Attitude problem

By David Hastings

The 'Big Brother' racism fiasco on Channel 4 earlier this year and the feeding frenzy that followed in the media as a whole, exposed more than just the distasteful class and racial attitudes on display. David Hastings looks back at lessons learned and at the wider implications of the controversy for future UK television regulation.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Celebrity Big Brother fiasco for Channel 4, all of this has perhaps helped to put the spotlight on a variety of issues relating to the current state of UK television.

Both Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson and chief executive Andy Duncan could have better exploited the situation to their own ends. The very fact that Channel 4 has to rely on Big Brother for much of its revenue should point to the fact that the network needs a greater degree of financial stability in the long term.

This reliance on Big Brother also highlights the weakness of the company's current schedule as a whole. Maybe that was the one thing that prevented this event from being managed properly from a PR perspective; you can't really admit a fault in one area if in turn it reveals a stack of weaknesses elsewhere.

The whole affair has laid bare the inefficiencies of Ofcom as a regulator, which isn't really a fault of Ofcom but relates both to what its statutory powers are for, and how it has been directed to use them. Might this chain of events ultimately lead to an Ofcom with tougher powers?

Does the regulator actually need an overhaul? Yes, but probably not for the same reasons that politicians might conclude from this incident. It remains to be seen whether they will correctly address the problems of the current regime.

We must also remember that Channel 4 has been controversial on several occasions in the past. It's in its remit to be controversial to a degree, and it would be a shame if some of its more challenging output were to be suppressed as a result, especially in the field of politics where it might upset a government or two as a consequence.

However you cannot give commercial channels carte blanche to transmit what they want with only the prospect of a fine after the event, since by then it is of course too late and less scrupulous channels have already exploited this fact as a loophole in calculated 'cut and run' operations before being punished.

Ultimately the issue is about programme quality. The political expediency of letting commercially-funded broadcasters do what they want with so called 'light touch regulation' means that programme quality has too often been sacrificed on the altar of higher ratings. Look at what ITV1 now produces to see the ultimate outcome of this philosophy.

This issue has highlighted the communication divisions between broadcasters and independent programme producers, with fast-moving reality TV shows being particularly susceptible to last-minute decisions made by producers, that don't involve the broadcaster. Luke Johnson and Andy Duncan probably had no instant answers because of this.

As well as communication chain breakdown, it illustrates the different priorities that broadcasters and independent production companies have when working apart from each other. In nearly all cases this isn't an issue - the broadcaster likes an idea and trusts the producer to deliver the goods - but when it does go wrong the results can be catastrophic.

Endemol's task with Big Brother was to maximise ratings from a tired old format. Arguably it was only doing its job properly by manipulating events in order to do this but it ultimately ended up clashing with Channel 4's image as a public service broadcaster.

Much of television is all about sleight of hand. Many viewers might be shocked to learn, for example, that certain studio-based programmes aren't transmitted live, or that a supposedly live programme can also contain pre-recorded segments that are studio-based and therefore appear to be live even if they aren't. Watchdog is just one example of this.

Although some of the blame for this fiasco can be directed at Channel 4, what about the programme's independent producers? Obviously Endemol and Big Brother are part and parcel of the same thing, so unlike some formats where the broadcaster commissions one of their own ideas using a producer, in this case you can't have one without the other.

At this point Channel 4 had better now heed the warnings that were ignored by ITV to its cost, but in a different respect, namely that tired old formats are just that, and there is only so much you can do to them without overstepping the boundaries of taste.

ITV has, in recent years, ploughed on with old ideas given minor modification in an often vain attempt to keep them fresh, but Channel 4's past history of being controversial on purpose seemed to militate against a more cautious approach in this instance.

Channel 4 should predominantly feature fresh, high quality and edgy programming. Big Brother fails comprehensively on at least two of these points. If we are to also include a degree of moral responsibility, then during this saga it has failed on all three counts - even if it did have the beneficial side effect of highlighting the complex issue of racism today.

I vowed not to go too deeply into the racism issue in this piece but if you must read one online article about Big Brother, racism and media manipulation then make it this one.

Although the comment "we're only a generation from when It Ain't Half Hot Mum was family entertainment" was addressed specifically at accent-mimicking and its acceptability as part of general entertainment, that particular comedy series was usually only reflecting some of the attitudes expressed thirty years earlier during World War II.

Given, It Ain't Half Hot Mum had its social and historical context: it would perhaps be more palatable to watch today compared to contemporaneous entertainment like Love Thy Neighbour or, ignoring the purely musical aspect, The Black And White Minstrel Show. These perhaps serve as better examples of the public face of racial attitudes during the Sixties and Seventies.

Love Thy Neighbour is perhaps a classic example of a comedy which couldn't have been produced at any other time in broadcasting history, since it embraced commonly-portrayed racial stereotypes but attempted to ridicule them at the same time. This has resulted in a series which can nowadays only be watched in a strong historical context if at all.

In a similar sense Celebrity Big Brother is also very much a product of its time, exploiting not only the stupidity of some of its audience but the power of social networking in all of its modern forms. This sort of show is presumably expected to stir up a lot of supposedly valuable publicity by using contemporary race-related issues to drive mass market entertainment. This is of course like Love Thy Neighbour did thirty years earlier.

There is a fine line between entertainment and social manipulation, and broadcasters are these days frequently resorting to the latter to obtain good ratings. Big Brother's excuse is that the series is not only entertainment but also essentially "social experiment". This disingenuous sophistry is only really an excuse to exploit both participants and viewers.

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Article ©2007 David Hastings

Compilation ©2007 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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