Reality TV: public service broadcasting shows us who we are
We can’t disinvent the internet age. Nor would we want to. But we should consider the challenges it presents to a productive, civil society, and recognise how television with a public purpose is part of the answer.
The first director general of the BBC, John Reith, enshrined the idea of public service broadcasting when he summarised the BBC’s purpose as “inform, educate, entertain”. Over time this has been developed with wider democratic, cultural and economic purposes, now reflected in the BBC’s new 11-year charter. But ITV and our other commercial channels also have an important role to play within public service broadcasting, and news is at the heart of this.
Totalitarian countries don’t have independent news services. Independent news is the lifeblood of democracy, without which citizens are disempowered from taking informed decisions. Public service broadcasting of television news brings a gold standard of impartiality, an invaluable principle to which Sky News also subscribes. We need it more than ever before.
We’re facing nothing less than a crisis of trust in the public sphere. Peddling lies is cheap; verifying and reporting facts is expensive. In this age of illusion, we read online that Hillary Clinton ran a paedophile ring from a Washington pizzeria. Then there’s the Bowling Green massacre that never was. We knew that the internet broadened our horizons, but we didn’t realise it would also narrow them – a process fuelled by Facebook’s algorithms and Google’s search. For all their many advantages, they offer us only what they think we would like. This sort of “narrowcasting” leads to narrow minds.
Conversely, public service broadcast news broadens the mind. One of the fundamental requirements of a functioning democracy is that we hear points of view other than our own, and that they are filtered by agencies we trust. These are not “alternative facts”, but genuine investigation, honest reporting and impartial presentation. Ofcom’s most recent research reveals that more than three-quarters of those who watch the public service broadcasting channels regard their news as “trustworthy”. That trust is the gold reserve of our democracy.
The key contribution that public service broadcasting makes to our culture is original content: programmes made by us, for us and about us. Public service broadcasters currently invest about £2.6bn a year in original content. As competition hots up and funding comes under pressure, this has declined a little recently. But it’s considerably more than the primetime of old, when the imports Friends and Frasier dominated the Channel 4 schedule, Dallas and Dynasty held sway on BBC1, and The A Team kicked off Saturday evenings on ITV.
Today, more money than ever is flowing into drama, with the intervention of Netflix and Amazon. Many of their series are aimed at the international market, and have more than an American flavour. Very enjoyable they are too. But they don’t routinely explore sexual grooming, miscarriage, Muslim homosexuality, gay adoption, multiple sclerosis or recreational drugs – all recent storylines in Coronation Street. Or dementia, breast cancer, child abuse in the family, postnatal depression, acid attacks, heroin addiction – all covered in Emmerdale in the past year.
With such lists, I make it sound as though our soaps are all about misery. But they do so much more. As Barbara Ellen wrote in the Observer recently: “Our soaps can be much underrated, yet when done right, they celebrate a slice of British life and people that would otherwise be lost.”
Alongside Netflix and Amazon, we now hear that Google (through YouTube), Apple and Facebook are all beginning to commission longform content. Good for them. But as we increasingly enjoy stories of dead bodies on Scandinavian bridges, or crystal meth manufacture in Albuquerque, let’s also nurture the shows that are about us. As is the case with public service broadcasting news, I’d argue that British originations are more important today, as we graze internationally, than they were in the past. If we ever became “citizens of nowhere”, we’d be lost.
Public service broadcasting has economic, not just cultural, benefits. The UK has created an enviable creative TV economy, perhaps the most vibrant in the world, for our size. We’re strong exporters of content: extraordinarily, we account for around half the international trade in entertainment formats. The English language is an obvious advantage. But also, for our population size, we have more channels demanding more original ideas than anywhere else. Companies such as Sky make an increasingly serious contribution to this, but the public service broadcasters drive this. TV shows and formats are cultural exports that harness soft power: where British culture goes, wider commerce follows.
The creative industries are incredibly important to our future, growing at around three times the speed of the economy in general. At this rate, the sector will create a million jobs by 2030. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence will replace millions of jobs elsewhere, from surgeons to traffic wardens.
Whatever else automation consumes, we’ll still need people to write soap operas, produce computer games, design fashion and create advertising. The television sector lies at the core of our creative industries. We would do well to cherish public service broadcasting, even as digital disruption reshapes the landscape.
The other day I had my first encounter with Alexa, Amazon’s voiceactivated search gizmo. My hosts were playing some pop music, which I tired of. So I said, “Alexa, play some Chopin.” She instantly replied: “I’m sorry, I can’t find a shopping channel.” It certainly is a brave new world, and one in which the platforms and the portals are the gatekeepers.
If we want to cherish public service broadcasting, then viewers need to be able to find its channels and its video-on-demand services. The prominence of public service broadcasting has been steadily eroding in the past decade, as pay services are given preferential billing. Digital terrestrial television and Freeview are still very important to ensuring that the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 remain free, unmediated, universal services. Prominence on the home pages of Sky and Virgin TV is equally important. And we also need public service broadcasting channels to receive fair value from commercial distribution platforms that profit from our popular programming.
Public service broadcasting is more important today than ever. It generates the trusted news that informs our democracy in an era of widespread fakery, the original programmes that help define our national culture, and the economic growth and international influence that flow from our creative excellence.
There is now a band called Public Service Broadcasting. Their first album, which actually entered the charts, was called Inform– Educate–Entertain. You can’t get more contemporary than that.
• Peter Bazalgette is executive chairman of ITV
The creative industries are incredibly important to our future, growing at around three times the speed of the economy in general
Hannah Millward, as Leah Winterman, and Julie Hesmondhalgh, as Trish Winterman, in Broadchurch. ‘Original programmes that help define our national culture,’ Photograph: Colin Hutton/ITV
Faye Brooks, as Kate Connor, and Bhavna Limbachia, as Rana Nazir, in a recent Coronation Street storyline Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock