As with the current shameless shower at Westminster, nothing really surprises where the BBC is concerned anymore. Often, it exceeds itself and reaches a point whereby satire is superseded and rendered redundant, such as the case of the weekly Woke lecture masquerading as ‘Doctor Who’; the anticipated outrage of casting of an actual man to succeed the world’s worst actress as the lead character was eased by the fact he’s both black and gay (two boxes ticked), not to mention a Transwoman of Colour as his sidekick; job done! One can almost picture the planning meeting – ‘Have we left anyone out?’ The cynical and counterproductive ‘positive discrimination’ approach of the Corporation’s relentless Diversity & Inclusivity agenda is perhaps one small reason why viewers have had enough. Even if the divisive issue of the licence fee is put to one side, this obstinate kamikaze mission of Beeb management and programme-makers merely underlines how those entrusted with salvaging the BBC’s dwindling reputation don’t really understand the reason why it acquired that reputation in the first place.
Take BBC3 – in its early years an innovative digital channel that didn’t always get it right, but would occasionally produce a series that progressed all the way to primetime BBC1, like ‘Little Britain’. When it was dropped from the ‘linear’ schedule a few years back and became an online-only service, the BBC was actually showing a rare moment of awareness re the viewing habits of BBC3’s target audience. The decision to bring it back as a proper television channel when most youngsters watching it don’t watch it on TV was a bewildering move; even worse, however, is that the content of the channel has plummeted to the point whereby the likes of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ – a show that makes 90s Channel 4 series ‘Eurotrash’ resemble Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’, and quite possibly the most unwatchable TV programme I think I’ve ever encountered – is one of its lynchpin shows. As an angry letter to the Radio Times might proclaim, I don’t pay my licence fee for this.
Celebrating its centenary whilst under siege from a government that has made no secret of the fact it wants to scrap the traditional funding model of the Corporation, how do the mandarins at Broadcasting House respond to the dilemma? Well, having squandered millions on a new outdoor set for a soap with viewing figures a pale shadow of its 80s and 90s heyday, the Beeb’s plea of poverty is manifested as taking the scissors to areas that actually justify the BBC and show how it can still do some things better than any other broadcaster. This week, plans were announced to axe two television channels from the small screen that have both, at one time or another, made the paltry payment for the BBC (compared to the cost of subscription fees for streaming services) worth forking out for. Although I’m completely the wrong demographic for CBBC, not being a child during its existence nor having kids of my own to watch it with, I recognise the channel has continued the long tradition of the BBC for producing quality children’s entertainment, and its success amongst younger viewers swiftly vindicated the initially controversial decision to remove children’s programming from BBC1 to an entire channel of its own.
Although the announcement made by BBC DG Tim Davie declared the permanent migration of CBBC to the iPlayer wouldn’t come about for another three years, it’s not so much the fact that a television channel will become an online-only entity in an age when viewing habits have radically altered and its audience mostly watch their shows that way today anyway, but cutting financial corners invariably means a drop in quality. That has already happened with the other channel included in this ‘restructure’, BBC4. As BBC2 – the original BBC TV home for shows that rarely attract large audiences but break new ground – had become more dependent on reality-style programming, BBC4 emerged as a genuine jewel in an increasingly tatty crown when it debuted in the early 2000s. Its first decade or so was marked by superb, intelligent documentaries – especially in the fields of music, the Arts and history – as well as one-off dramas and the airing of cult Scandi Noir series such as ‘The Killing’ and ‘The Bridge’, with the latter being difficult to imagine being given a chance anywhere else at the time. For viewers long disillusioned with the line-ups of the dumbed-down mainstream channels, BBC4 was a true alternative breath of air that reminded them how the BBC could still deliver the goods and make a rather antiquated pastime such as sitting down to watch the telly of an evening something worthy of retaining.
However, in the last round of cost-cutting, the BBC4 budget was slashed and it was essentially reborn as a dispensable vintage repeat channel, like UK Gold with a media studies degree. Archive programmes afforded routine reruns on mainstream channels and reminders of its own recent glory days via regular re-screenings of old BBC4 docs added up to a sorry excuse for what the channel used to be; it was as though the BBC were deliberately winding it down in preparation for the expected removal from the linear TV landscape. BBC4 was once, along with Radio 3 and the non-Wokeday morning schedule of Radio 4, one of the few BBC outlets that maintained the gold standard the Corporation set itself decades ago; ditto the World Service, which appears to be another misguided casualty of the latest cutbacks. It was no easy task to make sense of the predictable Birt-speak jargon constituting the majority of Tim Davie’s announcement, but it was evident those BBC platforms that ooze quality yet attract a more select audience were doomed to bear the brunt of these cuts.
Certain foreign language sections of the World Service – one of the building blocks crucial to establishing the BBC’s global reputation – will disappear from the traditional airwaves and will henceforth be solely accessible in a digital format; and Radio 4 Extra will be joining CBBC and BBC4 as an online-only operation, whilst the Long Wave option, much to the chagrin of listeners to ‘Test Match Special’ and the Shipping Forecast, will effectively cease to be an opt-out of separate content to the FM schedules. In other news, the BBC’s UK and its World 24-hour news services will merge into one; ‘We are England’, the short-lived replacement for the award-winning and much-missed regional series, ‘Inside Out’, will be axed by the end of this year; local BBC news branches in Oxford and Cambridge will be absorbed into their Southampton and Norwich equivalents; and unique institutions such as the BBC’s numerous orchestras will have to find alternative funding.
The online exile of some of the BBC’s channels belies the fact that the majority of the BBC’s output is still largely consumed via ‘old-fashioned’ radio and television sets rather than mobiles, laptops or iPads – and by an audience mostly more mature than those who would actively seek out the likes of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ – yet the BBC, with its head firmly buried in the metropolitan sand, once again ploughs on regardless, in desperate search of some imaginary Yoof viewer and listenership who tune in exclusively to the iPlayer or BBC Sounds and can only enjoy the kind of lowest common denominator trash that ITV and Channel 4 have long since cornered the market in. The Corporation’s apparent aim is to be a ‘digital first’ organisation – which is one of those overused and tedious contemporary phrases like ‘hub’ that make you want to eat your own sick; perhaps blinded by past loyalties, I’ve stuck up for the BBC many times on here because I believed in the overall ideal of the BBC, clinging to what it once was and imagining what it could still be. But my patience, as with many viewers and listeners, is rapidly running out. By the time the channels mentioned have transitioned to their online incarnations, will anyone still be watching or listening?
© The Editor