Radio 1 and friends

I was following Tom Watson on Twitter (yes thats a recommendation) and not for his political views, he’s a geek within the Westminster Village so provides an interesting viewpoint of technology within an arena that’s notoriously and historically luddite. Anyhow, I picked up on his tweet about the Conservatives’ plans for Radio 1 and BBC. Usually this fills me with dread and much table and forehead interfacing…

Mr Watson defends Radio 1 ably here so I won’t rehash his arguments. Once someone mentions BBC as a factor in political or social arguments, it moves into the concept of public service broadcasting versus the draconian ‘tax’ of the license fee. I’ve been trying to make sense of this for quite a few years now. Personally I get enough from the BBC to justify the licence fee, maybe I’m lucky enough to be a in a demographic that sits so square in the middle of their output that I value enough of their programmes to be comfortable with the license fee. That’s 39p a day to put it in perspective.

cillit bang

The counter argument ‘the commercial channels are free’, well that’s not strictly true. It’s paid for by advertising. Advertising that you pay for. What? Eh? Well how much of the cost of each product that you buy is directed back into advertising that product. Its probably a very small percentage maybe less than a penny of some products, maybe more if you buy a house or a car. So add this up over the year or years and it’s not going to be cheap. And I’m not the only one noodling on this one.┬áIt’s probably more than the license fee (ok I admit its fairly impossible to do the math). And you get a lot less choice, and you get a lot less say in the content and direction of those channels and stations. You get spoon fed. Oh and they don’t have a massive website supporting all their output. And dear reader, if you’re reading this, you’ll already be web literate enough to know just how massive the BBC website is – and how much you already depend on it…

So what do I get for my 39p? I get my 4 TV Channels as well as what I get on the red button. Before that we had Ceefax, remember that? Oh and iPlayer, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t use iPlayer, we’ll bundle that in with podcasts. Then there’s the radio stations, your 5 basics, then the digitals, 1 xtra, 5 live sports xtra, 6 music, radio 7. Add the Asian Network and the national radio stations, I count 6 major ones of those. And wrap it up with local English radio. They’re the ones I listen to playing when radio roulette up and down the UK, you never know quite what you’re going to get. Abroad there’s the World Service If you have ever been anywhere were the only thing you can understand is the World Service then you’ll appreciate it all the more. As for the foreign language services, just talk to anyone who’s escaped a regime that has yet to be changed and you’ll be painted a picture of huddling around a forbidden shortwave transistor waiting for the whisper from thousands of leagues away telling them what’s really happening a mile from where they hide.

bbc logo

This is a long way from the latest talent show or reality television and maybe that’s the cause of everyone’s dissatisfaction. If it was a comparison between a radiant and quality delivering commercial sector and an equally magnificent BBC then we’d have a more enlightened debate. What annoys people I’d say is that ITV and its’ cohorts have been producing unchallenging beige broadcasting, a far sight from the ITV I grew up with. And I think they know it. People may get annoyed with Chris Moyles for 20 minutes but then the BBC has Wogan, Campbell or Humphreys as alternatives. If you’re in a city centre then admittedly you do have more options with your local commercial franchise. If they don’t like Paxman then they’ll write from Tunbridge Wells and prefer Andrew Neil or Jeremy Vine, they’ve got so much more access and ability to complain and get restitution.

But when you ask people over the spread of a viewing and listening year for their favourite moments, televisual emotions and memories, I’d like to think that they’ll be brought to them by the BBC. It’s born the phrase ‘that’s worth the price of the license fee alone…’ Paging Mr Attenborough. Its just that there is no competition to the BBC and that really rankles. It’s not that the people at ITV or Sky have an agenda to (my mind at least) produce poor programming, heck most of them are ex-BBC or from the same breeding grounds, its not that they’re on a secret mission to produce barrel scraping entertainment and dumbed down news and current affairs. I’ve worked with both the BBC and independent television and radio and they’re the same people. Maybe it’s the ethos and the construct that they’re operating within that makes the difference? The Reithian manifesto still holds sway in as many corners of the Corporation as it can. They won’t always make sponsor friendly programmes, it will be uncomfortable, irritating, it will be groundbreaking and it will be at times niche. We have to trust the honesty and integrity of programme makers to produce things that challenge us and things that we wouldn’t choose if we were left to our own devices and horizons.

wire1In countries where commercial broadcasting is rife the BBC is held up as a giant wish list. Thrown to the maelstrom of market forces, then money and the lowest common denominator rules. It’s taken the self determination of HBO in the US to break free of those shackles knowing that what they’re offering would be unpalatable to advertisers and censors alike.

Yes the BBC does have a monopoly, but its in the face, (up until now in my opinion) of incredible apathy and mediocrity. There are the seeds of recovery at ITV, Michael Grade has again returned and started the process or reinvention and rebirth. Sky continues quietly expanding its offerings, beyond award winning rolling news to original programming and the arts. Once ITV and Sky offer a viable alternative across the board at a comparable price point then there’ll be real cause for complaint. Until then I can’t see any politician or administrator being in a better position to decide what and how I watch my television or how my license fee is spent.

Since writing the original draft of this ITV has launched a new ad campaign and shown a turnaround in its fortunes, long may that continue.

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