I'm intrigued by Richard Alleyne's report in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph - "BBC should dumb down, says own report".
I haven't seen the report - it's a long way from being finished. But I'd be prepared to wager a few bob that the words "BBC should dumb down" do not - and will not - appear in it. And I'm not the only one who hasn't seen it - Mr Alleyne hasn't either, depending instead on a report of what an unnamed insider is said to have said.
Another un-named insider is quoted as saying: "There is a feeling we may be serving the professional classes well, but not reaching the C2s and D1s." While the same, or perhaps another, insider opines: "The corporation has lost all perspective. It is defeatist to constantly chase the populist market. Sometimes you have to give people what they need and not just what they want."
It's all fascinating stuff. Fascinating... but nothing whatever to do with the current debate/debates over audiences.
And for the BBC, that starts with the licence fee. The proposition is a simple one; everyone pays, everyone - the BBC hopes, certainly intends - gets. Gets something it values. In a simpler world, the only thing that could really mean was mass audiences (BBC One, Radio 1) - big numbers sitting round the TV set, all together, that evening. It hasn't meant that for a long time and won't ever again. One American communications scholar, Jay Rosen, calls listeners, readers and viewers "the people formerly known as the audience" - partly because the whole idea of "the audience" as a big blob of big numbers just ain't so any more.
But it's only if you do cling on to the anachronistic idea of "the audience" as a big, amorphous, internally indistinct blob that phrases like "dumbing down" or "the populist market" have any meaning - based as it is around the idea that "the audience" watches "the schedule". And, because Blue Planet is good for you and When will I be Famous isn't, that for every half-dozen WWIBFs in "the schedule", "the audience" needs one BP.
Now - increasingly so in the future - the people formerly known as the audience who watch, listen to and read BBC content do so on their own terms; when they want, where they want and how they want. They watch news reports on their PCs, Dr Who on replay and listen to 1Xtra through their TVs, and Mark Kermode through a podcast. Each individual member of the audience can build his or her own schedule - many do. On Wednesday evening you could settle down to Britten, Victoria and Tippett on R3, skip across to the Lent talk on R4, grab a bite to eat then catch the documentary on King Leopold II of Belgium over on BBC Four. Or, of course, you could go for the more upmarket stuff. You're the scheduler.
Nor is it any longer a simple equation; more quizzes = less costume drama; more reality TV = less politics (the two, of course, being mutually exclusive). Expensive dramas last longer - so do cheap ones, actually. The so-called 'long tail' means that tens of millions can watch a production and find value in it over a period of time and on a variety of outlets and platforms; it's not down to one shot on one night any more. It's both/and not either/or.
And it's against this shifting picture that the BBC has to make its calculation - is everyone who pays £131.50 (a bit less than the cost of taking, say, the Daily Mail every day) getting £131.50 worth of value?
It's possible that some audiences are less easily able than others to find BBC content that's valuable to them. It's possible, too, that some audiences feel there's not enough programming that's relevant to them - I simply don't know. If either is true, there's a strong case for putting it right - but that's nothing to do with giving people "what they want" rather than "what they need" or with "dumbing down". It is, though, a lot to do with giving licence fee-payers what they've paid for.