LONDON — The British Broadcasting Corporation was a pioneer of public-service broadcasting when it was established in the 1920s. It built up a strong reputation in its early years under its first director, General Lord Reith, although it also earned the nick-name of “Auntie” because it was regarded as prim and proper. During the war years, its news bulletins and its broadcasts of drama, music and discussion provided reassurance and relief in troubled times. To listen to the 9 o’clock news was for many a ritual that would only be missed if called away on duty. As Big Ben sounded the hour, listeners at home would put down their books, their needlework or their knitting and listen intently for news of the fighting around the world or of the damage caused by bombing at home in Britain. The BBC brought us Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speeches; it also gave us news of our friends in America, particularly through Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America,” which became and remains an institution.
Of course, the BBC has had to face criticisms that it was biased in its reporting. But the fact that such criticisms came from both left and right suggested that its reporting was pretty balanced. In the days before television became universal, demand for commercial radio was muted, and only a few people listened to commercial broadcasts from overseas (e.g. Radio Luxembourg). But as television in postwar Britain, developed by the BBC, became increasingly popular, the BBC’s monopoly of broadcasting channels became increasingly anachronistic. A duopoly was then created with the establishment of Independent Television (ITV), which was funded by advertising revenue. Gradually the number of commercial television channels increased and satellite broadcasting was developed. For its part, the BBC opened a second channel (BBC 2) which was supposed to provide rather more serious programs than on BBC 1.
In order to justify their license-fee income — currently, annual licenses for color TV cost householders 104 pounds (about $170) — and to maintain a significant share of viewers, the BBC felt impelled to put on more and more programs designed to appeal to the masses and to compete head on with commercial television. Serious programs were relegated to less popular times, or quietly dropped. This process of dumbing down attracted much criticism, and many argued that it undermined the case for maintaining the license fee. The BBC riposted that, on the contrary, in order to compete with commercial stations (for example, in televising sports, where promoters demand huge fees), the BBC’s license fee should be increased.
Debate on this issue has now become increasingly tied to the question of when and how to move over from analog to digital services. Digital services have, of course, existed for some time, via both cable TV and satellites, and the BBC has developed its own digital services, but the majority of the British public still have only analog sets and many are reluctant to purchase the setup boxes needed to receive digital broadcasts. One problem is that in many parts of the country without cable TV, viewers cannot receive terrestrial digital broadcasts because their area is not covered by the necessary transmitters. (At our home in Sussex, when I asked if a digital aerial could be fitted, I was told there was no point as the local transmitter was not allowed to broadcast to our area because it might interfere with navigation signals in the Channel). There is, however, no doubt that in the next few years digital television will totally replace analog broadcasts in Britain. The questions are when and how the changeover will be financed.
The BBC, with the aim of using the extra money to develop their digital services, wanted — but have not been granted — an extra fee from viewers accessing digital channels. Nevertheless Greg Dyke, the newly appointed director general of the BBC, has announced plans for two more BBC digital channels. He has also, to the dismay of many viewers, announced plans to move the 9 o’clock news to 10 o’clock to enable the BBC to provide programs that can compete head on with the fare offered by the commercial channels.
Many of us fear that this means more soap operas,” locally made or imported from the United States, and more game shows designed to appeal to the less attractive characteristics of a mass audience. This is a sad sign of the apparently growing philistinism of the BBC management, which is thought to reflect a similar tendency among British parliamentary ministers, who from the prime minister downward are said to prefer pop music to classical and popular shows to serious plays and opera. The latter are condemned by populist elements as “elitist,” which, of course, they are not. (I, for one, am by no means convinced that elitism, assuming that access to higher education is open, is necessarily a bad thing.)
As we enter the digital age, the BBC may — to adapt the well-known comment by Dean Acheson about postwar Britain — have lost its empire and not yet found its new role. Personally, I am disappointed by the attitude of the new director general and think that the governors of the BBC (the committee that controls the corporation) need to rethink their strategy. Public-service broadcasting need not be ashamed of putting its prime effort into educational programs and providing information as objectively as possible to members of the public who want to know. The license fee is not justified by the proportion of viewers watching populist programs. Rather, it should depend on the quality and objectivity of the programs produced. The BBC does not need to provide “soaps” or full coverage of sporting events at the expense of license payers who may not want to view such programs. These roles can and should be left to the commercial companies, who can recoup the costs from advertising.
In Japan, the division between public-service broadcasting (NHK), paid for by license fees, and commercial television appears to be similar to the structure in Britain. I have not paid sufficient attention to the programs of NHK and the commercial companies to say whether criticisms similar to those made against the BBC in Britain are justified. Nor can I predict the future of digital broadcasting in Japan. I hope that NHK will not follow the present BBC leadership in dumbing down, and that the new director general of the BBC will be told quite sharply by the government that if he continues with his present policies the BBC’s charter will not renewed or/and that license fees will be cut rather than increased.
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