The BBC and the future of broadcasting

Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls,

I’m acutely aware that I owe you a podgram and a new blessay. It’s been weeks and possibly months since I last offered you anything.

The thing is, I’ve just returned from America, having finished an epic documentary series on every single state. Having arrived back in Britain, I have hit the ground running and have spent the past eight weeks writing a book on the series plus I’ve been filming a new series of QI here in London.

In the meantime I gave a speech about the BBC and the future of broadcasting recently and for the moment, what I spoke about is all I can offer you. Please stay tuned for in the coming weeks I will have a new podgram plus news on exciting developments for the next version of Stephenfry.com.

The Future of Public Service Broadcasting
Some thoughts
Stephen Fry

Before I can even think to presume to dare to begin to expatiate on what sort of an organism I think the British Broadcasting Corporation should be, where I think the BBC should be going, how I think it and other British networks should be funded, what sort of programmes it should make, develop and screen and what range of pastries should be made available in its cafés and how much to the last penny it should pay its talent, before any of that, I ought I think in justice to run around the games field a couple of times puffing out a kind of “The BBC and Me” mini-biography, for like many of my age, weight and shoe size, the BBC is deeply stitched into my being and it is important for me as well as for you, to understand just how much. Only then can we judge the sense, value or otherwise of what I am saying.

It all began with sitting under my mother’s chair aged 2 as she (teaching history at the time) marked essays. It was then that the Archers theme tune first penetrated my brain, never to leave. The voices of Franklin Engelman going Down Your Way, the women of the Petticoat Line, the panellists of Twenty Questions, Many A Slip, My Word and My Music, all these solid middle class Radio 4 (or rather Home Service at first) personalities populated my world. As I visited other people’s houses and, aged 7 by now, took my own solid state transistor radio off to boarding school with me, I was made aware of The Light Programme, now Radio 2, and Sparky’s Magic Piano, Puff the Magic Dragon and Nelly the Elephant, I also began a lifelong devotion to radio comedy as Round The Horne, The Clithero Kid, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, Just A Minute, The Men from The Ministry and Week Ending all made themselves known to me.

This was a world in which the BBC had a cosy and almost complete monopoly of radio. There were things called pirate radio ships, about which Richard Curtis has just written a feature film I believe, and these gave rise to Radio 1 and a whole generation of disk jockeys, but this was pop music, something that frightened and upset me then and frightens and upsets me now. That’s not generational, I’m from an entirely pop-literate, pop-loving generation, it is personal. For me comedy was all I wanted, whether in the surreal world of Goon Show reruns, the insinuendo-laden filth of Kenneths Williams and Horne, or in the grown up wit of Frank Muir and Dennis Norden. Many of the names that meant so much to me are now all but forgotten by the general public: Steve Race, Ian Wallace, Anthony Quinton, John Ebden, James Cameron, Kenneth Robinson. And in the past few years a cruel swathe has been cut through the once lush grass of great radio personalities: Alastair Cooke, Linda Smith, John Peel, David Hatch, Ned Sherrin, Alan Coren and finally, I was only yesterday at the funeral of the great Humphrey Lyttleton. Maybe this cruel swathe will be used as an excuse radically to reinvent radio. Radio 4 in particular is radically reinvented every five years or so, fortunately with no result whatever. Radical reinvention is not something that comes naturally to the British institutional mind. Indeed if you have an institutional mind, a change of stationery is seismic and upsetting enough to qualify as root and branch restructuring. Thus, altering the time slot of Woman’s Hour, allowing Gardeners’ Question Time to be independently produced and other such cosmic storms have constituted the radical and fundamental changes to Radio 4 that have allowed it slowly to evolve over the decades, matching and paralleling its core audience and providing a service so incomparable in its variety and quality as to be an actual reason for some to live in Britain. But it is ‘only’ radio: necessary to its survival has been the fact that the Associated Press, media tycoons and the political classes don’t care that much about it. Thus it has thrived. Thriven. Throven. Bethrived. I have to turn now to TV.

I may have grown up just as the Golden Age of Radio had passed, but the Golden Age of Television, that grew with me. When I was 7 my parents moved house. Well, we all moved house as a family, I don’t mean my parents left me behind, though who would blame them if they had? We owned, in those days, a television that disguised itself as a mahogany drinks cabinet, in the way they did – and they were never called just televisions, by the way, they were television sets. This one’s screen was, of course, black and white, it boasted one channel, the BBC (what we’d now call BBC1) and had a knurled volume knob in dark brown Bakelite. The set smelled the way dust always did when it was cooked on Mullard valves as they warmed up. It slid about on castors and had doors that closed with a satisfactory snick as a ball bearing rolled into its slots to secure it. The week before we moved, the BBC started a new drama, starring William Hartnell. An old man, whose name appeared to be Grandfather or the Doctor, had a police phone box of the kind we saw in the street all the time in those days. It turned out to be a magical and unimaginably wonderful time machine. My brother and I watched this drama in complete amazement. The first ever episode of Doctor Who. I had never been so excited in all my life. A whole week to wait to watch the next instalment. Never have seven days crawled so slowly by, for all that they involved a complicated house move from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk. A week later, in that new house, my brother and I turned on the good old television set in its new sitting room, ready to watch Episode 2. The TV had been damaged in transit and was never to work again. We missed that episode and nothing that has transpired in my life since has ever, or could ever, make up for that terrible, terrible disappointment. There is an empty space inside me that can never be filled. It is amazing neither of us were turned into psychopathic serial killers from that moment.

The years passed and brought with them for children Blue Peter, every Oliver Postgate from Noggin the Nog to Ivor the Engine by the way of the Clangers and Bagpuss. Mr Benn, Play School, Play Away, Rent-a-Ghost, Grange Hill and the Multi Coloured Swap Shop. How lucky our generation was. How spoiled. ITV played its part, of course it did, with Magpie and How and much else. This was a period of revolutionary drama from directors and writers such as Alan Clarke, David Mercer, Kenneth Loach, Mike Leigh, Alan Plater, Michael Apted, Stephen Frears, Dennis Potter. Play of the Month, Play of the Week, Play for Today. Cathy Come Home, Edna The Inebriate Woman, Pennies From Heaven, I Claudius, Tinker Tailor. Popular drama from Z Cars to Colditz. And comedy: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Monty Python, Up Pompeii, The Goodies, Dad’s Army, Dick Emery, Morecambe and Wise, The Likely Lads, The Two Ronnies, Porridge, Reggie Perrin, Fawlty Towers. … ITV gave us Rising Damp, and those definite article ITC adventures from Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner: The Avengers, The Champions, The Adventurer, The Baron, Man in a Suitcase, The Prisoner, The Persuaders, The Protectors and of course The Sweeney and The Professionals. And during this time BBC 2 had arrived and with it Civilisation, The Ascent of Man and the full realisation of its first controller, David Attenborough, as the world’s natural historian.

A succession of progressive, imaginative, tolerant, liberal in the loosest sense, and amiably hands-off TV executives from those legendary BBC Chairmen, Hugh Carleton-Greene and Lord Hill, downwards had created, or presided over, a cultural revolution of astounding depth, variety, imagination and dynamism. And then, just as I was leaving prison, starting simultaneously my period on probation and at University, the way you do, the wind changed and Margaret Thatcher, the new Mary Poppins, descended into Downing Street, with new medicines for us to take, but very few spoonfuls of sugar to help them go down. I am not going to blame her or make political points. The wind had changed and she blew in with it and would one day be blown away by another change. But here she was and fundamental questions were asked, genuinely radical unthinkable thoughts were thought in an age of privatisation and anti-dirigiste, anti-statist conservatism.

The first few years of that long administration in fact changed nothing. Her government was busy with a terrible recession and the Falklands war, fighting miners, that kind of thing. During exactly this time, I left University and began on what, for want of a better word, I shall call my career.
Comedy was my point of entry into television. Comedy had been my rock and roll as a child and now I was allowed to do it for a living. There is an argument that comedy is a greater public service than any other genre of art or culture: it heals divisions, it is a balm for hurt minds, it binds social wounds, exposes real truths about how life is really led. Comedy connects. The history of BBC comedy in particular is almost a register of character types, a social history of the country. Hancock, Steptoe, Mainwaring, Alf Garnett, Basil Fawlty, Baldrick, Victor Meldrew, Alan Partridge, Ali G, David Brent, the matchlessly great General Melchett – it is much harder to list character types from serious drama who have so penetrated the consciousness of the nation and so closely defined the aspirations and failures of successive generations. A public service broadcasting without comedy, is in danger of being regarded as no more than a dumping ground for worthiness. Seriousness is no more a guarantee of truth, insight, authenticity or probity than humour is a guarantee of superficiality and stupidity. Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

Meanwhile, back to history, for a moment. What was happening to broadcasting during the time I was cutting my comedy teeth? In drama, the word “play” had been all but banned. It was Film Four and Screen Two. The multi camera studio drama, such as I Claudius, had become a thing of the past, the way led by Brideshead and other single camera filmed pieces. ‘Yoof’ TV made an appearance thanks to Planet 24 and Janet Street-Porter and the Peacock Report appeared.

The Peacock Report, referred to by broadcast professionals in that way they have, as Peacock, came less than ten years after the Annan Report, which the great Noel, Lord Annan had submitted to parliament in 1977. Annan had been the first to detect a caterpillar in the perfect garden salad of the BBC’s golden age. He thought television as run by ITV and the BBC needed a shake up, it lacked a kind of diversity, plurality and edge, all happily unfamiliar words in those days. For the first time the founding Reithian tenets of authoritative patriarchal broadcasting were challenged: the de haut en bas principle in which the educated producer, presenter, writer knew what was good for the country and for the audience was under fire. The first and most direct result was Channel 4 three or four years later, specifically charged to speak for minorities and sections of society who did not want to be spoon-fed by the supercilious educated classes. The arts and documentaries, drama and comedy were still presented but in a kind of punked up style, all attitude and in-yer-face. TV went from Oxbridge to concrete, missing out red brick altogether. But the words ‘radical’ and ‘reform’ meant something quite different to a new and ideologically fired government and so in 1986 a new report emerged: Peacock.

Here was a report that really delivered a blow to the BBC’s solar plexus. Peacock began to foresee the possibility of digital diversity on an unimagined scale, it also put forward the ideas of a consumer-led, market driven broadcasting world, one in which the very principles of a licence fee funded public service broadcasting system would naturally be seen as obsolete. This suited the tenor of the times: deregulation, privatisation and a rigorous dismantling of the frontiers of the state – it was happening in the city and in industry and the utilities, why not broadcasting? The BBC, long seen as harbouring tendencies and personnel that were socialistic at best, Marxist at worst, was suddenly no longer a secure and unassailable acropolis. It was no secret that Norman Tebbit and some of the more fundamentalist free-marketeers and red-baiters of the administration would have been very happy indeed to dismantle the entire structure of the BBC. Peacock prevaricated and the charter appeared safe, but at a great price. Nothing would ever be the same again, the old certainties were dead and the harsh realities of capitalism arrived at Wood Lane and Portland Place. Whole departments were razed and working practices abolished, and something called an internal market was put in place. Radio Times was outsourced, the permanent make-up staff went, engineers, editors and set-designers were suddenly out of a job. Twenty-five percent of the BBC’s output was commanded to be produced from outside sources and a whole new independent sector was born. Companies like Hat Trick and Talk Back achieved almost instant success. Peter Bazalgette, who had been a typical BBC producer, starting life as a That’s Life researcher, then making Food and Drink and other such innocent programmes, started on the path that would lead him to Endemol and unimagined reach and riches. Men and women who had spent their whole lives dreaming up formats and broadcasting ideas as part of their job, suddenly had those ideas outside BBC premises, in their own time, because producers could now become entrepreneurs. There was money to be made and such a thing as loyalty to this new BBC was now a preposterous idea. The smell of Hugh Wheldon’s pipe smoke and tweed was finally expelled from every office, every corridor and every meeting room in the BBC. But at least the charter was safe, the licence fee was safe and the radio stations and the World Service and the general face and form of the BBC were safe and familiar. There was still Blue Peter and the Cup Final and Only Fools and Horses. The spinning globe and the logo were outsourced to Lambie Nairn, but the Beeb was still alive. David Attenborough and Bristol continued to make outstanding natural history programmes, the BAFTAs and Emmys continued to roll in for the innovative new drama and comedy.

And now … well, we know what has happened since. Satellite, digital TV, Freeview and now Freesat, the Internet and mobile telephony, BBC iPlayer for the iPhone, Mac and PC, a plethora of outlets so vast, complicated and fast-moving that audience numbers for traditional TV have plummeted. 3 million is now considered a good rating for a BBC 1 drama. Meanwhile of course ITV has morphed into a new kind of entity, more answerable to shareholders than ever before and Channel 4, always an uneasy hybrid of public duty ideals and free market commercialism, is finding it hard not to descend to freak show documentaries: “The Man With a Nose Growing Out of His Bottom”, “The Girl With Fourteen Nipples” and that kind of embarrassment for all concerned. So much so that C4’s very existence and right to continue is being questioned.

And we have a BBC that broadcasts through four major adult channels and a number of cb bb bb cb children’s channels, it has a news channel, a parliamentary channel, an HD channel (on which you will be able to watch this on Saturday!!!) . It also has a news channel in the form of its news.bbc.co.uk website, one of the most popular in the world. It has the iPlayer on its site too, streaming content to UK users only. But hell, there’s ways round that. Streaming? Hardly: anything that can be played on your computer can be stored on it and shared. A digital copy is a perfect copy. Once on the net it’s out there and will be bit torrented and Limewired and Gnutella-ed and otherwise P2P distributed. The BBC is making a lot of enemies giving away free programmes to an internet that everyone else is trying to “monetise”; at the moment it’s relying on the fact that you have to be slightly dorky to record from the iPlayer, but believe me that will change. It will soon be the work of a moment for my mother to get an iPlayer programme off her computer and onto her iPod, iPhone, or whatever device she chooses. In its digital doings, from interactivity through to HD and online resources, the BBC has been pretty much in the forefront of development, but also in the forefront of annoying those without its advantages.

Meanwhile I have continued to enjoy a happy career as actor, performer, broadcaster documentary maker and now, with an independent production company of my own, producer, so it is clear that I have had nothing to complain about: the old system was easy for my benighted Oxbridge self and the new system has worked for me too. I may be white and middle class, but hey, I’m gay and Jewish, so all kinds of minority compliance boxes are ticked by my very presence, aren’t they? Well do gay and Jewish don’t count as minorities in this business? Do you remember that scene in Mel Brooks’s To Be Or Not To Be. He and his wife Anne Bancroft play, if you remember, a theatrical couple in Poland at the outbreak of the war. As the Nazis move in more members if his company get taken away. One day his wife’s rather camp dresser, Sasha disappears. Brooks’s character really loses it. He slams his palm into his fist. ‘Enough is enough. First the Jews, then the gypsies, now the faggots. Don’t they realise that without Jews, gypsies and faggots there’s no such thing as show business?’

Anyway the point is … The point is I have of course, a kind of vested interest in the status quo. Or if not the status quo, it might easily be seen that any view I have about broadcasting is that of an insider. A member of the Oxbridge cosa nostra, the gay cosy nostra and indeed the kosher nostra. An insider moreover, who even if he had never stepped into broadcasting would, by virtue of that upbringing I told you about, be destined always to have in his heart a huge place for public service broadcasting as exemplified by the BBC.

And we most of us, looking around this room, have this problem, don’t we? We are likely, whatever our professions, to have an attachment to the kind of broadcasting we grew up with, a fierce pride in the staggering history of quality and innovation that has characterized British television and radio for fifty years. A pride, a sentimental loyalty that causes us to raise our well modulated, well educated voices loudly against any perceived barbarians at the gates. At a price, we saw off the Tebbit and print media attacks on our ramparts, a price that included many of us becoming extremely rich – damn you capitalism! – and now there is another attack imminent, at least a new report is beating its wings above us and stirring the air once more. And so once more we have to think not of how things have gone on, and how they are going on, but how they will go on. The future beckons. What will happen. As Neils Bohr, the great Danish physicist once said, “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

This new report is not from a grand panjandrum like my lords Annan or Peacock, but rather – o tempora o mores – it is an Offcom Review of Public Sector Broadcasting. A new kind of cat has been put among the pigeons. There is nothing ideologically gross for us to moan at, nothing personal, philistine or crassly commercial to deprecate with elegant disdain, but a simple honest proposal. If we still want the broadcasting landscape in this country to be dominated by grand mountains and valleys of quality programming that can inform, entertain, educate and enlarge the horizons of the British viewer then perhaps we should accept a new ‘model’ for the financing and husbanding of such a landscape. Let the income from the licence fee now be shared amongst the BBC and its rivals. Let it be sliced, as the jargon has it.

Wow. A beguiling thought. Neat. And how appealing to our political masters. The Blairite/Brownite benisons of public/private interbreeding can be allowed to combine with the wholly reasonable recognition that in this fierce new world of rich-spectrum, multiple-bandwidth broadcasting, resources must be shared – all must be allowed to wet their beaks.

I said earlier that Peacock ‘prevaricated’ in not creating a wholly commercial landscape; it might be truer to say that the BBC won part of the argument back then because it was successfully proposed, by Andrew Graham and Gavyn Davies, inter alia, that broadcasting is a special case, that the rules of the market place don’t apply. As in the armed forces, coastal defence, policing and other fields, capitalism red in tooth and claw cannot be unleashed here. If we stopped husbanding the Yorkshire Moors or the Lake District the result would be weeds, scrub or desertification, not more efficient productive landscapes from Germany or South Korea providing consumer choice and real competition. If innovative, cutting-edge, new and risky programming is not subsidised, the weeds will blow in too. This was the argument and it prevailed. But. But it was ultimately an argument that applied to a spectrum poor, low bandwidth broadcasting world. Gavyn Davies and others were able to argue that there would be no real diversity and choice in a free market dismantling of the licence fee because it was not foreseen how staggeringly multifarious the technical possibilities of programme rediffusion, distribution, ownership and rights management would be twenty or so years later. Private competition meanwhile continued to hammer home its counter-message. ‘Actually the market does work, it only doesn’t work when it’s unfairly dominated by subsidised monoliths like the BBC. Take away their distorting effect on the market and all will be well. Choice and diversity will reign.’ I remember Hugh and I wrote a sketch in which I played a waiter who recognised a diner in my restaurant as a Tory broadcasting minister. I clapped him on the shoulder and told him how much I admired his policies of choice, consumer choice, freedom of choice. I then was horrified to notice that he had only a silver knife and fork for cutlery at his table. ‘No, no, they’re fine,’ said the puzzled politician. But my character the waiter raced off and soon returned with an enormous bin liner which I emptied over his table. It contained thousands and thousands of those white plastic coffee-stirrers. ‘There you are,’ I screamed dementedly at him, virtually rubbing his face in the heap of white plastic, ‘now you’ve got choice. Look at all that choice. They may all be shit, but look at the choice!’ The sketch ends with me trying to strangle him. Heavy handed satire perhaps, but that was how it looked to me we were in danger of going: thirty or forty channels but all filled with drek. Peacock had been made to see the danger of that too and the BBC’s unique funding model was safe – for the time being at least.

Meanwhile the free market is great, it has proved just how greedy for money even the most socialistic TV programme maker is – just watch them scrabble for the millions as their production companies are floated.

And as for broadcasting, well after a mad diversion of believing that it was all about distribution, every media boss now repeats the mantra Content is King.

‘We repent,’ they seem to be saying, ‘being a media boss is no longer about owning as many stations, networks, nodes, outlets and ports as possible – it’s about production, about making things. I see that now.’

‘Hurray,’ shout the programme makers, ‘finally you’ve understood. So, give us the money then.’

‘What money?’ say the media executives, ‘there is no money. We spent it all buying up companies and their back catalogues. We needed content in a hurry, because – in case you weren’t aware … content is king, you know.’

‘Doh. Hang on … but what about new content?’

‘Good lord no. Are you mad? Far too expensive.’

The arguments for keeping the funding structures in place might be considered compelling: despite everything, the BBC is still doing what it has always been charged to do. It actually makes programmes. It pioneers comedy and popular entertainment, it reveals some of our cultural heritage to us in the form of costume drama, documentary, history and science programming; it informs, educates and entertains, it tells us about the human heart and the cosmos, the wide globe and the narrow street, it responds to new technologies and still manages to retain some sense of being the nation’s fireplace.

If it were to be forced to turn commercial, who would benefit? How would consumer choice and quality be maintained? What systems overseas provide tempting paradigms to imitate? None. Let’s stay the way we are.

All of which is arguable when looking at the BBC alone. But Offcom has wider responsibilities of course, as does government. They must balance public provision with private competition across the whole of an industry of converging technologies and diverging missions. They look at the plight of ITV struggling with its miserable ever-widening Mr Micawber gap between expenditure and income and, specifically at Channel 4 with its ambivalent position as a commercial operator with an often countervailing non-commercial remit. How ironic. Channel 4 is the perfect example of the glories of private and public and yet far from freeing it up, it’s been hamstrung by its unique constitution. How can we ensure a healthy, post digital switchover future for such networks? Where will the funding come from?

And what about other private companies who want to invest in the fabulous opportunities offered by online broadcasting: how can they compete with the BBC and its unfair subsidy? The days of claiming that the market cannot work are over, and it’s time to look at broadcasting in a new way. Thanks to TiVo, Apple TV, Sky Plus, Elgato and other forms of personal video recorder, televisions are now audio visual retail outlets that know about and respond to the consumer. Real market choice is here, there is no national fireplace, the individual with his remote, connected as he or she is, has no stake in station loyalty, no interest in network branding: show them the list of content, in categories including action, adult, arts, children’s, documentaries, drama, films: in sub-categories and nested sub-sub-categories, special interest according to age, religion, ethnicity and sexuality – who says the market place can’t tick the boxes for plurality, diversity and inclusivity?

Control is – or soon will be – the consumer’s: there is no need for a front end branded One Two Three Four, whether BBC or ITV. No need for anything but content. And if you want content to be anything more, any scintilla of a soupçon of a hint more than what market forces demand, if you sincerely want content to be occasionally uplifting, ennobling, educative, innovative, top down, nourishing and of bountiful, beautiful benefit to Britain and its citizenry, then yes, absolutely, the only source of financing for that is the licence fee.

So long as the playing field is level, the market will take care of the set top boxes, the distribution systems, the digital pipelines to the audio-visual retail outlet that is the consumer’s television, while the licence fee can – if it must and likes the idea – pay for content that can’t pay for itself in the normal cut and thrust of the marketplace. And if Channel 4 wants to (or must because of its remit) make that kind of public service programme as well as Hollyoaks and The Girl Whose Breasts Talk German, then the licence fee should cover that as well. The days of the BBC as a national institution, hosting and front-ending publicly funded content are over. The mighty oak must have some of its branches lopped off to light in on the smaller trees around it. Public Service Broadcasting is now merely the management of licence fee monies: we don’t need a BBC for that, or rather the BBC we need is a slimmed down BBC. It doesn’t need to try to be all things to all people, it can concentrate on public service and leave the commercial populist programming to the private sector.

Wow! Radical. And tempting. Perhaps. Perhaps tempting. Not to me, I have to say, but then I am not Britain or an average Britain. This image of the consumer’s home as a kind of electronic bookshop, as outlined by media business guru Barry Cox, where we move from passive viewer to active consumer may seem beguiling to some, but actually we already know that model. We know it from hotel rooms and aircraft entertainment systems.

It’s technically doable, especially when cleverly finagled with PVRs, but is it broadcasting, is it, actually, what anyone wants? Well actually, it exactly isn’t broadcasting, it’s narrow-casting. But is it wanted? I don’t know, I can’t speak for Britain, I can’t second guess polls, though I can imagine how easily they will return the results wanted by either side, according to the way the questions are framed. “Do you want to see the BBC dismantled so that you have to choose and pay for all your programmes like a hotel room film menu?” NO. “Do you want to stop paying the licence fee and being forced to watch poncey documentaries and have access to thousands of films and saucy programmes at the click of a button?” YES. GIGO, as they used to say in the early days of computing: garbage in, garbage out.

But that is nothing, nothing to the real problem. Content. Production. Programme making. TV programmes suffer from the embarrassing necessity of having to be written and made. Unlike Yorkie Bars or tennis balls or mobile phones you can’t just gear up the machinery and stamp them out in perpetuity. Every damned new programme has to be developed, nurtured, and tried out. Relationships have to be forged with writers, performers, presenters and directors, failures have to be accommodated and accepted. How this is achieved in a brave new world of post switchover root and branch restructuring, I don’t know.

Even the most immoderately free market media analyst or commentator I have heard or read would concede that there is a need for good impartial news coverage; that a nation deserves access to programmes that reveal truths about themselves and the world. But mostly they would argue too that if that is what the BBC is to provide, it can be slimmed down, the corporation can lose the need to make its Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing, its populist forays can be taken care of by ITV, whose audience share would concomitantly rise, narrowing its dreaded gap, while money would be freed from retrenching the BBC’s ambitions in the digital world, in film-making, in popular TV, in sporting occasions, money that could create better PSB programming and allow Channel 4 access to money that would spare us more The Boy Whose Testicles Play The Harpsichord.

Or perhaps a PSB system can be implemented on the American model of public subscription, or on the New Zealand and Singaporean models, based on a kind of central funding body. Neither of these can really be deemed especially successful, but again they free up money which can be thrown at as much public service broadcasting as anyone wants, and let real commercial players get on with making real commercial stuff.

But what would that BBC then be? Who would watch it? How could an audience be brought to a channel that showed nothing but worthy programming, no matter how excellently produced. Isn’t the whole point of the BBC as a major channel, a real player in TV production across the spectrum of genres and demographics, isn’t the whole point of that BBC its ability to draw audiences into PSB programming by virtue of their loyalty and trust in a brand that provides entertainment, pure and simple? Isn’t the slide scheduling from BBC4 to 2 or BBC3 to 1 an example of that, just as it can be from BBC2 to 1? I have been involved in programmes that have made that journey. Who Do You Think You Are? started on 2 and went to 1, like Have I Got New For You and a documentary I made recently on Gutenberg started on 4 and then screened on 2, getting I am told very good figures indeed, and staying in the top 3 on the iPlayer top ten for a week. It would not have been possible to get that audience, for what I am persuaded (well I would be) was an important and almost copybook example of PSB programming, without the cross channel trailing and station loyalty that the present all-encompassing nature of the BBC allows. In a sense the nature of the BBC as it is, ‘gives permission’ to all kinds of people to watch programmes they otherwise might not.

What is the alternative, a ghettoised, balkanised electronic bookshop of the home, no stations, no network, just a narrowcast provider spitting out content on channels that fulfil some ghastly and wholly insulting demographic profile: soccer mum, trailer trash, teenager, gay, black music lover, Essex girl, sports fan, bored housewife, all watching programmes made specifically for them with ads targeting them. Is that what we mean by inclusivity? Is that what we mean by plurality? God help us, I do hope not.

And anyway, cannot it not be understood that what we call ‘entertainment pure and simple’ is neither. It seems hardly necessary for me to rehearse the argument in comedy: Gervaise and Merchant, Lucas and Walliams, Mitchell and Webb, Catherine Tate, the Gavin and Stacey team, and before them Ali G, Steve Coogan, you name them, they all developed their arts over time, they all made minority failures, they all needed to be brought on. No one but the BBC could have made Blackadder, especially after the expense and relative failure of the first series. Does it count as entertainment or as public service broadcasting? Do we have to make a distinction? That’s the point surely. With all respect to OfCom and Barry Cox, and all the media analysts and broadcasting journalists who insist on one, do we really have to make a distinction?

I have to be personal again. I wanted to make a pair of films about bipolar disorder, did I have to believe that I was making a public service series? Could I not believe as I did, that I was making two television programmes that I hoped as many people as possible might watch? Just I would hope if I was making a drama or a comedy? Yes, those couple of films on manic depression may well have fulfilled a public service, one that could be uniquely followed up via the BBC’s resources on radio, on websites and on help-lines, but the gratifying large audience that tuned in, did they do so because it was public service broadcasting? How insulting to everyone concerned is that?

I was asked by the BBC to make this speech, if speech is the word. They hoped I suspect, but in no way insisted, that I would fight their corner against cuts, against the slicing of the licence fee: at the very least they expected I might make a case for the public service aspects of comedy, and for its importance and for the need for it to be nurtured and fostered. I have happy to do that, not out of eternal loyalty and belief in an institution that has, as much as any school or college made me who I am, but because I genuinely cannot see that the nation would benefit from a diminution of any part of the BBC’s great whole. It should be as closely scrutinised as possible of course, value for money, due humility and all that, but to reduce its economies of scale, its artistic, social and national reach for misbegotten reasons of ideology or thrift would be a tragedy. We got here by an unusual route that stretches back to Reith. We have evolved extraordinarily, like our parliament and other institutions, such is the British way. Yes, we could cut it all down and remake ourselves in the image of Italy or Austria or some other notional modern state. We could sharpen the axe, we could cut away apparently dead wood, we could reinvent the wheel, we could succumb to the natural desires of commercial media companies. Although I have an axe to grind on this, you should understand that it is personal not professional. Actually, if licence fee slicing and other radical plans do go ahead, I do not believe it would affect my career as either performer, presenter or producer, in fact I would probably profit more from the change. It is simply that I don’t want to live in a country that emasculates the BBC. Yes, I want to see Channel 4 secure, but I don’t believe that the only way to save it is to reduce the BBC. We can afford what we decide we can afford.

You know when you visit another country and you see that it spends more money on flowers for its roundabouts than we do, and you think … coo, why don’t we do that? How pretty. How pleasing. What a difference it makes. To spend money for the public good in a way that enriches, gives pleasure, improves the quality of life, that is something. That is a real achievement. It’s only flowers in a roundabout, but how wonderful. Well, we have the equivalent of flowers in the roundabout times a million: the BBC enriches the country in ways we will only discover when it has gone and it is too late to build it up again. We actually can afford the BBC, because we can’t afford not to.

This blog was posted in Blessays

70 comments on “The BBC and the future of broadcasting”

  1. Ian Reynolds says:

    Dearest Stephen,

    Thanks for such a beautifully argued defence of the BBC. The BBC is one of the last bastions of Britian’s greatness, maybe the last and it belongs to all of us, I would argue it belongs to the whole of the world. A broadcaster must be about something more than content delivery, the BBC offers something much more, it offers community. I would be lost without it.

    Yours Ian

  2. Feather says:

    Hi Stephen,

    Well what a great lesson in turning something dull as dishwater into something so engaging that I found myself hanging on to the last word and then thinking about the topics for the rest of the day.

    I now realise that I have not really heard a good speech ever, well.. I have now as I have listened to the pod cast, you know what I mean….

    Also I also see (hear ?) that making a great speech is a craft and not just throwing words onto paper, this will help me enormously in breathing life into death by slide presentations for industry. Not just communication a message but really engaging the audience with rich text, humor and inter-related subject matter with common threads throughout.

    Just to explain the next section, I love the BBC, I watch it, pay the fee and feel I have value for money, but I wanted to put across another side to the argument that is grinding around inside my head so here goes…

    I pay money into the holy (see why later) license fee, I also pay money into the sky tv system at less than a tenth of the price. I feel you can foster great content through both models. National geographic channels, Sky 1 and many more. My problem comes with choice (ironically) the choice to pay or not, with all other content I have a choice, to invest my money or not, with the BBC I have no choice, I have to pay if it produces great content or not. So the BBC content for me is based on faith, yes faith ?
    Faith that the talent stays at the BBC
    Faith that the BBC is able to manage the funds appropriately and efficiently
    Faith that the BBC constantly moves forwards and stays ahead of the game
    Faith that the BBC values the license fee payer
    Faith that the BBC actively listens to the public and cultivator of the BBC money trees,

    If money is the only issue there are many ways to fund activities, draconian license fees is not the only model.

    If the BBC is confident that it produces great content then many people would line the streets to invest as the returns would be safe. If the BBC is asking the public to fund its mistakes, so in some cases discover true amazing gems of content, then this is an expensive risky game to play and will not last forever ?

    The argument seems to be that the BBC is something great so lets defend it, so if the BBC is so great why would we need to defend it ?????

    Who knows, I do love the content of the BBC but it should not be so presumptuous to think it has exclusive rights to great content, there is other talent in the world thank goodness.

    Has the BBC ever asked me what would I like ?? with current technology the BBC could interactively use their viewers (not a select few all of them) to help guide and structure their content wouldn’t that be amazing, wouldn’t that be worth paying for ??

    Just cant wait for the next podgram fascinating insight into your world and in many ways our own.

    Gary

  3. popeyedoyle says:

    Excellent……but one would hardly expect anything else.

    I can empathise with the personal history; how the BBC is intrinsically linked with the public psyche of UK citizens. Despite its vain attempt to elicit nostalgic revery with its celebrations of its 50th anniversary, ITV simply does not compare with the BBC in the quality of its current output (with a few exceptions…erm…”Kingdom”?). Also, there are those bloody adverts all the time!

    Yes, the BBC is in a bit of a corner, and yes, it does produce some utter dross; but isn’t that its remit? To be all things to all ‘men’? We have to remember that the entire population does not consist of middle-class graduates with a penchant for Italian Neo-Realism.

    Also, I would worry about the proposal that the license fee is distributed all-ways. Would ITV, C4 and C5 then get a split in addition to their advertising revenue? Wouldn’t that just replace one injustice with another?

    A compromise would be to go the Sky route possibly (with the license staying intact instead of subscription) where we would see BBC1, BBC2, BBC Nature, BBC Film, BBC Sport (only available for 21 minutes of the day due to the paltry fare on offer!), BBC News, etc.
    I really dislike BBC3, however, you have to admire its dedication to exclusively new programming. And BBC4 is excellent, admittedly (yes, I am a middle-class graduate with a penchant for Italian Neo-Realism). However, maybe its appeal is to narrow to justify its existence, especially as its remit echoes that of the original BBC2.

    If the BBC is to remain our only public service broadcaster, perhaps the public should have some say in its future. Do we want a license fee, subscription or advertising? Do we want niche channels, genre channels or just ‘alternatives’ like we have now?

    Anyway….judging by this page, Stephen’s speech has caused some debate amongst his readers/listeners. We can only wait to see what happens.

  4. benroome says:

    Many of you may be interested in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice.

    View him presenting on the topic at TED, here: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html

    I think Stephen would enjoy it.

  5. antidee says:

    Whilst I happen to agree with every word, I can’t help but think that the era of TV is over. Our generation was much influenced (and educated) by television but I don’t think that’s the case now. Most young people of my acquaintance regard TV as a background noise and only watch movies with any degree of interest or concentration. Because of this, I think it’s going to get much harder for people to justify the licence fee to the younger generation; they regard TV in general as a non-relevance. They live their lives on computer with MySpace and YouTube and are the stars of their own shows. It doesn’t bode well for those of us for whom truly entertaining TV is increasingly becoming a distant memory. Nevertheless, thank you Stephen for your quixotic try.

  6. As an American (albeit a reasonably educated one) in my early ’20s, I’m sure I don’t fully appreciate everything that has been said here. Nevertheless, I agree with what’s been said here. I was particularly struck by the bit about the importance of quality over quantity when it comes to choice. For a perfect example, look no further than American cable television. The standard analog service available almost everywhere in the States offers roughly 80 channels, supposedly to suit all tastes. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve flipped through the entire set, only to find there’s absolutely NOTHING on. When I do find something to watch, it’s almost always on PBS or one of the other basic networks. I finally canceled my cable subscription; there was no reason to continue wasting my money. I cannot even begin to fathom the hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the entertainment industry that perpetuate hours upon hours of worthless programming, whether on the cable channels or even the major networks.

    Recently a friend and I were discussing some of the differences between American and British sitcoms. Of course, our exposure to the British side is more limited, but we wondered if maybe one of the reasons we find British sitcoms of a generally higher quality is because of shorter series. Watch an entire season of an American sitcom, and you’ll find that out of twenty two or twenty four programs, there are a handful of really good ones, a handful that are crap, and the rest are mediocre. But when there are only six episodes at a time, the writers would have to be a lot more discriminating about what makes the final cut.

    I realize that I’m an anomaly: I studied history, I own a record player, and my cultural tastes tend to run a couple of decades behind everyone else. But I really wish that American television offered better exposure to older programs. By old, I don’t mean the “dawn of the television era” exclusively– old could be even five or ten years ago.

  7. (please delete previous comment– I hit send before I was finished)

    As an American (albeit a reasonably educated one) in my early ’20s, I’m sure I don’t fully appreciate everything that has been said here. Nevertheless, I agree with what’s been said here. I was particularly struck by the bit about the importance of quality over quantity when it comes to choice. For a perfect example, look no further than American cable television. The standard analog service available almost everywhere in the States offers roughly 80 channels, supposedly to suit all tastes. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve flipped through the entire set, only to find there’s absolutely NOTHING on. When I do find something to watch, it’s almost always on PBS or one of the other basic networks. I finally canceled my cable subscription; there was no reason to continue wasting my money. I cannot even begin to fathom the hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the entertainment industry that perpetuate hours upon hours of worthless programming, whether on the cable channels or even the major networks.

    Recently a friend and I were discussing some of the differences between American and British sitcoms. Of course, our exposure to the British side is more limited, but we wondered if maybe one of the reasons we find British sitcoms of a generally higher quality is because of shorter series. Watch an entire season of an American sitcom, and you’ll find that out of twenty two or twenty four programs, there are a handful of really good ones, a handful that are crap, and the rest are mediocre. But when there are only six episodes at a time, the writers would have to be a lot more discriminating about what makes the final cut.

    I realize that I’m an anomaly: I studied history, I own a record player, and my cultural tastes tend to run a couple of decades behind everyone else. But I really wish that American television offered better exposure to older programs. By old, I don’t mean the “dawn of the television era” exclusively– old could be even five or ten years ago. We have an incredibly rich half-century of television, and most of us have absolutely no idea of what kind of foundation our entertainment rests upon. True, there are plenty of programs that depreciate over the years–their humor and references go out of date, but there are also many that remain timelessly good. If we had a better appreciation of this cultural history, maybe we’d be less likely to settle for garbage now.

  8. Lisa Boulton says:

    Dear Stephen,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your “blessay.” I am an ex-pat living in California through a series of complicated misadventures. Being far from home makes me extremely proud of the BBC – especially in the US where television reporting of international news, uncontaminated by American propaganda, is almost nonexistent. My brother lives in Denmark and is fluent in the native language, and loves that excellent country so much that he refuses to leave. However, he does rely rather heavily on video taped copies of standard BBC fare, for his televisual entertainment.

    In my daily life, when I am involved in right-brained work such as web development or ad design, I immerse myself in British comedy by listening to BBC radio… the News Quiz being an essential. I cannot tell you how it makes my heart sing to hear of the latest faux pas in parliament delivered in crisp, ironic tones by Sandi Toxvig. It actually keeps me sane.

    I must confess I never paid the licence fee – which I know is a terrible admission, but I was just out of my teens when I moved out of the country. However, my sister and mother live in Kent, so I could claim a vested interest by proxy. In any case, ever since I was a young child, and my father would bring home old reel to reel tapes of radio shows from his work as an engineer with the BBC, I have always loved the institution. It is the BBC’s body of work that is unsurpassed, its “trustability” (if that’s a word) that is unquestioned.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your last sentence: “We actually can afford the BBC, because we can’t afford not to.” Easy for me to say, I know, when I don’t pay a licence fee. The fact is, I would gladly pay for a full BBC channel instead of my only option here via satellite which is BBCAmerica – not exactly BBC, but closeish.

    P.S. I’ve been enjoying QI on Youtube.

  9. throat-wobbler says:

    Dear Steven, I read your speech in full today and I have to say how well you made your points. There was a lovely balance of lucid relevant facts and opinions etc and the particularly playful articulate delivery that most sane people have come to expect from you and regard as indispensible to intelligent discussion of any important topic – not just broadcasting. I, along with many other people of the same age, am 46. I have been subject to many of the same influences as yourself and have arrived at many of the same conclusions about life, religion, man’s crisis of identity in the latter half of the twentieth century and I have to say in all seriousness: Friendly milk may countermand my trousers.

    Please keep buggering on.

  10. w4rch1ld says:

    I agree with Antidee above: Mr Fry’s generation and indeed my own would consider the BBC an institution to be rid of at our own peril, but let’s not forget the trends of the teenager who rarely watches TV. I would wager the average teenager would watch the BBC once per month, for 30 minutes.
    No, I have no foundation for this opinion except to say I am surrounded by teenagers and NEVER see them watching the BBC. Well, maybe the comedies on BBC2 get a look in occassionally.

    So what’s going to happend in the future when those of teen years do not appear as statistics on the viewing figures? Will we still be forced to pay the BBC tax in order to fund foreign viewers (as they flaunt so openly above), when our own now twenty-somethings are too busy with their hologramatic FaceBook addon to watch the latest incarnation of Pride & Prejudice?

    It’s something to consider!

  11. vLaDtHeBaT says:

    I downloaded your podcasts , they’re awsome !
    Can’t wait to read your book about your american experience!

  12. happyuk says:

    I see the BBC as way past it’s sell-by date.

    In this internet age what is it for? If it is still (as Lord Reith put it) to “Inform, Educate and Entertain” then vast sources of high quality information, education and entertainment are available only a click away, often for free.

    In a modern free-market democracy the state has no business in broadcasting. What was once a fair and impartial BBC has now become just a job creation scheme for generations of non-productive, left-leaning types.

  13. Andrew Carroll says:

    Does anyone know where I can get a DVD of all the episodes of the great television series “Noel’s House Party”?

    PS: I am mad.

  14. SteveC says:

    Apologies for being fairly late to the party, but I’ve only just got round to listening to the podcast.

    Anyway, I thought it was wonderful. I’d expand on this further, but my head hurts :(

  15. Just Cook It says:

    I was lucky enough to see this speech online, it was a genuine pleasure and inspired me to write my own musing on the BBC which you may, or may not, enjoy reading.

    http://alexrushmer.blogspot.com/2008/08/radio-4.html

  16. fl3tch says:

    If your grandmother or anyone else is interested in viewing iplayer content offline on the iphone, the solution lies here http://ipl2iph.blogspot.com/

    (a fully paid up license payer – just bending the BBC to my needs a little)

  17. sjymusic says:

    This was so beguiling and even made me think I have been wrong to long for change. I love radio 4, I love newsnight, and I love BBC costume drama but . . . . actually the rest ???. . . yes at one time I would have agreed with pretty well everything you said Mr Fry: BBC and UK were inseperable. I too was brought up on Blue Peter, Tomorrow’s World, and the Daleks, not to mention Man from Uncle and . . . do you remember that series of foreign films on BBC2 in the 70′s? That was astonishing!! alas never to be repeated . . yes you made a very good case . . but when I think about the over-glossy, self-aggrandising BBC TV news; the new extra-complicated Dr Who-type series; slick self-important Dramas made more with foreign audiences in mind (you can just tell); overblown, overlong, overdone Children in Need, Red-Nose Day (which has to make more money than ever before every single year and . . . are they the same thing? I never have figured that out); the over-slick, over-rigid, over-rehearsed, too serious ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ format, all those ‘phone us up’ programmes asking for Public Opinion; endless Doom and Gloom documentaries with the heavy all-purpose music scores and sombre voice-overs that really do scare my poor old mum half to death; patronising Panorama programmes that look into the sinister private affairs of the Transylvanian pirate shoe industry, (whenever did that become BBC territory?), the endless endless over-slick self-congratulatory adverts promoting the same programmes over and over and over again; the way in which the BBC finds a star and then flogs them in every corner of every channel until we are all heartily sick of the sight of them (nothing personal Mr Fry); those over-dressed, far-too pretty, skinny young women that the BBC seem to breed who shout through their noses rather than talk, ooze 0ver-Confidence and Rule the World for a series or two and never listen to a single person they interview; Weather people who are actually out in the weather (whoever thought that up – its just public humiliation isnt it?); morning news programmes with sunny backgrounds and false smiles that patronise and preach and patronise . . . whoops sorry I am getting carried away. ahem. What I was simply trying to say, before I got slightly carried away, Mr Fry, was: if the BBC were told next time around that they would not be given more than a small slice of the licence money, I, for one, would probably find that everything that I still love about the BBC would, indeed, be swept away for ever. . . .

  18. TheAccidentalReader says:

    Excellent speech (and not just because I could agree with 90% of it). But how unlike you, geek extraordinaire, to write something like this:

    “a service so incomparable in its variety and quality as to be an actual reason for some to live in Britain”

    Of course many of us are still hooked on R4 despite living abroad. Long live the Internet, “listen again”, and the very illegal TotalRecorder. I just hope the BBC don’t try to make it all UK-only. I did write to the BBC five or six years ago to ask if there was a Foundation to which I could contribute, but they said no… Why not, I wonder? There may be just enough of us feeling guilty for enjoying BBC radio without paying to make a small difference to its budget.

  19. Ralph Corderoy says:

    Thought provoking. Spotted “Offcom” a couple of times instead of Ofcom.

  20. rodsers says:

    In Germany there was a station called viva2 which was brilliant and targeted at me at the time – recently graduated but extremely careful with the limited disposable income I had. This station closed down because people like me had no purchasing power so no-one was persuaded to buy stuff because of advertising on this channel. This always happens to channels in commercial land:

    idiots are influenced by advertising so commercial TV is aimed at idiots.

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