The world without… the BBC

Is it possible that, without a £2 billion-a-year tax on the UK public, the best of British filmmakers would still bring us iconic brands like 'Timewatch,' 'Horizons,' 'Arena,' 'Panorama' and - perhaps most notably - a commercial equivalent of the BBC Natural History Unit? Or would the landmark commissions and coproductions that the bbc is renowned for never grace our screens again?
December 1, 2007

Is it possible that, without a £2 billion-a-year tax on the UK public, the best of British filmmakers would still bring us iconic brands like ‘Timewatch,’ ‘Horizons,’ ‘Arena,’ ‘Panorama’ and – perhaps most notably – a commercial equivalent of the BBC Natural History Unit? Or would the landmark commissions and coproductions that the BBC is renowned for never grace our screens again?

So enmeshed is the BBC in the DNA of the factual business that it’s almost impossible to unravel the two. But let’s consider two scenarios: one in which the BBC had never been born; the other in which the BBC becomes obsolete as a result of digital technology.

To begin, let’s suppose John ‘inform, educate, entertainment’ Reith had followed his father into the church, and left private enterprise to drive the British broadcasting agenda. How different would things have turned out? ‘It’s unthinkable,’ says Alex Graham, MD of London’s Wall to Wall and chair of indie trade association pact. ‘The fact that the BBC is not directly answerable to the commercial market has bred an attitude of mind that makes it open to risk-taking. There are certain kinds of programming that just wouldn’t get made without that financial freedom to innovate.’

This is not to say that Graham shares Reith’s quasi-religious desire for the BBC to employ ‘the brute force of monopoly’ for the good of the nation. ‘The BBC is a benchmark which forces everyone to raise their game,’ he notes. ‘But the genius of the British system is the combination of license fee and advertising, in-house and indie production, which provides a unique pluralism.’

In effect, this argument takes the view that iconic commercial franchises like Granada’s current affairs series World in Action, LWT’s art strand ‘The South Bank Show,’ Anglia’s wildlife franchise Survival and Channel 4′s doco strand ‘Cutting Edge’ were instances of the ad-funded sector coming up with a powerful creative response to the BBC. ‘I saw it during the 1990s,’ says Graham. ‘The intense competition in specialist factual between John Lynch and Laurence Rees (BBC) and Sara Ramsden and Janice Hadlow (C4) led to great shows.’

Indie producer George Carey, who headed the launch team of the BBC’s flagship news bulletin Newsnight, agrees that such rivalry is the critical factor in the British system: ‘I think the best example of all is commercial news organization ITN, which came along and changed the way news was delivered. It kept the BBC from being complacent.’

Another advocate of British TV’s mixed economy is Darlow Smithson co-founder John Smithson. ‘The BBC is a fantastic part of our cultural heritage and a great counterbalance to naked commercialism,’ he says. ‘But the commercial sector undoubtedly brings a sharpness of practice to TV – a business rigor that wouldn’t exist if we simply had a public broadcasting monopoly.’

Surely, however, cultural plurality could have been achieved without a state-controlled monolith like the BBC. Supermarkets don’t need a state shop to keep them honest, and neither does the UK press. So why couldn’t the commercial TV sector have been given its head but been kept in check by a strong regulator? Or, why couldn’t the license fee have been allocated in a different way – perhaps by a government super-commissioner? Graham doesn’t have confidence in either notion: ‘The idea of bureaucrats controlling commissioning doesn’t lend itself well to creativity. And I haven’t seen any evidence in the last 25 years that regulators can prevent commercial TV companies from rolling back public service obligations.’

Proof, perhaps, of this last claim is the way ITV has jettisoned World in Action, Survival and children’s content (while also downgrading news, religion, arts and regional shows). There’s also an increasingly noisy debate about whether ad-funded C4′s attempt to balance its books has pulled it too far from its public remit.

Tigress Productions’ MD Andrew Jackson spent 10 years at the BBC around the time of the birth of breakfast TV, a time he recalls as extremely creative. For him, the collegiate style at the BBC encouraged innovation and provided a great training base for the entire industry: ‘New ideas need time to breathe and that’s what the BBC historically has been able to provide them. When I look now at the development of BBC3 and BBC4, it seems to me part of the same process – of investing in something without the pressure of delivering to shareholders.’

Room to breathe also has significance on a project-by-project basis, says Jackson. ‘There are some shows – Planet Earth, Life of Birds, Walking with Dinosaurs – that might never have been made by commercial companies because the upfront investment was too high and rate of return too slow.’ An interesting addendum to this from Graham: ‘I don’t think our genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? would have been made anywhere else. The irony of the BBC’s risk-taking approach is that it often results in shows that defy everyone’s expectations by becoming commercial hits.’

Jackson points to all the parts of the factual system which owe their origins to BBC output. Discovery’s acquisition of BBC factual titles, for example, or Bristol’s emergence as a factual center of excellence. ‘Many of the current crop of indie bosses came through the BBC ranks and got their first commissions there. The BBC was here first and we all grew up around it,’ he says.

Lion TV managing director Nick Catliff picks up on this, pointing out how Discovery is still reliant on BBC talent for its stand-out productions ‘even to the extent that it has a former BBC channel controller [Jane Root] now making big editorial decisions at Discovery US.’ Catliff himself spent 10 years in the BBC before going indie.

Like his peers, he finds it hard to contemplate a world not defined by the BBC’s editorial or financial input. ‘If the BBC didn’t exist, there would be a lot less money for production. There’s no way you’d raise another £2 billion from advertising – particularly when you look at how static the UK ad market is right now.’

The damage this would cause the UK indie sector is self-evident, says Catliff. What, for example, would the sector look like today if it wasn’t receiving £399 million a year in commissions (across all genres) from the BBC? Presumably, it would be diminished in size and find it harder to hold on to rights in the face of competition from commercial broadcasters. That, in turn, would stifle the private equity investment that has helped a number of companies re-invent themselves as super-indies.

Having said all this, are there any international examples of territories which have created a thriving factual community without a BBC-style outfit? Catliff doesn’t think so – pointing out that PBS in the US does not have the financial muscle to deliver the BBC’s range of output. Smithson backs up this point, arguing that factual filmmakers in Australia and Canada have suffered as their own pubcasters have gone under the knife. Graham agrees: ‘I’ve seen people so worn out from fundraising that they’ve hardly got any creative energy left to make their film at the end.

‘One of the great things about the BBC is that it will virtually fund projects it believes in – so the producer can focus on creativity.’

But do we need it now?
Let’s accept then that the BBC was necessary in the evolution of the factual business. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need it now, does it? Jackson, while a big fan of the Beeb, points to us pay-TV channel HBO as a broadcaster which has managed to build a creative, risk-taking business by pursuing a subscription route (i.e. building a direct relationship with viewers rather than relying on the vagaries of the advertising market). Discovery may have started out by repackaging BBC content, but it is now a formidable force, able to take creative risks because it also has robust subscriptions.

Philosophically, this argument is based around a shift from public prescriptiveness to personal choice. Take it to the ultimate extreme, says fêted indie producer Brian Lapping, and you could imagine a world in which the traditional bbc model becomes obsolete. ‘The BBC has had an amazing impact and I’m fortunate to be making documentaries for them that are low-rating, but seen to be of high value. But the notion of a compulsory tax will become harder to justify as more channels launch.’

Does that fill him with dread? ‘No, because I don’t see why TV can’t use digital distribution to move towards the kind of model you see in publishing. If The Economist can create a high-quality product in the commercial publishing market, then why shouldn’t the Internet provide the basis for a world documentary channel which trades in paid-for, high-end content?’

Patrick Uden, who came up through the BBC’s science department before going indie, has sympathy with the tone of this argument. ‘As executive editor of broadband channel FourDocs, it’s clear to me that the Internet is having a great impact on the way people view content. But there’s another important point to make: BBC TV did not invent the British documentary tradition – it co-opted it in the 1950s and 1960s. There was already a vibrant UK radio and cinema sector.’

The significance of this, says Uden, is that factual filmmaking is in the DNA of the British production sector. ‘I’d agree with Brian that the BBC – in fact television – is not essential. There’s creativity in other channels.’ That said, Uden does believe that the BBC helps make a better system for two reasons: ‘Firstly, the BBC was great at training us in the morals of program-making, something that has been a major issue in recent years. Secondly, you can’t presume viewers know what they’re looking for. A real strength of the BBC is the way scheduling is linked to production. It introduces people to important ideas they might not otherwise see.’

BBC head of science and history John Lynch is very persuasive on this score – describing how populist docudramas like Pompeii and Supervolcano suck in audiences, then spin them out across other channels (TV and Internet) in search of further content. No other organization links the mainstream TV agenda to the education of the nation. It’s hard to imagine ITV ever having greenlit a show like Great Britons, for example.

Smithson echoes this point: ‘The beauty of the BBC is that it can deliver challenging content to large audiences. I can see a role for niche services [such as Lapping describes], but we’re about to make a factual drama for BBC1 based on The Diaries of Anne Frank. That’s the kind of production I’d like to see reach the widest possible audience because it is such an important story.’

But let’s now return to the real world for a moment. In a season when the BBC has announced plans to reduce its in-house factual department by 50% and spend £300 million less on factual over the next six years, are we witnessing the beginning of the end? And if not, what does the corporation need to do to prevent itself from being cut and cut again until it is ushered out of existence?

Some of our observers think that the BBC needs to stop trying to be all things to everyone, because that’s not sustainable in a digital on-demand world. But this is a contentious argument, as it implies taxation without representation. Lion’s Catliff, for one, believes that the BBC would cut itself adrift politically if it narrowed its focus. ‘BBC1′s mass audience keeps the broadcaster relevant. The license fee becomes difficult to justify if the BBC is super-serving an elite middle class audience. It’s the other channels (BBC2, etc.) that need to stop worrying overtly about ratings and focus on creativity. I think the argument that the BBC has failed to make is how vital it is to the functioning of our democracy.’

Carey, like most of his peers, believes a strong BBC is important for the future. But he argues that the corporation will need to drop some sacred cows if it is to survive. ‘It needs to get away from thinking it has to be so highly staffed. The essence of the BBC isn’t its buildings or the number of people it has sitting at desks. It’s the programming ethos that really matters. A lot more of that could be delivered by the indie sector.’

Carey worries that the BBC has allowed the commercial sector to dictate the agenda, getting sucked into an obsessive regard for ratings and an exaggerated interest in channel shelf-space. ‘Audience size is important, but the BBC needs to stop being so prescriptive. If it doesn’t regain its leadership role in the area of creativity it won’t have a powerful enough argument to counter the lobbies which really do want to see a world without the BBC.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.