Margaret Thatcher once famously referred to television as ‘the last bastion of restrictive practices’, chiefly in relation to the monopoly enjoyed by the BBC and ITV and the way in which their unions were prone to disrupting broadcasting, both factors being contrary to her own business model. On the negative side, there was certainly enough evidence to back up her claim in terms of how union power had regularly held television companies to ransom. At BBC TV Centre, the technician’s union was notorious for switching off the power at a fixed time during the recording of a programme if it overran, but ITV suffered even more. Twice in the space of a year – the winter of 1978 and the summer of 1979 – all ITV stations were blacked-out (the second occasion for two whole months), losing ITV an estimated £100,000 in revenue, and ITV’s planned coverage of the 1984 LA Olympics was also curtailed just days before it was scheduled to begin due to union action.
Having successfully taken on the miners and the Fleet Street printers, Mrs T turned to television in 1987 when an Aussie ally called Brue Gyngell, recently installed as head honcho of ITV’s breakfast service, TV-am, decided to utilise new technology that would result in widespread redundancies. His plans led to a strike that took normal programming off the air; with Thatcher’s approval, Gyngell fired the strikers and replaced them with non-union staff. The ill-feeling between unions and management was irreparable, but for Mrs Thatcher what had happened at TV-am was the final straw. Her solution was the 1990 Broadcasting Act.
That Thatcher should seek to redesign television in her own free-market image perhaps came as no surprise, and the initial changes the Broadcasting Act wreaked on British television came in the new nature of the ITV franchise bidding. Thatcher had a bit of ‘history’ with ITV; her enmity towards the BBC was well publicised, but the controversy arising from Thames Television’s 1988 ‘Death on The Rock’ documentary, in which it was alleged that the members of the SAS who shot dead three IRA men in Gibraltar had carried out an effective assassination, had infuriated the Prime Minister. The furore that followed the transmission of the programme may or may not have influenced her decision to end ITV’s control of commercial television; but the Broadcasting Act was the beginning of the end for the structure that had served ITV well for thirty-five years.
Previously, a company’s record both in strong regional and networked programming was taken into consideration before deciding whether or not the franchise would be renewed or revoked. Now all of that was consigned to the same broadcasting bin as 405-line TV. It was perhaps characteristic of legislation introduced by Thatcher that the main criteria for acquiring an ITV franchise was now how high the bid for it would be. ‘Choice’ was the new buzzword within British broadcasting just as it was in every other deregulated industry; the introduction of cable and satellite channels posed the first threat to ITV’s undisputed dominance of the commercial TV market, and the cut-throat climate that the altered franchise round brought about had far more scandalous losers than TV-am, which famously lost its franchise, an unforeseen consequence of the changes. The system was open to abuse.
The BBC had responded to the changes in the television landscape following the Broadcasting Act by appointing former LWT bigwig, John Birt, as Director-General in 1992. Birt had arrived at the BBC five years earlier to become Director of News & Current Affairs, and immediately ruffled the feathers of widely-respected news reporters such as Charles Wheeler and Kate Adie by insisting that those in the field should submit a written outline of their reports before getting on with their jobs. It was this emphasis on increased bureaucracy that was to characterise Birt’s stint as Director General as he appointed a glut of highly–paid ‘consultants’, overseeing and interfering with the independence of programme-makers. He also introduced classic Thatcherite notions of ‘healthy competition’ between the various BBC departments; that these departments were now forced to charge each other for their services led to many programmes being farmed-out to independent production companies as a cheaper alternative, a move that would eventually lead to the gradual redundancy of British television’s very own Theatre of Dreams, BBC TV Centre in Shepherd’s Bush.
Before Birt, the BBC had been an effective co-operative, in which everyone had worked together for the common good; under Birt’s divide-and-rule stewardship, the organisation resembled the Circumlocution Office, bogged down by meaningless management-speak buzzwords and endless ‘initiatives’ intended to inspire more efficient and cost-effective productivity. Specialist BBC departments with decades of experience and a track record of getting the job done were replaced by endless layers of committees and executives with vague job descriptions later parodied with uncomfortable accuracy in the comedy ‘W1A’. Downsizing, a fresh addition to the TV lexicon, resulted in short-term contracts for new arrivals, hardly instilling a sense of loyalty to the Corporation. Anything deemed as unprofitable or incompatible with Birt’s vision was discarded, even the much-loved and highly-regarded BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had provided numerous BBC radio and television productions with ground-breaking avant-garde soundtracks for decades, contributing to the BBC’s uniqueness and distinctive identity in the process. Birt’s skewered method of saving money was to take it from those who could make it and hand it to those who had no clue of what to do with it.
With profit now regarded as more important than quality, programming noticeably suffered from the 1990s onwards. An endless conveyor belt of cookery, makeover, quiz and game shows dominated the primetime schedules, with less money diverted into drama or documentaries. In parallel with ITV, BBC TV seemed to view the best way of dealing with the increased competition was to compete on the competition’s own terms rather than those which the BBC had established over many years.
There are some who believe the appointment of such a Thatcher-friendly figure as Birt undoubtedly helped build a few necessary bridges between the BBC and the Government, enabling the BBC to survive the persistent threats of severe alterations to its charter. But there are more who believe the changes at the BBC that Birt instigated have directly or indirectly led to the constant problems the Corporation has been riddled with ever since. The increasing willingness of the BBC to spinelessly kowtow to successive Governments holding its precious charter as an effective hostage has on one hand resulted in the scandalous dismissal of Tony Blackburn this week and on the other, the expensive and unnecessary relocation of the majority of its home-made TV output to a charmless edifice in Salford with the utterly meaningless moniker of ‘Media City UK’; this was an attempt to appear less London-centric, a move that seemed strange considering the fact that the BBC has always maintained strong regional branches around the country. Surely the nation’s premier broadcaster should have its base in the capital city? With the likes of ‘Breakfast’ now presented from an anonymous citadel that guests have to be ferried to at great expense to the licence fee-payer, a showcase programme has been reduced to resembling a regional magazine show.
Twenty-five years since the Broadcasting Act was implemented across British television, it seems the BBC, like ITV, is still attempting to emulate the competition rather than obliterate it – and failing miserably in the process.
© The Editor