MEDIA: Can the BBC defend public service broadcasting?

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 problems.

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

problems.



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.



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