Many of us have an attachment to the kind of broadcasting we grew up with, a pride in the staggering history of quality and innovation that has characterised television and radio for 50 years. A pride that causes us to raise our well modulated voices against any perceived barbarians at the gates.
Indeed, a cacophonous gurgle of throats being cleared can be heard as the latest report about our great television heritage is discussed. The Ofcom Review of Public Sector Broadcasting presents a simple, honest proposal: that the income from the licence fee should be shared amongst the BBC and its rivals. Let it be sliced, is what some say.
Control, the argument goes – and has been played out on these very pages – is the consumer’s. They will pick and choose what they want whenever they want it. So there is no need for front-end branded public service channels, whether BBC or ITV. No need for anything but content. Personalisation is the buzzword. The licence fee can pay for content that cannot pay for itself in the marketplace. And if Channel 4 wants to make that kind of public service programme – as well as Hollyoaks and The Boy Whose Testicles Play The Harpsichord, The Girl Whose Breasts Talk German – then the licence fee should cover that as well. Public service broadcasting is merely the management of licence fee monies. It does not 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.
Sounds tempting, but is it really? This image of the consumer’s home as an electronic bookshop, as outlined by Barry Cox, media business guru, where we move from passive viewer to active consumer, may seem beguiling to some, but we already know that model. We know it from hotel rooms and aircraft entertainment systems.
Of course like all good dramas there is a back story. The BBC has made enemies of those without its advantages. Look at concern that the success of the iPlayer can restrict the internet highway to a bollarded slow lane.
But we need a broader perspective. The BBC still pioneers comedy and popular entertainment; it reveals some of our cultural heritage in costume dramas, documentary, history and science programming; it responds to new technologies and still manages to retain some sense of being the nation’s fireplace. Argument enough, perhaps, for keeping funding structures in place.
Ofcom, however, must balance public provision with private competition across an industry of converging technologies and diverging missions. ITV is ever more answerable to shareholders while Channel 4, always an uneasy hybrid of public duty ideals and free market commercialism, is finding life hard, it argues.
The fundamental question is how can an audience be brought to a channel that shows nothing but worthy programming? Is not the whole point of public sector broadcasting its ability to draw audiences into programming by virtue of their loyalty and trust in a brand that provides entertainment, pure and simple?
The alternative is a ghettoised provider spitting out content on channels that fulfil some ghastly and wholly insulting demographic profile: trailer trash, teenager, gay, black music lover, sports fan, bored housewife, all watching programmes and ads made specifically for them. Is that what we mean by inclusivity? Or plurality? God help us, I do hope not.
We need to stop getting hung up on wonkish definitions and market impact studies. Last year 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 programmes that I hoped as many people as possible might watch, just as I would hope if I was making a drama or a comedy? Yes, they may well have fulfilled a public service, one that could be uniquely followed up via the BBC’s resources on radio, websites and help-lines, but the gratifying large audience that tuned in did not do so because it was public service broadcasting.
Like many of my age, weight and shoe size, I find public service television in Britain and the BBC are deeply stitched into my being. It was sitting under my mother’s chair at the age of two that The Archers theme tune first pierced my brain, never to leave. It 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 cannot afford not to.
The writer is a comedian, actor and BBC presenter