A place to call our own
13 Jun 2011 6 comments. tbs.pm/1267
From a purely practical and logistical perspective, the BBC’s Television Centre is nowadays a large, old-fashioned and under-utilized building that must cost a fortune to heat and to cool, as well as occupying acres of expensive and highly-desirable London real estate that could still fetch a tidy sum even with depressed land and property prices.
So, you may ask, why the big deal surrounding the BBC’s decision to sell off Television Centre, especially as such a move has supposedly been on the cards for quite sometime?
Mention the BBC to anyone in the United Kingdom and odds-on the first thing they will think of when visualizing its location will be the iconic BBC Television Centre. The corporation may be spread over numerous locations including Bush House, White City and MediaCity but to most people TVC is the BBC, full stop.
Of course the BBC has had another equally iconic focal point in the guise of Alexandra Palace, so perhaps the selling of Television Centre might not be the huge deal that many opponents to the sale are making it out to be.
However this sale also comes at a very crucial time for the corporation in terms of downsizing and reconfiguring its priorities as a broadcaster; a time when it desperately needs to hang on to all the good will it can muster.
Unless the BBC can successfully promote one or two other locations as a “home of broadcasting” (say, White City and MediaCity), there’s now a very strong danger that the BBC will lose a fundamental part of its core identity as a broadcaster, which in this time of change and conflict could well deal a fatal blow to the corporation in the longer term.
This is even more significant at a time when regional centres are being promoted at the expense of a single central location; devolution may be a good thing (and perhaps a key reason for the TVC sale), but one or two key locations are still needed for a broadcaster of the BBC’s stature even if it still needs to strive for greater regional relevancy.
And the BBC has nearly always had a regional dimension to its heart even if its exact composition has varied over the years, eg. Top of the Pops started life in Manchester, Pebble Mill at One came from Birmingham and BBC Bristol specialised in wildlife documentaries.
Lose the Television Centre and you might end up having a fair percentage of licence fee-payers asking “What am I paying the licence fee for besides a small number of worthwhile programmes?”, because the BBC maintains its good will partly by being so much more to its licence fee-payers than being just another broadcaster in the EPG.
Of course the BBC may now be trying to do an ITV, namely being just content with producing programmes from anonymous studios that could theoretically exist anywhere from Algeria to Zimbabwe, but the BBC is a very different and highly cherished public institution therefore such a tactic wouldn’t sit well with public accountability (for one thing).
Numerous public events over the years have helped to give Television Centre its landmark status as a hub of televisual excellence, therefore the BBC risks throwing away all of this comprehensively rich heritage by putting up the “For Sale” sign without due thought as to how best to preserve and maintain this legacy.
It may be true that top quality programming should remain the number one priority for the BBC, but the BBC is fundamentally different to any other broadcaster you can think of, therefore any strategy that predominantly relies on convention (marketing, public value, the promotion of “good ideas”, etc.) seriously risks undermining any unique characteristics.
And that, I’m afraid, is the key problem. Myself and others have now completely lost faith in BBC management to coherently defend and protect the corporation’s core values, especially taking into account recent decisions such as the cancellation of the Electric Proms and removing non-news content from the BBC’s local websites.
Both of these cutbacks seem to be based around specific short term issues such as financial expediency and pacifying competitors as opposed to taking into consideration any in-depth and longer term consequences of such decisions for the BBC and its collective worth to the nation.
Such misguided strategies seem to underpin the fundamental basis of this decision to sell off Television Centre, even if there are on-paper advantages to such a move as noted before, but sometimes it’s the intangibles (heritage, reputation, etc.) that should always trump factors like financial gain for a major public service broadcaster.
And as with ITV’s decision to sell off numerous regional TV production centres for financial reasons before belatedly realising that it could actually do with more in-house production facilities, the BBC could end up doing something that it may bitterly regret for many more reasons than one.
Owning fewer public assets will no doubt make the BBC even more vulnerable to the prospect of further asset stripping in the future – it has already lost too many assets in a quest to become more ‘efficient’ (just look at the stormy relationship between the BBC and Siemens), and is perhaps just a step away from being turned into yet another Channel 4.
It may be a grim day for the future of Television Centre but the real nightmare could soon unfold for the BBC itself.