Cultural comment: Cross-channel surfers in choppy water

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The Independent Culture
The BBC is rarely out of the news at the moment, and the forces that wish us to resent the licence fee seem to have gathered surprising new allies. So when Sir Christopher Bland, chairman of the BBC, appeared on Nicky Campbell's Radio Five Live phone-in on Friday, he can't have expected to have enjoyed so easy a ride. It was a procession. The odd dissident rang in to complain about the licence fee, or about the fact that the BBC was an "unrepresentative" club run by Oxbridge toffs; but most of the callers came not to bury, but to praise. It was easy for Bland to sound imperturbable; he even felt able to unfurl some polished Reithian statements of intent. "The World Service," he insisted at one point, "is an unparallelled international service to democracy."

It is quite easy to pooh-pooh such loftiness, and most people do. But actually, it was refreshing to hear this almost antique tub still being thumped. It sounded both modest and grandiose, and at a time when most broadcasting priorities are fuelled by the desire to be either lucrative or chic, it had the vague resonance of a last elegiac bugle call. Because the game does seem to be up. The entire BBC project, as magnificent and idealistic in its way as the National Health Service, is foundering on some similar reefs. The new all-singing, all-dancing age of digital television (see Jane Robins, right) will at a stroke dilute the BBC's near-monopoly on our attention spans. With new technology busy releasing its grip on our living rooms, the sun seems to be setting on its days of unquestioned dominance.

But perhaps this is not so. Our brave new multi-channel world depends squarely on the willingness of commercial advertisers to pay its costs. Each channel will pledge to deliver up a suitable audience for its would- be advertisers and sponsors, and the race will be on to splinter us along target-group lines. But there is an irony here: the very forces propelling this drive towards disintegration might also undermine it. The multi- channel world will accelerate the development of channel-hopping as a national pastime. And what channel-hopping encourages us to do above all is quite simple: it allows us to skip the adverts.

In the new world the target audience may be more precisely demarcated, but it will also lose the very thing that made it attractive. It will no longer, in any sense, be a captive audience. The days when we sat sullenly or impatiently through the commercial breaks, annoyed by the sudden volume and jabber, may also be ending. In the future, we'll simply seize the opportunity to flip over and see how Manchester United are getting on, or pay an obedient visit to the news; there might just be time to squeeze in one good joke from a comedy channel, or - who knows? - they might be playing our favourite song on the Favourite Song channel. It used to be that the adverts at least gave us the chance to put the kettle on; power surges in the half-time intervals of big football matches are routine. But in the future we'll have an even simpler option: we'll surf.

There's another irony. There are already signs of a flight to quality by advertisers (what they would really love to advertise on, of course, is the BBC). If you make pounds 40,000 cars, then what's the use of daytime TV? You need Newsnight: you want to catch tired executives falling asleep after their busy day at the office. The spread of options, some of them weak, might even encourage a concentration rather than a dispersal of financial muscle. In a free and deregulated world, the big fish soon snap up the small fry and head for more plentiful waters.

It is no longer possible even to imagine a world without advertising, though it would be a strange and marvellous one. A visiting Martian would find bizarre our preoccupation with purposeful and persuasive commercial propaganda. To some, it is the key art form of the age, though to others - those who look at the ease with which it has assimilated satire as a sales tool - it seems only a glitzy version of the Edinburgh fringe.

But all talk about the the BBC that wishes to fight battles on the level of programming and popularity misses one point. The real virtue of the BBC is that it buys us a ring-fenced cultural forum, free of advertising. It is true, as one of Sir Christopher Bland's interrogators insisted, that the National Lottery show is in effect an advert for Camelot. And it is true also that the disciplines imposed on television narrative by commercial breaks - the need for a series of cliffhanging endings and new beginnings - can at times be no different from the disciplines imposed by, say the sonnet form. But the BBC's central virtue is that it can, at present, proceed without commercial interruption. Wouldn't it be odd if the very thing that seemed most intensely to challenge this unique and liberating atmosphere turned out, instead, to buttress it?