steal even more viewing hours, surely that was the end for the other commercial stations. Viewing figures are low, viewers have other pursuits (and much as Dawn might hate this fact, millions more hours are spent on Facebook and porn sites than on the BBC - check out the Alexa rankings...) and both the talent and the advertising budgets are spread too thin.

In fact, why isn't Dawn attacking Murdoch for failing to jack up Sky's subscription prices more? Why isn't she complaining about kids today not spending enough time glued to the gogglebox instead of interacting with their online communities? Why isn't she lambasting Sky for pumping so much money into the English Premier League that other football (her own UEFA Cup coverage, for example) looks shit by comparison?

The BBC is not perfect, by any means. But it's just like the NHS: I'm thankful every day that it's there. James Murdoch's ad hominem attack on Auntie Beeb is a carbon copy of Fox News's campaign against our health service. They must both lose.

PS. Just to be clear, I do think the BBC does need to change. I'd ditch BBC Three (the best bits could migrate happily to One or Two or be taken by their indie production companies to the commercial stations). I'd cap BBC bidding for recommissioning popular shows, allowing commercial stations to buy them up. (Why does Top Gear need to be on the BBC? I imagine it's very expensive; ITV would leap at the chance to show it; and I can't see someone like Clarkson curbing his style to satisfy car advertisers, can you?) And I'd shut down local radio. There would still be local reporting - via the web sites and local TV news. But local commercial radio is on its death-bed. (Actually, that last prescription might be too late...)

Bottom line? The licence fee is there to guarantee that we receive services that the commercial sector cannot or will not provide. That means outstanding and independent news and current affairs; in-depth investigations; solid gold documentaries; high art; science and religious broadcasting; drama and comedy from new writers; special interest coverage - particularly, for example, in music; and "crown jewel" programming - which would include even high profile sports where the governing bodies aren't too stupid to take cash over profile.

It does not mean Hollywood movies, lame sitcoms, celebrity lifestyle, property shows, most reality TV, most game shows, most US imports - anything, in short, that you can find on free-to-air commercial stations. Will that satisfy you, Dawn?

UPDATE: I've just read what the ever-excellent Felix Salmon has to say. Read the post: it kind of explains why he gets paid more for blogging than I do, although I think we come to fundamentally the same conclusions.


WazzoTheMartian said...

Nice rant Rich! You should send it to one of Murdoch's rags, they might take you on.

You do seem to be struggling to decide which side of the fence you're on though: are you a rabid capitalist with a pinko heart, or a red skin with a heart of Thatcherite iron?

Fortunately for us in Oz, Rupert saved his worst excesses for England. I sympathise. Nevertheless we are in a similar position vis a vis public broadcasting. ABC television is the worst it has ever been: it's funding eviscerated, it's board on the rotating chopping block and content determined by government via knee jerk. So much so that its junior sibling: SBS TV, which was cut loose from the controlling shackles and told it could run ads, has left it for dead, both in interesting content and market share. For example SBS ran both The Ashes and Le Tour... Instant market share! ABC wasn't allowed to bid.

This what happens when the capitalists get their way: You get the sport you want with the ads that you don't. The best solution is to let the public broadcasters buy everything we want. The hell with the commercial channels!

What do we want? Sport without ads!
When do we want it? Now!

Fuck you Rupert!

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