Dominic Lawson: Public-interest game shows? Rubbish

Why is it necessary for the BBC to wage war against ITV, or indeed Sky?

Share
Related Topics

There is discord throughout every home in the land; and it's all the fault of the BBC. That, at least, is the claim of ITV, outraged by the BBC's decision to move the timing of Strictly Come Dancing so that it clashes head-on with X Factor.

Apparently these two talent-spotting programmes (please excuse me if this is an inadequate summary; I haven't seen either of them) are the most popular shows on British television; and so the BBC, by ensuring that they overlap, is risking domestic disharmony on a national scale, as millions fight over the remote control. Yes, I realise that families can always record one and watch the other live, if they own the necessary technology; but unless the BBC believed that its move would take audiences away from the rival X Factor, its schedulers would not have acted as they did.

Trivial though the precise subject matter might be, the row cuts right to the heart of the debate about the merits of having a public-sector broadcaster. Public service, in the widest sense, should exist where markets fail, to provide what free enterprise acting alone cannot. Do non-public sector channels fail to provide game shows and other forms of mass entertainment? On the contrary. So why is it necessary for the BBC to wage war against ITV (and, indeed, Sky) on this crowded battlefield?

The argument about when such programmes are scheduled by the BBC is merely a second-order issue, a consequence of an earlier decision. Once you have something like the BBC's light entertainment department, it will judge its own success or failure by the extent to which it gains bigger audiences than independent rivals. Viewing figures are its alpha and omega; artistic merit is merely the thinnest of icing on a very large cake.

There are those who attempt the argument that the BBC somehow has higher standards even within this demotic field; but since it spends hundreds of millions of pounds a year attempting to outbid commercial rivals for exactly the same popular US television shows, this claim can't be made with a straight face.

If the "market failure" argument were to be applied coherently, the BBC would have an unremittingly high-minded programme output. There would be no Radio 1, with all its prodigiously paid presenters (wooed away from commercial radio); instead there would be, let's say, a channel devoted entirely to serious debates, a kind of Intelligence Squared of the air. There would be another channel which broadcast nothing but actors reading fine novels aloud. Come to think of it, both of these would work as television programmes – and very cheap to produce.

There is only one argument against this, and it is based on the very way in which the BBC is paid for. Unlike general taxation, which draws much more heavily from the well-off (the richest one per cent pay about a quarter of all income tax), the licence fee is a poll-tax, costing the poorest as much as the most affluent. Almost 40 per cent of licence fee evaders come from the D/E socio-economic groups; the BBC knows that the best way it can minimise the chances of "can't pay, won't pay" riots against the licence fee poll-tax is if it provides pap for the proletariat.

It is partly for this reason that the BBC constantly reassures the public what good value for money the £145 a year licence fee is, with the unspoken implication that the same can't be said about the Sky TV packages. That may be true, but then – and I declare my interest as a Sunday Times contributor – imagine how much cheaper Rupert Murdoch's deal would be if he had the right to divide the costs between every family in the land, with the threat of imprisonment as the ultimate sanction against non-payment.

Dramatic changes to the way in which broadcast material is watched are in any case making this argument seem very much last-century. It is conventionally understood that the licence fee attaches to the use of a television set. Yet increasingly the public (and especially the younger among us) are watching broadcasts via a computer, or even a mobile phone.

The bizarrely anachronistic notion of a television licence fee is made clear if you think how you would respond if you were made to pay an extra £145 a year for the use of your computer as a recipient of broadcasts. In fact the BBC warns us that while "there is no separate [licence payment] enforcement policy regarding people using their computers, laptops, or any other device to watch TV, it forms part of our normal enforcement operation and TV Licensing has caught evaders watching television online". Teenagers of Britain, you have been warned.

I absolutely don't want to give the impression that I could happily live without anything provided by the BBC. I go to the Proms every year and listen to Radio 3 with a mixture of delight and occasional exasperation; BBC 2's Newsnight is essential for anyone with a professional interest in current affairs, as is Radio 4's Today programme. It is perhaps with these broadcasting institutions in mind that the BBC makes its claim to be worthy of the public's trust (and money). Yet these are the very institutions which are facing cuts in investment and journalistic budgets as the Corporation seeks to thrust its tentacles into an ever wider range of activities – it has even bought Lonely Planet, perhaps the first time in history that a travel guidebook publisher has been nationalised.

It is sometimes argued that this is all tolerable, because if the BBC didn't exist, then there would be no high-quality television at all; that the alternative would be the Americanisation of British broadcasting. I doubt it, somehow; after all, the absence of a state-funded supermarket chain has not led to British supermarkets becoming as bland and characterless as their US cousins. Chains such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer provide high-quality product within an entirely, and ferociously, commercial environment.

By way of analogy, Sky TV now offers four dedicated arts channels. Sure, you pay something for them; but then you also have the choice not to do so. That seems much fairer than being compelled to pay for Strictly Come Dancing.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album