During October the BBC is asking viewers to vote for our favourite
programmes, as part of its plans to drag us into marking 60 years of
television. The celebration leads to a gala night, Auntie’s All Time
Greats, when Kermit the Frog will be honoured alongside Sir Robin Day,
while disasters such as Rhodes will be airbrushed into TV oblivion. I
intensely dislike these manufactured anniversaries, especially since an
institution so rich in popular cultural history as the BBC can cynically
conjure up a special event whenever it needs to turn the spotlight on
its flattering features - sometimes as a diversion from current
And yet far more than a wallow in nostalgia is at stake here. Marking
the start of the world’s first high definition TV service inevitably
begs the question: what does the next 60 years hold in store? Or as the
Newsnight researcher preparing a spoilsport eve of gala night programme
said to me this week: will there be a BBC?
It’s a question worth asking, if impossible to answer with complete
conviction, except to say it will be incredibly tough. But the BBC has
staying power. The latest Zenith Media report predicts that even after
hundreds of digital satellite channels are launched in the next five
years it will still have a 37 per cent TV audience share, well into the
first decade of the next century.
The real question is whether there will be widespread support for public
service broadcasting, for a form of TV and radio programming which
operates at arm’s length from purely commercial considerations, has a
degree of public money or special protection underpinning its
operations, and, most crucially of all, has a duty to reflect society?
We’re not talking abstracts here: one of the purest public service
broadcasting events took place last week: the BBC’s National Poetry
Week. The winning poem was printed in most newspapers. It was grounded
in the huge respect for literacy we Britons possess. The BBC expressed
that. No commercial TV station would devise an event in that way.
Public service broadcasting is an issue that the European Parliament is
also grappling with. British MEP Carole Tongue has just won that
Parliament’s backing for extending special protection to the beleaguered
sector, provided the broadcasters play their part too. Her report makes
the sensible point that the imminent launch of digital TV channels
distributing global products provides only the illusion of more choice
and diversity. If they succeed by steamrollering local broadcasting
traditions because open competition is encouraged - without thought to
the destruction caused - then the average viewer will be worse off.
It certainly casts a new and more favourable light on that old fashioned
device called the licence fee.