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Why we need to preserve the BBC and Channel 4 as the government launches a review

PUBLISHED: 18:20 16 November 2020

Sir David Attenborough's acclaimed wildlife documentaries would be too expensive to make if the BBC was to cease being funded by a licence fee  Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown

Sir David Attenborough's acclaimed wildlife documentaries would be too expensive to make if the BBC was to cease being funded by a licence fee Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown

As culture secretary Oliver Dowden launches a review into public service broadcasting, we take a look at the value of the BBC and Channel 4

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has launched a wide-ranging review into the future of public service broadcasting  Picture: PACulture secretary Oliver Dowden has launched a wide-ranging review into the future of public service broadcasting Picture: PA

How much do you value the BBC? Or Channel 4? Do you love the dramas, the sit-coms or the game shows – or perhaps the documentaries?

What I should be asking is: ‘How much do you value public service broadcasting?’ but that sounds a bit dry and academic – after all what is public service broadcasting?

Public service broadcasting is the stuff that makes telly worth watching. It’s the programmes you wouldn’t necessarily seek out but, if you stumbled across them, after an hour you would be saying: “Wow, that was fantastic! Absolutely fascinating.”

It’s the programming that used to fill BBC 2 and now populates BBC 4. It offers the viewer something of value but it’s something that they never knew they were going to love. It’s the history documentaries by Mary Beard shining a spotlight on some fascinating part of Roman life, or David Attenborough explaining about the evolution of birds or profiles of creative artists on Imagine or The South Bank Show. It’s documentaries about current affairs or exploring the background of big news stories – making sense of history in the making.

Lord Grade, the former boss of the BBC and Channel 4, who is chairing an inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting . Photo: Lewis Whyld/PA WireLord Grade, the former boss of the BBC and Channel 4, who is chairing an inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting . Photo: Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

It’s also about making dramas that are not about the police or adapted works from literature but are offering writers a chance to come up with compelling works which connect with how we live our lives today. The same applies to comedy – series like Fleabag and Michaela Coel’s dramedy I May Destroy You are perfect examples of public service broadcasting.

It’s all about offering the viewer some different to the run-of-the-mill commercial product you find on ITV, Channel 5, Netflix or Amazon Prime.

The reason for this celebration of the best of ‘different’ television is because it could be under threat. This week culture secretary Oliver Dowden has launched an expert inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting in Britain.

He announced that the panel would be lead by former BBC and Channel 4 boss Lord Grade (formerly Michael Grade) and would be asking ‘really profound questions’ about the role of public service broadcasters in the digital age - “and indeed whether we need them at all”.

His Dark Materials returns to the BBC but could such high quality drama be produced without a licence fee? Picture: BBC/Bad Wolf/HBOHis Dark Materials returns to the BBC but could such high quality drama be produced without a licence fee? Picture: BBC/Bad Wolf/HBO

He said that the arrival of Netflix, Amazon Prime and dozens of new streaming services had lobbed a hand grenade into the television and entertainment landscape and therefore everything had to be re-mapped.

He pledged that the panel, which would be made up of government communication advisors, past and present, MPs and TV executives, would not be “tiptoeing around the edges” but rather “drilling right down into the current system and how it operates”.

He said that everyone should feel represented if the licence fee is to continue. Referring to the BBC in particular Mr Dowden said that “a growing number of viewers feel harangued or ignored” in news, drama and comedy and it must change to ensure it reflects the views of the “entire nation”.

He added: “Someone switching on their TV from their semi in Bradford should feel just as represented by the Beeb as a person watching in their Islington townhouse.”

I fear that this is code for creating a broadcasting landscape that slowly lets current affairs slip away to be replaced by cheap talent shows, panel games and late night chat shows. It would be all too easy to say that no-one watches political debates and therefore they should stop being programmed or perhaps they should take a partisan Fox News approach and not hold a government to account.

The events across the Atlantic prove how important it is to keep a watchful eye on those in power and to question everything they do. We do not want a Trump-style election denial scenario happening here.

But, it’s not just political commentary that is in danger of being compromised – drama, alternative comedy and expensive wildlife documentaries would also suffer.

Yes, a commercial station could buy the rights to make popular shows like Dr Who, Poldark, His Dark Materials or Strictly Come Dancing – Channel 4 proved that with the successful transfer of The Great British Bake Off – but a series like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming for commercial station to attempt.

Also, minority audiences catered for by Channel 4 would also find themselves out in the cold in the harshly competitive world of commercial television which is entirely dominated by ratings. Critical acclaim counts for very little.

If Oliver Dowden is serious about all people need to be catered for then the left-of-centre, alternative, youthful audience claimed by Channel 4 need looking after too.

Also, it could be argued that Channel 4 does a better job of rooting government sharp practice and protecting our civil liberties than the BBC does.

While Netflix and Amazon Prime do provide a lot of high budget drama and entertainment, much of it is American while the majority of BBC and Channel 4’s output is commendably British. Surely, we want to keep that sense of identity, we want our world reflected in our drama, as well as wanting to keep talented British writers, actors and crews in work.

Public service broadcasting is important. It is, not only part of who we are as a nation, it also protects us from the very people we employ to make our lives better. If we lose the BBC and Channel 4 our lives and our knowledge of the wider world will be much poorer.


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