Thinking about the effects of neoliberalism on television, I’ve recently had reason to re-visit some of the programmes I looked at when I was working on a book about the 1980s.
In particular I remembered a fascinating series transmitted across May and June in 1990 called The Television Village. In it residents of a village in Lancashire were given a glimpse of the television future: the future we now inhabit. It was very effective then, but looking back it was prophetic -and not just about developing technology.
In the summer of 1990, UK-specific satellite broadcasting had just arrived. BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting) with its ‘squarials’ was battling for viewers with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television and its dishes. The merger which created BSkyB was not yet in place. Nevertheless it was clear that the future was multi-channel. Already there were many satellites up there and cables were relaying the signals. At the same time a new Broadcasting Act was in the pipeline.
The Television Village was made by Granada for Channel Four. They planted huge satellite dishes on the outskirts of the village, and volunteers’ houses were wired up to receive what seemed like an amazing number of channels: 30 in all! These channels would have been available to subscribers, but were delivered without cost to participants, who were invited to give their reactions. In an early version of Gogglebox, a diverse cross section of villagers of all ages -including the local vicar- viewed a selection of the material on offer -including the ‘adult’ channels. Just like the stars of Gogglebox, they could frequently hardly believe what they were seeing -and gave vent to their reactions. Unlike Gogglebox they were then invited by the producers to offer considered opinions and careful judgements.
But Waddington wasn’t chosen by chance. By coincidence it was in the constituency of the Conservative MP David Waddington, who also, as it happened, was Home Secretary in charge of the forthcoming 1990 Broadcasting Act. This was the Act, which, we all know, introduced ‘lighter touch’ regulation; an ‘auction’ amongst bidders for ITV franchises, and decreed that Channel Four should become more commercial and sell its own advertising. In the words of Ray Fitzwalter, executive producer of The Television Village, it was ‘perhaps the worst piece of legislation of the last 50 years.’
In the last programme of the series David Waddington attended a community meeting to hear the villagers’ responses. I watched my VHS recording of the programme -and despite the fuzzy images- it still strikes me with a stark immediacy, as Waddington makes his personal views on television crystal clear: basically it was all rubbish. He told parents who were concerned about controlling their children’s viewing in the future free-for-all atmosphere that “a lot of our children watch far too much television in the present set up. Bearing in mind the appalling amount of rubbish that they watch at the present time I doubt very much that they could accommodate much more rubbish”. The impression was that, since it’s all rubbish, a bit more rubbish doesn’t matter.
He was pleased to announce that the Government was ‘putting a bit of a squeeze on the BBC’, and, to the woman who responded that the licence fee was good value -a view that was confirmed now that she’s watched the alternatives (‘there’s some terrific programmes’ she said, followed by applause) he replied with a tortuous, but emphatic, statement of the neoliberal approach that characterised Thatcher’s governments across the 1980s:
“If you have the technology to provide more choice for people, and if there are companies who are prepared to offer that increased choice, they’re only going to offer that increased choice if there’s going to be money made out of that increased choice. There’s no way in which we can put back the knowledge of the new technology which has been acquired: there’s no way in which you are going to get people stopping searching for new opportunities to give people new choice”.. In other words, if there’s a way of making money, ‘people’ will do it willy nilly -and that’s good for the other ‘people’ even if it is choice amongst different types of rubbish. Waddington concludes, ‘”if the people are prepared to pay for the rubbish then it’s up to the people.”
There is a bizzare dislocation here between the logic of the market and the everyday engagement with the broadcast output the inhabitants of Waddington had been watching and reacting to. Looking at the programme again I found the Home Secretary’s frankness about his values and his lack of respect for the people to whom he was talking, so exaggerated as to be almost laughable -if it weren’t so serious in its consequences for UK broadcasting.
So spin forward 27 years and replace Waddington with Whittingdale. In an environment where hundreds of pay-television channels are available rather than just 30; where even more ‘people’ are searching for ‘new opportunities to give ‘people’ new choice’, and where it is taken for granted that the BBC must continue to be ‘squeezed’, we have a new BBC Charter and the BBC is ‘held to account’ by Ofcom. John Whittingdale may not be Culture Secretary any more -but his approach is clearly visible, pursuing a project which began way back in the 1980s with the infamous Peacock report which aimed to shrink the BBC. Instead of seeking audience appeal and competing with other broadcasters, Peacock insisted, the BBC should stick to worthy ‘public service’ programmes which would fill in the gaps left by the popular commercial channels. Its role would be to compensate for ‘market failure’.
The years have tempered the stridency of the message -but the impulse is the same. Whittingdale’s 2016 White Paper was full of fulsome praise for the BBC while undermining the Corporation at every step. Afraid of naming ‘market failure’, ‘distinctiveness’ has become the key word. Just avoid rubbish, because ‘people’ are prepared to pay for that.
Pat Holland 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/