In last week’s Spectator, Charles Moore bemoaned the dumbing down of BBC Radio 3. In this week’s issue, several letters to the editor make the same point. Now, you may dismiss this as the snobbery of classical music afficionados. Or you might agree that Radio 3 presenters are indeed ruining the listening experience by telling you how you should feel about particular pieces of music (e.g. “blown away”) and entreating you to to email, text or tweet about what you are hearing. Frankly, I’m too much of a musical moron to have an opinion on the subject.
What this story really highlights is the futility of compulsorily funded “public service broadcasting”. The point of public service broadcasting is, one would assume, to address some failure in the broadcast market – to produce and air content which benefits the public, and which would not otherwise be produced or aired by commercial players. But if you buy this market failure argument, you have to concede that ‘public service broadcasting’ is likely to be a fairly elitist project. The intention may be to bring high culture to the masses, but in reality you will probably end up subsidising the tastes of the relatively wealthy and well educated with a tax paid largely by those who have no interest in such things. This is clearly a rather perverse outcome.
On the other hand, if you “dumb-down”, if you chase market share with populist programming, then the rationale for compulsorily funded public service broadcasting disappears. By way of illustration, let’s look at tonight’s broadcast schedule for the BBC 3 TV channel.
At 7pm, we get Pop’s Greatest Dance Crazes, “a top 50 countdown of the hippest, sexiest, quirkiest and campest dance crazes of the last 40 years.” At 8pm, it’s Don’t Tell the Bride, a reality TV show in which a man gets £12,000 to arrange his wedding, but isn’t allowed any contact with his wife-to-be while he does it: “Four weeks apart will push their relationship to the limit.” At 9pm, it’s How Sex Works, which is a documentary about twenty-somethings who get around a bit. At 10pm, it is time for Eastenders (a miserable soap opera), followed by documentary Bizarre Crimes (self-explanatory), and a series of cartoons imported from the US. If you are lucky enough to still be awake at 4.25am, you get to watch Cherry Healey look for “essential truths amongst the tales of sex and debauchery to see if losing your virginity is about more than just having sex for the first time.”
Can anyone really argue that programming like that justifies forcing television-owners, on pain of imprisonment, to pay £145.50 a year to a government agency? It’s a rhetorical question.
Public service broadcasting is caught between a rock and a hard place. If it sticks to its ‘market failure’ remit it will appear elitist and lose public support. If it chases a larger market, it will undermine any reasonable case for public funding. Ultimately, public service broadcasting and the licence fee that sustains it are an anachronism – something which might (just) have been appropriate when we had two TV channels and limited broadcasting spectrum, but no longer make sense in a world of thousand-channel satellite television and high-speed internet streaming. With almost limitless choice available at the click of a button, we don’t need government to entertain us, inform us, or filter our cultural diets for us. Curiously enough, the way that technology has democratized the media means that democracy itself no longer has any valuable role in broadcasting. It’s time the BBC and the government realized that.