Me, Myself & BBCi: Who’s Watching Whom

Break the rules of Big Brother, and you will not be evicted from the House, you will suffer a far worse fate, you will be removed. Removal means that you forgo your moment in the spotlight, the post-eviction interview and analysis, the viewing of ‘your best bits’. Removal means you leave by the back door in a shroud of shame, denied the humanising act of communication, punished for your expressions of autonomy. The reasons for removal may be justified, just as reasons for imprisonment may be justified, but this simply confirms that no matter how ‘free’ we believe we are, society is an organisation in which the lives of individuals are administered.

The Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s story brings us back to the question of public service broadcasting. Known as ‘minitrue’ in Newspeak, the artificially created and controlled language that has replaced English, the Ministry of Truth is the propaganda machine for which the hero Winston works, and was drawn from Orwell’s experience of working for the BBC.

For Orwell, the BBC shaped our historical reading of the Second World War by censoring the news, by applying in today’s language an ‘editorial policy’. This is not outright lying – no serious news organisation would be happy in partaking in deliberate fraud – but the media landscape is made up of ‘mini-truths’ delivered in an affected formulated ‘news-speak’.

Flat-screening the World

Big Brother, the game show, may not be broadcast on the BBC, but Channel 4 is also a public-owned broadcaster. Indeed, as their website informs us, Channel 4’s “primary purpose is the fulfilment of its public service remit” and in 2003 the Communications Act underlined Channel 4’s remit as developing programming that:

(a) demonstrates innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programmes;(b) appeals to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society;
(c) makes a significant contribution to meeting the need for the licensed public service channels to include programmes of an educational nature and other programmes of educative value; and
(d) exhibits a distinctive character.

Big Brother, Bodyshock Special: I am the Elephant Man, Gok’s Fashion Fix and Time Warp Wives could perhaps all be described as “educational in nature” if not in value. But then as cynical postmoderns perpetually ‘ironicising’ the mediated world around us, surely everything that stimulates our sensory perception is educational in nature. These shows, however, do bustle against programmes more obviously fitting the public service remit such the award-winning Channel 4 News and the Richard Dawkins documentaries including The Root of All Evil?, The Enemies of Reason and The Genius of Charles Darwin.

Television has a tendency to flatten intellectual debate; problems of time and ‘confusing’ multi-voiced exchanges lead to a dogmatic rendering of intellectual arguments. In the name of subjectivity, ‘two-sides of the argument’ may be presented but this is done either to create televisual fireworks by sparking conflict (rather than a constructive thought process) or to affirm one particular viewpoint (by opposing it to alienating opinion). The latter offers one strong critique of Dawkins’s television work, with his books obviously affording him more space.

The juxtaposition of all of these various programme contents equally flattens the impact of current affairs programmes and so-called hard-hitting documentaries. We may be tempted to reject editorial policy as ‘spin’, but equally a master narrative as large as the PSB remit offered to Channel 4 appears to make little ‘sense’: such broad subjective notions as ‘creativity’, ‘educational’ and, perhaps worst of all, ‘taste’ are devoid of any essence but are linked to historical context.

But here lies the brilliance of Channel 4 programming: the PSB remit lies not in the content of the individual programmes but precisely in their mashing. It is this violent clash that answers to the so-called “culturally diverse society”, where Dispatches: It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim, dealing with growing intolerance against British Muslims, jostles against 10 Years Younger, where women subject themselves to tummy tucks on their daughters’ behest (we shall leave aside a discussion on the violence associated to the desire to eradicate any trace of having fulfilled a reproductive role).

Though Big Brother forms the backbone of Channel 4’s summer schedule, the BBC itself is not immune to audience participation television.

In fact, much of its recent fare has been built on an odd attempt to promote the London’s musical comedy scene by asking the public to phone vote for their star elect on such shows as How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do and I’d Do Anything. These competitions have done much to draw the crowds back to the West End by reviving interest in The Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Oliver!, respectively.

On the face of it, these shows are no different to the plethora of Simon Cowell controlled talent shows such as X-Factor. These shows are not designed to promote the burgeoning artists but to fatten the bulging wallet of the person presiding over the panel of judges. Thus, Cowell’s production company Syco produces the show X-Factor and also has the rights to sign the winner.

If, with one winner, things don’t work out as well as they might, then Cowell only needs to wait another year for the following series. In the United Kingdom Cowell is tied to ITV, an obvious marriage for this type of overtly mercantile programming.

The BBC programmes do much the same for multi-millionaire musical mogul Lord Andrew Lloyd Weber’s economic portfolio. Every year the man behind Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats sees his latest production to be staged in a theatre he owns given a primetime schedule on perhaps the world’s most extensive PSB. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, this is where Kevin Spacey, as artistic director of the Old Vic theatre in London, found objection:

“I felt that How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? was essentially a 13-week promotion for a musical, on a public service broadcaster.

“You are not a commercial broadcaster and I thought that was crossing the line. Where’s our 13-week programme when we put a play on? Are they going to do one about a play?”

It appears more difficult to justify these programmes as adhering to a public service remit than it does where concerning Big Brother, begging the perennial question: is this what I pay my television licence fee for? If we found our judgement on a quantitative basis then we must turn to the ratings. As the finals of BBC’s I’d Do Anything and ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent went head-to-head on the same night, it was ITV that came out winners, gaining twice as many viewers as their broadcasting rivals. If we are to believe these results, then currently Britain’s most talented person is a 14-year-old break-dancer who did his routine under a shower of water to the Mint Royale remix of ‘Singing in the Rain’.

Jodie Prenger, on the other hand, will sing the role of Nancy every night at the Theatre Royal in front of what one would expect to be a packed house. But if musicals are the lowest common denominator of the theatre world, the genre still remains on the fringes of the most popular of cultural expressions.

Public service broadcasting should never be judged quantitatively, however. If this were the case there would be no place for national news, let alone regional news, and it is precisely current affairs that forms the basis of much public service content. It could be argued that the BBC programmes bring the West End to a larger audience; one could even claim that in this particular case audience participation is giving London’s theatre heartland back to the people.

But in 2007 Simon Cowell also decided to take a slice of the musical pie by co-producing ITV’s Grease is the Word to find new performers for the roles of Sandy and Danny. Given the evolution of their programming over the past five years this should have been BBC territory, leaving Cowell to conclude:

“I think it’s good the BBC haven’t got it so it isn’t coming out of licence fee payers’ pockets. I think we have done a great service.”

A great public service? A great service for private financial gain? Cowell has since admitted that he would never produce such a show again, not because it was too close to a public service remit but because it was too close to his own X-Factor! This is an even more damning critique of the BBC’s choice of programming, but the director of digital content for Guardian News and Media, Emily Bell, believes that the recent appointment by the BBC of Tim Davie, the former head of marketing who joined the BBC in 2005 after a move from PepsiCo, as director of audio and music to be a move towards a management model more in tune with commercial interests:

“[His] are essentially commercial attributes, which benefit the public service ethos but don’t necessarily create it. Nobody wants a BBC that doesn’t know how to engage an audience, but neither do we want a BBC that only knows how to engage an audience. It fits a narrative which sees Mark Thompson [Director General of the BBC] moving inexorably towards a post-licence fee world, where skills such as consumer focus and growth have greater importance than a frontline knowledge of production.”

This leaves Bell to conclude that “What is particularly vexing for those of us who would genuinely like to see the BBC thrive in a true public-service sense … is that the more the corporation seemingly prepares for the end of the licence fee, the more it appears to want to hasten its demise.”

Recent publicity about how much the BBC pays its stars has fed into this dilemma. The BBC pays its stars commercially competitive fees so that it can produce shows that will draw in big audiences and will sell abroad. Graham Norton’s popularity in the United States, for instance, must go some way to paying back the £5 million pounds it cost the BBC to poach him from Channel 4. Jonathan Ross is the BBC’s most expensive investment with his reported three-year, £18 million contract coming up for renewal in 2009.

At that price you would think that he could pay for fire-eating unicyclists to appear on his own show.