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Home > Media

The BBC Charter: What's their beef?

"The BBC exists to enrich peopleís lives... Its vision is to be the most creative, trusted organisation in the world."

- BBC corporate puff

29 August 2003

Viewers of dreck like 'When Changing Rooms Met Ground Force' might be sceptical about the corporationís untrammelled creativity, and they're not the only ones questioning the role of the BBC at the moment.

The fracas surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly has led BBC execs to speculate that the government will take its revenge by failing to renew the BBCís charter, which runs out in 2006. (The charter is basically the BBCís licence to do stuff, and requires that the corporation gets permission to operate from the government.)

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell has vehemently denied that the Kelly affair will affect the decision about the charter, and itís just as well. Without putting too fine a point on it, accusations of political bias are bollocks. If thereís bias in the BBCís newsrooms, itís toward 'talking up' stories and lacing the news with amusingly bad live links to reporters: "Peter, how would you describe the angry, baying mob right now? Angry? Baying?"

A more serious threat to the BBCís charter is the criticism that it has an unfair advantage in the TV marketplace, thanks to massive, guaranteed funding from the licence fee.

Thereís a superficial plausibility to this claim, especially if you're Rupert Murdoch or a free-market nutcase who thinks the emergency services should be run by a consortium of Group 4, Railtrack and M&S. But there isn't a stone tablet anywhere saying that TV must operate solely as a free market.

In fact, the strongest argument in favour of state broadcasting is neatly summed up in two words: Sky One. Popular as it may be, Sky Oneís output can't be described as wildly ambitious: endless re-runs of The Simpsons, bland sci-fi and mindbogglingly unoriginal entertainment formats.

And thatís just TV. If you consider radio, no commercial channel puts out programmes that begin to match the quality and diversity of BBC shows. Scientists have proved that prolonged exposure to Sara Coxís Radio 1 breakfast show can reduce your IQ by up to 60 points, but tune in to commercial radio and witless DJ prattle interspersed with music is pretty much all you get.

The other big criticism of the BBC is that its expansion into digital services has left many licence payers unable to view programmes/channels theyíve helped pay for. This is a fair point, but more and more people are getting satellite/cable/digital, and the best BBC programmes tend to be shown on terrestrial TV anyway.

These market-based arguments rather miss the point. If thereís a genuine case against the BBC, itís the question: is the BBC is performing its duty of educating, informing and entertaining the public?

The answer is `yesí - if you're totally undiscerning.

OK, you can't fault the BBC for its educational/informative output (news, BBCi, Learning Zone etc.) In terms of entertainment, there have been some excellent programmes recently, like The Office and State of Play. And however much you
may want to put Jamie Oliver through a plastics shredder, programmes like The Naked Chef show that the BBC can produce fresh, lively formats.

But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Take a recent Friday nightís output on BBC1 and 2. Of 16 non-news programmes between 6.00pm and midnight, only two were new, vaguely intelligent programmes: What the Romans Did for Us and a documentary about an ailing estate (the sort with deer, not rat-children).

Half of the 16 shows were repeats. The bulk of the output was workaday stuff: My Family, Dinner Ladies, Gardenerís World, Top of the Pops and other fare thatís not likely to make you die from excitement. Fans of outright crap were well catered for, as ever, with This is Your Life, Jim Davidsonís subnormal stand-up and Jasper bloody Carrott. And, of course, Eastenders, currently lumbering through another implausible Phil-Mitchell-the-gangster plotline. (Phil Mitchell, the only Cockney hardman in history who manages to enforce a reign of fear by throwing people onto sofas or kicking handily-placed bags of rubbish.)

If you want to pin down whatís wrong with the BBC, itís this prime slab of Friday night mediocrity. BBC execs and producers can cite examples of quality programming until the cows come home (and settle down to watch a repeat of Open All Hours) but the fact is there arenít enough original programmes aimed at viewers who arenít as dense as lead bricks.

All broadcasters blame satellite and cable for fragmenting the traditional audience, but this should be irrelevant. When a channel occasionally broadcasts something genuinely good like The Office, people make a point of watching it.

But when was the last time you were in the pub and someone said: "Gotta go. I want to be back in time for a repeat of Robot Wars"?

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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