Re­al­ity TV: pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing shows us who we are

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Peter Bazal­gette

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

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