A triumph of creative thinking

'Television will be part of a continuum including the Web'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For an industry which claims to be on the brink of a world-beating digital future, British television is awfully fond of looking backwards.

For an industry which claims to be on the brink of a world-beating digital future, British television is awfully fond of looking backwards.

Two weeks ago, the BFI published its list of the hundred greatest TV programmes of all time. Despite a large sprinkling of outstanding shows like The Royle Family from the Eighties and Nineties, press coverage was dominated by classic TV from the Sixties and Seventies.

But the focus on past glories carries dangers too. It's not an obsession shared by Britain's competitors in the global media market. In Hollywood especially, the past is history; the best show is next year's show. Studios' successes depend on their ability to identify and capture present and future talent; to develop it and take risks with it; to move it from medium to medium and reward it flexibly and generously. If British television is to play a full part in the growth of the UK's creative industries, it too must focus on today's and tomorrow's talent.

That's why the BBC is so interested in the kind of thinking, backed by the Design Council through initiatives such as CreativeNet (see page two), which aims to fulfil our potential in the knowedge-based economy. The BBC will play an important part in creating that economy, with our vision to bring digital educational opportunities to every classroom and home. We're determined to use campaigns like Web Wise and Computers Don't Bite to encourage the use of computers and the internet.

But the BBC will also be critical in that knowledge economy. The audio-visual sector is one of the fastest growing industries in the world and intrinsically knowledge-based; every great movie or TV show or web-page begins with a great idea. The UK's strengths in many parts of the sector, in radio and TV production and music especially, mean that we can play a bigger role in the world market.

But success is not certain. Several factors - the global strength of American audio-visual products and the fast-changing structure of commercial production and broadcasting in Britain among them - could affect our progress.

Major investment in British production and British talent will be vital, but is by no means assured. Let's take TV: the economics of cable, satellite and digital TV in Britain mean that the big money has gone to rights-holders - the studios and football clubs - and very little has filtered into production. Some cable and satellite categories, like the children's services, are dominated by imported programmes.

The need to deliver early audience and advertiser success is having an impact on some traditional British TV strengths. Sitcoms, which often take several series to make a mark, are rare on commercial television; apart from a handful of titles on Channel 4, the form now depends on the BBC. If we gave up, comedy would continue to fill our screens, but in 20 years' time we would be gathering to celebrate brilliant American shows like Frasier rather than The League of Gentlemen.

That's why the BBC has a central role to play in nurturing and supporting UK production. This summer we announced a new strategy for BBC Television, backed by investment made possible by an increased licence fee and internal savings. The vast majority of this new money will flow directly into production - into everything from natural history and science to new British comedy like Coupling or People Like Us. Our proposed new channels, BBC3 and BBC4, will specifically support key parts of Britain's creative industries.

Next week we begin a public consultation to elicit the views of licence payers about our proposals. Their opinion will be crucial in helping us shape the new services.

BBC3 will back new comic talent, new programme-makers and new British music. And it will bring that work to digital households whose choice of viewing, beyond traditional terrestrial channels, is limited to content made for US audiences.

The channel will regularly feature the art-forms and media which most interest younger audiences: movies, music, design, computer games and software. It will, wherever possible, focus on what is happening in Britain. In other words, BBC3 will support British television and creative industries in its programming and make coverage of the creative industries a real priority.

BBC4 has a very different mission, but one which again will lead to direct investment in, and greater visibility for, some of Britain's most precious creative resources. It will be devoted to the world of arts and ideas. Archive, and particularly the BBC's treasure-trove of outstanding music and arts from the past, will play its part. The channel should reflect the cultural life of Britain.

New technology and a new approach by talent unions and the institutions means there is a real prospect of bringing the best of Britain's live arts - opera, concerts, theatre, dance - to TV viewers on a weekly basis. Investment in BBC4, combined with our big investment in music and the arts on Radio 3, means we will make powerful international alliances in arts television, bringing British artists and productions to world audiences.

We are determined to back talent and the creative industries in all our TV and radio services. The BBC has a formidable global reputation as a producer of children's programmes; we want to build on that with children's channels that are rooted in original local production, and which are advertisement-free. We want to invest heavily in fiction for our main channels, particularly BBC1, and create more high-impact factual events like Walking With Dinosaurs.

That series brought together many disparate strengths in the UK production base: classic story-telling skills, cutting-edge design and animation, fanatical attention to detail. This synthesis, as in Wallace and Gromit, was a breakthrough for the sector. Dinosaurs was an enormous hit in the UK and when our global partner, Discovery, transmitted it in the United States, it became the most-watched cable programme in American television history. Our challenge is to find ways of broadening that success into a steady stream of programming.

Television will not exist in isolation, but will be part of a continuum which includes the Web, interactive functionality, as well as many other media products, from books and magazines to DVDs. The BBC will increasingly conceive its major projects as cross-media ventures; dramas, like this autumn's Attachments from Tony Garnett, have a life on the Web as well as TV.

We are learning how to package different creative skills and disciplines to extend the value of the core idea. And we are learning how to be strong and effective partners with other parts of the production sector.

The BBC can play a critical role in the development of Britain's knowledge economy. It is the only British broadcaster which is a net exporter of programmes. It is the heaviest investor in UK production and the biggest producer - and that investment will grow. It's far and away the best-known and most widely trusted British audio-visual brand.

We continue to make brilliant programmes, but in recent years the BBC has sometimes seemed less willing to take chances. We will throw the doors open again to secure the BBC's future. But, because of the impact of the BBC on creative sectors, domestically and internationally, it can help bring greater success to the country as a whole.

Mark Thompson is the BBC's Director of Television