Too many cooks? 

1 May 2008 tbs.pm/891

Attenborough delivers warning to BBC

After last week’s duo of lectures purporting to be supportive of public service broadcasting in some form but perhaps hitting the self-destruct switch instead, we now have words from a stalwart supporter of public service broadcasting in its purest form.

David Attenborough was arguably the greatest controller that BBC2 ever had, though it has to be borne in mind that what he did at the time for the channel was fully appropriate for that particular era (the late 1960s) and if exactly the same rules were applied today they wouldn’t have the same effect in a ‘multichannel environment’.

Or would they?

It’s difficult to assess this one since nobody has yet been brave enough to try it, although the recent appointment of Roly Keating as controller of the same channel may have been the closest approximation that the BBC would have dared attempt in a ratings-obsessed era.

The real reason for the current situation relating to BBC Two and the other BBC television channels not only relates back to when the remits for BBC Three and Four were being drawn up but also to the basic philosophy that most viewers would switch off anything vaguely intellectual in pursuit of Strictly Come Dancing or The X Factor.

In one sense it’s a pity that the continuing popularity of the terrestrial channels wasn’t exploited to provide a greater mix of ‘intellectual’ content, although the channel controllers were probably too petrified of viewers deserting them as digital takeup increased. This may be less of an issue with the digital switchover close at hand.

Nowadays if you want a “place to think” it just has to be BBC Four, but sometimes you can’t help but think that a little more of its philosophy wouldn’t go amiss on the mainstream channels. It would certainly be preferable to having yet another reminder of how inferior your home is or how poor your cooking might be.

Indeed with property prices now starting to fall, programmes that major on property speculation may now be looking perilously out of touch with reality, which in terms of encouraging a broader choice of programme genres can only be a good thing. (Take note, Channel 4.)

As for the issue of independent production quotas helping to erode the talent base that the BBC has/once had, that is indeed an issue but one that could be potentially undone at some point in the future – I’m optimistic that the damage is not (yet) terminal but it will take a fundamental change for the effects to be reversed.

It’s the “broad-brush” approach of the nature of the independent production quota that’s the problem, and indicative of the ideological nature of the policy. Established indies are commercially-orientated and tend to specialise in distinct fields (Kudos – drama, Princess – chat shows, etc.) which makes programme diversity harder to achieve within quotas.

Then there’s the problem with Tomorrow’s World, namely that the BBC burnt its bridges by tinkering with a format in much the same manner as Top of the Pops, but worse still was the fact that there weren’t any equivalent free-to-air science programming alternatives (at least there were music channels to blame for Top of the Pops’ demise).

Recently Channel Five has tried to fill the gap in the field of popular science, ITV gave up trying years ago and Sky’s Brainiac is arguably too lightweight (and has been cancelled anyway). It’s ironic that the BBC should stuff its schedules full of cooking and property porn whilst ignoring the sort of things that the commercial sector also seems to ignore.

There’s supposedly a new science show in the works from the BBC, but until that actually appears the jury’s out on what that will do in terms of enriching the field of popular science. Taking the public library comparison one step further, would the general public be happy in funding a library that’s nearly totally devoid of science books?

Maybe the problem with science on television is that most people in charge of commissioning come from a media/arts background therefore they may find it instinctively harder to commission anything with a science element.

Then there’s the lack of presenters with a science or technical background, with Carol Vorderman and Patrick Moore perhaps being the only famous presenters left with such credentials; the era of Johnny Ball, James Burke, Judith Hann, Magnus Pike and Michael Rodd seems to have all but died out in broadcasting with that generation.

Indeed the biggest lost opportunity has to be BBC Three for not commissioning further scientific programming on television, with its controllers superficially appearing to be more concerned with ‘box-ticking’ their channel remits as opposed to encouraging further diversity.