The death of public service?

It's difficult to believe that any company with a guaranteed income in the billions can be in financial crisis. But anyone tuned into British media will be aware that Auntie - the BBC - undergoes frequent storms, which dominate the headlines of broadsheets and tabloids alike, and then soon die down.
December 1, 2007

It’s difficult to believe that any company with a guaranteed income in the billions can be in financial crisis. But anyone tuned into British media will be aware that Auntie – the BBC – undergoes frequent storms, which dominate the headlines of broadsheets and tabloids alike, and then soon die down.

But the real crisis at the heart of the BBC, according to many industry leaders, is the decline of its public service ethos. And a very strong indicator of this is the health of its documentaries, the genre in which it has led the world for decades. Although the BBC still points with pride to its current affairs and documentaries as amongst its greatest achievements, it has been chipping away at the foundation on which they are built – its budgets and in-house program-making – to the point of no return.

The latest round of redundancies, announced in mid-October, called for 2,500 job cuts, the majority to come from in factual and news, with a total of 1,800 redundancies. Across the factual departments, 17 of 38 execs, 11 of 37 series producers, and 54 of 107 producer/directors are leaving. These departures are taking place on top of the already huge decline in in-house capacity over the last three years, as the BBC began to farm more programs out to indies. While several years ago around 100 directors would have been making social/observational docs, there are only around 10 left now, according to documentary executive producer Simon Ford, who has made many acclaimed documentaries, including the award-winning The Secret Policemen and The Tower. He says morale is now ‘catastrophically low’ amongst BBC in-house factual program-makers. ‘These cuts which have just been announced will mean that most talented filmmakers will decide it’s definitely not worth being in the BBC, and if you want to make films you should be able to offer them to Channel 4, internationally and online,’ says Ford, who himself is leaving.

Indeed the Beeb’s former head of documentaries, Alan Hayling, says that it was the corporation’s plans to greatly decrease the number of in-house producers that was the biggest danger threatening the broadcaster during his tenure from May 2004 to June 2006, as well as the inevitable repercussions that would be felt throughout the industry. ‘At the moment, the leading people in the independent sector, most of them were trained in the public service sector and spent many years learning their trade in the public service sector. So they still know how to do it,’ says Hayling. ‘The problem is the next generation won’t know how to do it, and if you get rid of the pool of people who do know how to do it, then you are actually attacking the fundamentals of public service broadcasting.’

Hayling points to the history of ITV as a warning. The UK’s first commercial channel used to broadcast a number of acclaimed current affairs strands, such as ‘World in Action’ and ‘First Tuesday,’ but today is dominated by light formats such as I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

This softening of focus is already well underway at the BBC. The elimination of strands such as ‘Modern Times’ and ‘One Life’ run by commissioning editors continues a process of concentration of power in the hands of channel controllers, whose eyes remain firmly on the ratings. ‘It’s always been my view that the best way of fostering risk-taking is by giving editors responsibilities to make their own balanced strands,’ says Ford. ‘That is becoming harder and harder over the years and there are fewer and fewer strands. Everything on BBC2 has to be approved by the genre commissioner for documentaries and the channel controller, which means that the unusual, interesting, quirky and ultimately likely-to-be-successful things simply won’t get through the process as it is program-making by committee.’

Documentary-maker Roger Graef, who founded the esteemed production company Films of Record, has seen a huge change in the climate for doc-making at the BBC because of the squeezing of budgets and lack of willingness of controllers to commission a wide range of documentaries, including single programs. ‘There are fewer programs, less money, more focus on high-concept programs that can predict the outcome of their audience. That’s the kind of conversation that we’re having more and more of. It’s pathetic,’ says Graef. ‘They are trapped in this marketing speak where ratings dominate all their judgements. Appealing to audiences that they say they are worried about distorts their thinking really badly.’

Despite high ratings and critical acclaim for programs such as Welcome to Potters Bar and Murder Blues, Graef has found such programs are no longer being commissioned. Films of Record has seen a sharp decline in Beeb commissions, having supplied 30 programs to BBC1 alone from 2003 to 2006. In 2007, it has only made a single program for ‘Panorama.’

While the BBC positions itself to remain a world leader in the digital age, the way it spends its privileged license fee will rightfully continue to come under intense scrutiny. The threat to the acclaimed feature-length documentary strand ‘Storyville’ led to a ‘Save Storyville’ campaign, with more than 3,400 people signing a petition. It is likely to have had some impact: ‘Storyville’ will not be facing the 60% cuts which had been rumored. It will be reducing the number of documentaries from 40 to 25 a year, but at slightly higher budgets.

Although ‘Storyville’ survives – for now – the changes taking place at the heart of documentary making have no such groundswell of public support, in part because they are taking place more quietly and surreptitiously. Yet all three interviewees agreed that some of the best documentaries made in the last few years would not be commissioned today, despite the fact that BBC leaders still brag about them.

‘People in the [BBC] Trust would still talk about most of the programs I make as the reason why the BBC should exist,’ says Ford. ‘It’s very difficult to fight it, because they will say ‘No, we do want to carry on making this stuff.’ But the point is: are there the people? And is there the intention in commissioning to do it? And that is where most people have become extremely skeptical.’

About The Author