This BBC DG gives me the heebie jeebies

Lord Hall's futuristic vision risks devaluing what it seeks to protect

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Whatever one may think about Lord Hall, the lately installed Director-General of the BBC, he has an enviable gift for the headline-grabbing pronouncement. Only last weekend he could be found unveiling plans to beef up the corporation's arts coverage. Then, on Tuesday, came the revelation that, here in the ante-room to "difficult" talks about future funding, with the Savile scandal still washing round Broadcasting House like so much slurry, our man is seeking to "fundamentally change the relationship between the BBC and its audience".

And how is this transformation to be carried out? Well, one of the most eye-catching schemes to emerge from last week's address to the nation's media folk is the idea of a more "personal" BBC, in which the online iPlayer service will extend its window from seven days to 30 and allow viewers to watch shows before they are screened. Additionally, the corporation will use iPlayer to monitor viewer preferences as a way of offering "bespoke schedules". At the moment, Lord Hall insists, "We treat audiences like licence-fee payers. We should be treating them like owners."

There was also a lot of stuff about being at the forefront of technological innovation and a service called Playlister, which will allow users to tag songs they hear on BBC Radio and listen to them later on their favourite music streaming platforms, but it was the 30-day iPlayer and the chance to watch programmes ahead of their transmission dates which really caught my eye. There are two objections to this techno free-for-fall. One is financial, for it will require £100m of savings from the existing budget. But the other is conceptual, or perhaps even philosophical. Which is to say that by making everything available to everybody whenever they want it, Lord Hall and his minions will simply be devaluing its appeal to the viewers on whom BBC licence fees depend.

In fact, the new-style BBC is a horribly symbolic example of the way in which technology, by purporting to make things better, ends up by making them worse, while using words like "freedom" and "choice" quietly to extract any resonance from the items it is supposedly improving. Here the resonance is extracted from that vital sense of anticipation and purpose with which the delivery of "culture" is traditionally framed. The excitement of watching Top of the Pops in the 1970s, and the reason why it occupied such a dominant place in the average teenage sensibility, lay in the fact that it happened in real time. To participate in its rituals meant making an effort to be there, and the enjoyment of it was heightened by the knowledge that if you failed to get home from football training by 7.20pm, there would never be a second chance.

It was the same with those cult movies, beamed out late at night on BBC2, the watching of which required desperate manoeuvrings around homework schedules and parental vetoes. To watch a film like If ... or Blow-Up or Midnight Cowboy needed guile and persistence in those days, and it was the preliminary organisation involved that made the act of sitting down in front of them so memorable. As for the wider procedural framework, Lord Hall is apparently trying to encourage the BBC to shed some of its "paternalist" attitudes, but looking at the current output of such free-and-easy democracies of the small screen as Channel 4, you wonder whether a good dose of paternalism isn't exactly what the public needs. For the moment, though, Lord Hall's instant access principle seems bent on making television even more tedious than it was to begin with.