Thank goodness for W1A (2014-17), the now defunct satire on life at New Broadcasting House first launched in the run-up to the BBC’s traumatic renewal of its Royal Charter (‘Don’t forget it’s a Royal Charter’ declared ‘Head of Values’ in the hour-long special which kicked off W1A’s second series (BBC2 23.4.2015)). Now that Charter Renewal and all its attendant upheavals are in place, lets hope that the Corporation doesn’t loose its sense of humour. An eye for the ridiculous is needed more than ever in the new broadcasting utopia where communications regulator, Ofcom, set up in 2003 with a remit to ‘de-regulate’, has been invited to abandon its market orientation and take on the BBC with a remit to ‘secure the provision of more distinctive output and services’ para 1.3).
As Ofcom developed its Operating Licence for the Corporation, despite extensive public consultation it was clearly looking over its shoulder at the looming spectre of government interference. Culture Secretary Karen Bradley had already insisted on more quotas for specific genres than originally proposed . So on Friday 13th October ‘distinctivity’ carried the day. The document declares that ‘The Mission [note the capital M] of the BBC is to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.’ (1.15). So far so good – but the trap is in that sneaky word, ‘distinctive’. This is expanded to mean that the BBC’s services ‘should be distinctive from ‘those provided elsewhere’. The document goes on to emphasise that this means ‘substantially different to other comparable providers across each and every UK Public Service both in peak time and overall’ (1.28 my italics). Clearly this is code for programmes which are important but won’t win audiences away from the BBC’s so called ‘public service’ commercial rivals. Those broadcasters retain the right to maximise audiences, but this is something the BBC should work at not doing.
‘Songs of Praise isn’t actually about ratings’ declares W1A’s Head of Governance, trying to explain John Reith’s principles to a junior who had never heard of him.
The principles are important because ‘if we’re not careful it would all be Strictly, Top Gear and various types of Bake Off… and I don’t think that’s what Lord Reith had in mind’ (2.4.2014). The choice of Top Gear and Bake off was prophetic – although problems with Top Gear were already on the radar. A junior staffer was asked to look through four years of the series and note the number of times that JereBLEEP BLEEPson said the word ‘tosser’. (In the spirit of the chaotic world of W1A, the incompetent intern who spent all night on the task, forgot to write down the time codes). But Head of Values is determined to focus the minds of his committee on the BBC’s purpose. ‘To secure our future and values, please write down one word that comes into your head when you think of the BBC’. Blank looks all round …. or perhaps ’it might be the smell which greets you when you come into the building ….’
In W1A this senior committee is constantly struggling to cope with incomprehensible instructions, reorganisations and changes of policy, while having to deal with major cock-ups (two assertive personalities are booked to front the same series [26.3.2014]; the much-vaunted security system mal-functions so that the dignitaries are locked in when a royal visitor is due [23.4.2015]).
In the real world, what the perceptive W1A describes as ‘the more for less initiative’ is in place. The licence fee is frozen and the pressure on the BBC’s income is greater than it has ever been. The BBC badly needs a W1A-style ‘Head of Distinctivity’ to deal with the situation … or perhaps it should be campaigning for the right to broadcast programmes which are not distinctive … (Bake off?… er … Top Gear??).
Why can’t the Corporation simply go ahead and make the undistinctive, run of the mill, everyday programmes it has long excelled at? Programmes which are popular, competitive and often innovative. Looking back over a long history of programmes in which the routine is interleaved with the remarkable, it’s not at all easy to identify which fall into the ‘distinctivity’ category (EastEnders? Casualty? Who do you think you are?) …
It seems that ‘distinctive’ is a word that has replaced ‘public service’ as a description of programmes that are ‘worthy’ or which ‘compensate for market failure’. It’s used to refer to a programme or a genre, such as children’s programmes, that commercial companies decline to make because they would not be profitable (unless, of course, the BBC had first taken an unlikely format and built it into a block-buster). Confining the BBC to distinctivity is an instruction not to compete -a way of ensuring that it doesn’t challenge its commercial rivals.
‘Distinctivity’ (as I will continue to call it), together with a frozen licence fee, clearly means cheaper programmes. After all, spending too much and attracting too big an audience (think of Blue Planet) can easily be described as ‘unfair competition’. Distinctive and popular! Wow! It’s not surprising that, when you log in to the new BBC Membership website (My BBC now required to access iPlayer), you are met with the impressive presence of David Attenborough. He embodies BBC values; integrity incarnate -and indestructible. At least he will not be bought. However, the television environment is changing. In a world where Bake Off is substantially the same, whether on the BBC or Channel 4, programmes and personalities are less and less identified with broadcasters … (Didn’t even David Attenborough make a Sky series recently …?). And, it seems, that even at the BBC, market values have triumphed.
Far from becoming more ‘distinctive’ and different in its approach, the Corporation has become sneakily -or not so sneakily- commercialized, fitting in with the new television landscape like all the rest. In particular, it has set up BBC Studios as a ‘for profit’ production company. Instead of the famous wock (sorry WoCC -Window of Creative Competition- the quota of programmes which must be put out to tender and not produced in-house) virtually all programmes must now be tendered for. BBC Studios must bid against other independent production companies -presumably including all those super-Indies owned by Warner Brothers and other American/global giants. Meanwhile BBC Studios can pitch to other broadcasters. In addition, last week Broadcast magazine reported that BBC Studios are to merge with BBC Worldwide -the BBC’s commercial distribution subsidiary which is already funded by advertising. How long before the domestic BBC supplements its income by advertisements. What price distinctivity then?
With the new, competitive world in mind, over in W1A the Head of Values has employed a PR consultant to promote ‘Brand BBC’. She is always present at the important ‘Way Ahead’ Task Force Group and the Damage Limitation meetings, and advises the committee on stunts and promotional campaigns. (“This ‘BBC’ logo is too complex for the online future! It has too may letters! What about simplification – try ‘III’”). As it happened the BBC did exactly that -more or less- when it chose II! for BBC 3’s logo when it went online. (And W1A itself is now available on Amazon -at a price).
Within a context in which competition and monetary values dominate, it looks as if the demand for ‘distinctiveness’ can only mean one thing. Try to make programmes that are dull and boring -that are specially designed not to attract an audience. The new Head of Distinctivity, when he or she is appointed, is going to have a tough job. He or she will have to wrestle with the paradox that, if a programme is popular, it cannot, by definition, be considered ‘distinctive’. But in a world where all programmes are made by independent production companies (including BBC Studios) competing for the highest bidder, it really won’t matter whether they’re broadcast on the BBC or another channel, and whether they move for one broadcaster to another. (Unless, that is, some awkward performers refuse to go along with the move!).
In its final programme W1A’s BBC launched a new online presence, BBCMe to much celebration at New Broadcasting house, led by its public relations consultants, now called Fun Media. A position of Director of Purpose was created to replace Head of Values and Director of Better, and the previous executives were moving on to more lucrative positions in the USA. The narrator reflected ‘perhaps now it looks as if some kind of future for the BBC is finally underway…but who will be in that tomorrow and what it will hold for them, no-one knows’ (23.10.2017).
Applications are invited for a new Head of Distinctivity.
Patricia Holland, Bournemouth University, is the author of Broadcasting and the NHS in the Thatcherite 1980s: the challenge to public service with Hugh Chignell and Sherryl Wilson Palgrave 2013. See also: http://www.nosuch-research.co.uk/. Her most recent book is The New Television Handbook. Routledge 2017.
 Ofcom Operating Licence for the BBC’s UK Public Services 13.10.2017