Dame Tessa Jowell has suggested that it would be a marvellous idea for the BBC to become a mutual company. I’d agree that Dame Tessa’s plan would certainly allow for a greater sense of ownership by the Licence Fee payers and staff. There could be less likelihood of interference by the government, thus allowing independence to be maintained, and certainly the idea of ploughing back revenue into the organisation is a sound one.
The piece in the article that made me shudder was this:
Dame Tessa said, “This arrangement would put the public ‘in the driving seat’ and allow them a greater say.”
I am probably guilty of taking things literally here, but I fear the concept of putting the great British public ‘in charge’ of the BBC would result in some truly dreadful crimes against the nation’s viewing and listening habits! Could we potentially look forward to wall-to-wall Strictly Come Dancing clones? I mean, what does the great British public at large know about programme making, scheduling and broadcasting? Well, in view of the growing success of YouTube, the iPlayer and Vimeo et al, and on demand services like Netflix and Love Film one could argue they understand more than we realise.
Viewing and listening habits are changing rapidly and the pace of life has led to greater flexibility in how and when all sorts of mass media are delivered.
Director, actor, and all-round creative wizard Kevin Spacey recently gave a speech in which he urged broadcasters and programme makers to keep pace with the way in which media is enjoyed. The Netflix remake of House of Cards in which Spacey takes the lead was his case in point, with more and more ‘viewers’ downloading entire box sets of programming to enjoy at their convenience.
I suppose the situation to be wary of here is creating a sort of mass media ‘fast food’ culture with audiences glutting themselves on whole series they love, or perhaps ‘grazing’ on clips and podcasts rather than enjoying a balanced diet provided by competent media creatives. I recall a conversation with the immensely intelligent journalist and broadcaster Henry Kelly in which he bemoaned the loss of traditional trust in programme makers. Henry made an extremely valid point along the lines that media practitioners, programme makers and their ilk should be trusted to make good quality series and provide impartial news coverage without interference from non-creative bureaucrats, or reliance on viewing figures, ratings, or ‘audience satisfaction’ feedback. You wouldn’t pop into the kitchens of a successful restaurant and start suggesting changes to the ingredients and cooking methods would you? No, you’d trust that the Head Chef and his staff would make something truly memorable, and if you didn’t enjoy it you simply wouldn’t order that meal again or you’d go somewhere else for your next gastronomic experience.
Mutual company status might engender much more of a feeling of ownership and pride in an organisation like the BBC, from both the public and the workforce, which must surely lead to an increase in quality. Keeping pace with public taste will help the organisation to evolve, but I’d hope serious safeguards against mass interference would be put in place and that audiences would learn to trust programme makers and web wizards to fully embrace their tastes and needs and instinctively make great output for them to enjoy.
In my humble opinion there is already far too much pandering to an elusive view of ‘what the public wants’ and chasing the latest big craze in terms of genre, so it would be refreshing to see a return to old traditional values of trust in programme makers – essentially moving forwards with an eye and ear to the past.
Mutually Beneficial? By Richard A. Usher
Mutually Beneficial? © 2013 Richard A. Usher, all rights reserved