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Attenborough on small audiences

Peter Knowles | 15:47 UK time, Friday, 2 May 2008

The BBC is hosting three lectures in a series about the role of public service broadcasting and first up was Sir David Attenborough, in a speech delivered on the evening of 1 May in London.

David Attenborough holds a Giant Atlas mothBBC Parliament has developed a two hour slot in its schedules - 2100 Saturday evening - for speeches and lectures of a broadly political and historical nature. This one fits the bill. But, to be honest, if it had been David Attenborough reading out loud from a plant catalogue, I would probably have gone with that. Next in the series are lectures from Stephen Fry and Will Hutton.

Sir David spent some time describing the physical characteristics of the early TV studios in Alexandra Palace, when short stories were declaimed to camera by men in comfy armchairs. Having knocked the microphone off his lapel, the first three minutes of the lecture found us unexpectedly re-enacting some of the limitations of those early years.

David Attenborough gave a very short definition of public service broadcasting in the modern era: "programmes with small audiences".

Sir David fears the effect of reducing the habitat of a genre to just one or two occasional programmes and makes the point that the world-beating units - the Natural History Unit in Bristol being the prime example - have size and continuity on their side. His dislike of faddish popular genres, such as the makeover shows, is expressed clearly and was picked up in news coverage of the lecture:

He argues that niche channels haven't done too well for audiences and that they therefore miss the point of broadcasting.

So I'm not entirely sure whether the broadcast of this lecture on BBC Parliament 'counts' as public service broadcasting, by Sir David's definition. We're showing it (or hiding it, depending on your point of view) on a channel which reaches more than a million viewers a month. But not, as you may have guessed, all at the same time.

Sir David's vision of public service broadcasting is that it must be appropriately funded and played out on a whole and coherent network dedicated to the purpose. And it must have a healthy audience.

He describes what he sees as the toxic effect of foisting publicly funded public service programming onto a commercial schedule where, inevitably, the programme would be treated as a pariah by the scheduler.

I hope you find the time to watch the whole thing at 2100 BST on BBC Parliament and then on iPlayer. If you feel that your Saturday nights have, for too long, been given over to hedonism, you can follow it with a lecture by Baroness James of Holland Park on Police And The Public In The 21st Century (2135 BST) and round off the evening at 2215 BST in the company of the Archbishop of Canterbury, lecturing on Religious Faith And Human Rights to the London School of Economics.

All three lectures were delivered this week and they offer first-rate public discourse that you won't find anywhere else. Saturday nights are never going to be the same again, are they?


  • Comment number 1.

    Sounds like perfect iPlayer material to me (I just wish you'd added a direct link, it took me ages to find it on there).

    Also, this type of programme should be available on iPlayer forever, not just 7 days!

  • Comment number 2.

    The 34 minute lecture entitled "The Future of Public Service Broadcasting" spent all the time talking about the history. Anyone going to give a full lecture outlining their detailed views about the future?

  • Comment number 3.

    While I disagree with the ecat term of phrase "programmes with small audiences", I agree entirely with the sentiments of it as being what the BBC is for.

    For me the BBC should have only two aims:

    The first being linked to creating actual programming and being "to create programs that other broadcasters/studios/companies would not have made". Such as the continually excellent catelogue of documentaries on wildlife, history, local tradition and entertainment, coverage of lesser sporting events, local news and the like.

    The second to expose the UK viewers to excellent programming from other companies and countries where appropriate, a good example would be the rights to Heroes for terrestrial viewers.

    I just wish that the BBC would concentrate on those aims and stop the following:

    The silly bidding for sporting events against other terrestrial channels - Please BBc remember you are there to provide diversity in this regard, if ITV are happy to keep screening the F1 races then let them. Same as Wimbledon, I dont give two hoots if the BBC traditionally cover it, ITV would do so just the same. Then instead of gifting money to a sport in no need of it try covering some less glamerous ones in magazine format. The excellent gillette world sport show provides an ideal template for such a thing, why not set aside an hour every Sunday for a program like this to cover the major events in lesser sports.

    The copying of ITV into the realms of gutter reality TV. Yes it might garner ratings but what is the real point? Ratings are only a measure for Advertisers, without them ther is no reason to try to chase ratings. Concentrate instead of the production of high quality TV that will last the ages.

    The BBC has a huge oppertunity with the iPlayer and it's extensive archives to pioneer a new model of TV that could see programming continue to generate significant income and viewership many decades after it's first production, especially if it can work on a method of lining to appropriate shows from news items on the BBC web site. Imagine the number of people who would have been interested in watching documentaries about space flight during the recent space-truck experiments, or on the history of the web during the recent MS/Yahoo saga.

    High quality programming about newsworthy subjects such as this which can be used for decades should be a major prority over finding the next 5-minute star who will be forgotten by the start of the next similar series. If it can stick to this then it will make the licence fee worth paying for by differenciating the BBC from the faceless crowd of other channels available.

  • Comment number 4.

    "But, to be honest, if it had been David Attenborough reading out loud from a plant catalogue, I would probably have gone with that."
    Sums it all up, really. What is this- pseuds corner?

  • Comment number 5.

    I would love to have these available in some sort of ''BBC Lectures" podcast. The Reith Lectures were (maybe still are?) available as podcasts, and I found that the perfect format for lectures-- I don't like to sit down and watch them, but I'd love to listen to them while (for instance) walking to work in the morning.

    This sounds like a very interesting subject. Inevitably, however, it always devolves to the following for me: The BBC should produce the shows I like (that's a public service), but should leave those I don't like for the other broadcasters. Patently ridiculous, but I guess it does show my depth of attachment to the BBC as an institution.

  • Comment number 6.

    The BBC is supposed to cater to everyman programming, the BBC seems to have covered the soap operas, horticultural, cooking and chat show audience, yet apart from some bodice ripping victorian drama the rest of us are left with what exactly?...

    I can think of only a few examples of good BBC usage of my licence fee, mostly I am shaking my head in despair at how the BBC continues to shoot itself in it's proverbial foot.

    With what looks like the start of the endgame of Labour mis/governance over the UK, I feel it would be wise for the BBC to start going back to it's roots and broadcasting programming that educates, entertains and enthralls, if the BBC starts moving in this firection then I will stop begrudging my licence fee.

  • Comment number 7.

    Why does the BBC always explain itself and its ideas to academia? Why not make the same amount of effort explaining yourselves to everybody else? Why do you have to lecture us? Why not converse with us instead? and I don't mean in seminars that only people and students of the media attend. The BBC is a public service broadcaster, that means it should answer to the public, not just the academic sections of the public.

  • Comment number 8.

    I've finally found these lecture online:

    (took bloody ages of searching to find them!)


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