EastEnders: A lesson in public broadcasting


The recent controversy created by the BBC’s popular soap opera EastEnders highlights yet another problem with state run television. The BBC took hundreds of telephone calls and emails over a controversial scene in which a Muslim character, struggling to reconcile his faith and sexuality, slams a Koran on the floor. The scene was thought by some to be offensive to the Islamic faith. The incident does not mark the first time the soap has been the subject of public criticism. Over the course of its twenty-five year history, it has been variously accused on multiple occasions of racial stereotyping and insensitivity, promoting homosexuality, defaming the police, and anti-religious bias.

The seriousness with which these complaints must be addressed is peculiar to a system of heavily regulated or publicly operated media. As the government forces anyone with a television to fork over £142.40 for the BBC, the public broadcaster must attempt to avoid any and all offensive broadcasts. In a society as diverse in opinion as the United Kingdom, this is a nearly impossible task, and the government undoubtedly collects money from some individuals to pay for programming they find to be distasteful. Even if they do not watch EastEnders, Islamic viewers that found the Koran scene to be offensive must still pay for the content to be broadcast to their fellow citizens.

In a market system without a publicly funded BBC, however, viewers would have choice, and could vote with their money and attention, allowing broadcasters to compete for advertising and subscription revenue by creating content that viewers enjoy. If EastEnders were a privately created program aired by a private broadcaster, anyone who found the show to be offensive could simply change the channel to something more amenable to their tastes. This would be a more efficient and just system than the regulatory process overseen by Ofcom, and perhaps the NHS would could reduce its budget for hypertension treatment for Britons who would have no longer have reason to fume about the expenditure of their hard-earned license fee on content they find to be disagreeable.

While many Britons undoubtedly enjoy EastEnders and other BBC programs, the repeated grievances are an indication that the current system could be operated in a fairer and more appropriate manner that would allow viewers to choose where their money is spent.