Demography triumphs over Reith
Thursday 16 February 1995
This is a noble fiction. The truth is that the BBC was founded by an alliance of radio manufacturers in order to increase sales of their new product. By one of the happier accidents of modern history, that entirely mercenary project was hijacked by a man with an extraordinary moral vision of national broadcasting. His individual act of will was the source both of the BBC's greatness and its current difficulties, as it attempts to adapt an essentially paternalist enterprise to a grown-up world.
There is little Reithian certainty to People and Programmes, and that is hardly surprising. Even Reith might have had difficulty in maintaining a monolithic confidence today. But one wonders what he would have thought of a document as troubled as this. The language bends over backwards to avoid charges of complacency ("We recognise that we still have much to do" ... "We still have some way to go"), and though early reports of middle- class guilt turn out to be greatly exaggerated, there is no doubt that the document betrays a real unease at the fragmentation of the BBC's traditional audience.
Some of this is for show - the exercise began before the renewal of the charter, when privatisation still seemed a real possibility. But if the document is a Potemkin village, designed to prettify the road to charter renewal, it is one with real houses in it and there are grounds for anxiety in the suggestion that market research might supply what editorial conviction cannot. Another of the report's stylish epigraphs reads: "I don't think they really know what the general public want. I think they just assume." This is printed in self-flagellating mood, a rebuke to the BBC's paternalist traditions.
But it raises the question of whether the idea of a "general public" is not actually a very valuable one at a time of decreasing social cohesion. For all its talk of inclusion, People and Programmes seems unusually keen on discrimination, acknowledging social divisions and reinforcing them with programming. It notes the proliferation of specialist titles in magazine publishing and appears to take this as a model for future BBC broadcasting: "Everything we know about audience demand in this area suggests ... that audiences want a far broader range of leisure programmes and much greater segmentation by subject within that range."
In television terms, though, the equivalent of a modern newsagent is a cable channel, offering a huge range of highly specialised publications in return for a subscription or one-off payment. But if the BBC becomes a virtual cable channel, who then will deliver the programmes that do not discriminate between black and white, motorist and hiker, Scottish and English?
The best page of People and Programmes, and, as it happens, one of the most suitable for framing, reads like this: "People still expect the BBC to offer them the moment of supreme excitement, glory, pathos, or humour which, for a few minutes at least, bring them together not just as a family, or even a community, but as a nation."
That has the Reithian ring to it, but it is never going to be delivered by following the dictates of demographics.
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