J’accuse 

1 February 2003 tbs.pm/1892

BBC TV celebrates the 1984 Olympics

Russ J Graham on the end of live presentation

I accuse the BBC of failing to realise that they have just signed their own death warrant. I accuse the BBC’s senior management of choosing what is considered fashionable over what is good for broadcasting.

I accuse the controllers of the mainstream channels of trying to shed their middle class intelligentsia viewers who are pro-licence fee in favour of the dumb minority who are not.

Above all, I accuse Greg Dyke of not being aware of the BBC’s own history, and the solid fact that the dual aims of the greatest Directors-General, Reith and Greene, are best for this country and best for the Corporation.

In retrospect it was inevitable. If ITV1 makes a daft decision it is later unable to justify, the BBC will always follow.

Why this should be is interesting. After all, the BBC was the first broadcaster in the United Kingdom. It was the first regularly scheduled high-definition television provider in the world.

The entire broadcasting ethos of this country – every single scrap of radio and television style in existence – was defined, pioneered or proposed by the BBC at some point during the past 80 years.

In 1955, something happened that started a change to that. Commercial competition was nothing new to the BBC – Radio Luxembourg was draining listeners from the service before the Corporation was even available across the entire country.

But Luxembourg and smaller competition like Radio Normandy were easy to ignore, and the BBC did just that – ignore them completely.

But the birth of ITV was something different. Reluctant to develop television, the BBC was suddenly faced with competition from a commercial ‘other side’. The response was to turn the Television Service into something more populist and something deserving of more attention in the Corporation’s management.

But this was the beginning of a new phenomenon. For the BBC learnt the wrong lessons from the birth of ITV and the end of the television monopoly.

The BBC’s fight back against ITV was impressive. Television history shows that, whenever ITV fell down for any reason, the BBC was there to scoop up the viewers. The BBC was more daring than ITV when ITV was claiming to be daring. The BBC spoke with the nation’s voice when ITV was claiming that right.

But something happened along the way that was to be to the detriment of the BBC. In competing with ITV, they found themselves being led by the nose by the commercial channel.

When ITV introduced a concept, the BBC followed. For the most part, this hasn’t been entirely a bad thing. The threat of in-vision newscasters from the new ITN led to the introduction of in-vision newsreaders on BBC News and Newsreel.

A decent regional television service from ITV (something now sadly forgotten by its originator) led the BBC to promote regionalism in its own service.

Memorable idents and a commitment to corporate branding in each ITV regional company (again, now gone) led the BBC into producing some of the best television branding the world has ever seen.

The list goes on. ITV’s targeting of specific nights led to the BBC into doing likewise, and thus coming to own Saturday nights throughout most of the 60s, 70s and 80s. ITV supremacy in drama – especially strands such as Armchair Theatre – led to quality plays and serials from the Corporation. ITV’s domination of the schedules with Granada’s Coronation Street led directly to BBC-1’s EastEnders – a serial with more drama and quality writing (at least now) in each episode than Coronation Street manages in a year.

But this blind ‘follow my leader’ game played for almost 50 years by the BBC and ITV has a severe downside.

When ITV is good, it’s very very good. But when it’s bad, it’s awful. Yet the BBC has never been able to grasp this. ITV, no matter whether the channel is on the up or on a slippery slope, is seen as the direction to go.

ITV now is definitely on the slippery slope. With appalling bulk presentation that is meant to ‘warm’ viewers to the channel whilst being stone cold, tired programmes and bereft of original ideas, the station is widely recognised as dying on its feet.

That it can still – sometimes – muster a decent (comparatively) headline viewer figure doesn’t disguise the fall in viewer loyalty and reach.

But the BBC obviously doesn’t see this. If ITV is doing it – and especially if ITV is itself copying what the ‘specialist’, ‘minority’ or, uncharitably, ‘forgettable’ digital channels are doing, the BBC is desperate, no, falling over itself, to follow.

ITV1 recently made the decision – now seen as a disaster privately inside the industry, but voiced publicly by viewers and advertisers – to ditch local, friendly presentation and move to doing announcements impersonally on tape.

The moment this sterile method of broadcasting – which, on the face of it seems more professional, yet in reality is simply cold and impersonal – was launched by ITV, the writing was on the wall for live continuity at the BBC.

Never an organisation to know a bad development from a good one, and with the main channel run by a woman who, frankly, needs a good slapping from someone and urgently, the BBC has decided to follow ITV1’s lead and ditch live continuity.

That this is merely a precedent set by digital channels run on a shoestring with no public service commitments – indeed, no feeling at all that the public need be served in anyway – is seen as all the more reason to follow the ITV trend by the meejatypes at Television Centre.

The people who run – though perhaps ‘react’ might be a better word – the BBC television channels seem suddenly incapable of recognising that they are ruining the livelihoods of several very talented people who are an asset to the Corporation.

They are unaware that quality branding of their main channels is enhanced – or even defined – by the idea that someone is sat watching the god-awful programmes they now produce with the unfortunate viewers.

They are also unaware that, should something unexpected happen – like a war in the Middle East breaking out or the death of a monarch in her 70s – they’ll be caught without that calming voice the people of Britain expect – need – from the BBC. Someone to say “It is with the greatest regret we announce… we now join BBC News 24 for coverage of this event”.

Unless they plan to tape such an announcement, but then the sincerity would be treated in the same way we treat those recorded announcements at stations; “Comedy Train Services regret the disruption to this service tonight” – the terms of regret being something disregarded by the listener as ‘spin’, ‘marketing’ or just ‘false’.

Would the BBC like to be seen as a broadcasting equivalent of a British train operator, given the success and popularity they have had? This is the road to follow if Arriva or Connex is suddenly to be seen as a role model rather than something to be reviled.

But the number one reason that the BBC will soon be rueing the day they decided to implement this money-saving policy is clear to everyone except those executives themselves.

The BBC has, with one announcement, decided to tell the entire country that it is no longer an important broadcaster. With no live continuity, with everything coming from a tape, any Tom, Dick or Rupert could provide the BBC’s services.

With such a small change to the established order, by following ITV down such a narrow backwater, the BBC have signed their own death warrant – in the middle of a debate about the future of the licence fee with a government committed to neo-Thatcherism and being desperately prim about every penny ‘they’ spend in our name.

The licence fee will survive, but sooner rather than later the money will stop flowing directly to the BBC. The Treasury covets the income too much to give it up, yet the BBC gives Mr Brown the impression that the Corporation could live without it.

One can only conclude this is what BBC senior management wants. I accuse them of shortsightedness, but feel no satisfaction in the knowledge that I’m about to be proved right.

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