Mar 9, 2011 Last updated on Jul 28, 2011 at 15:13
The BBC has recently been asking our audiences what they think of how their particular area of the UK is portrayed on network television. The word ‘portrayal’ isn’t very enticing, (I’d love to find a better one) but it’s about what we see on BBC screens of who we are and where we live.
What comes out strongly from the research is that people want programmes to come from ‘somewhere’ rather than ‘nowhere’ - though not at the expense of the overall quality of the show, which is paramount. People want to see themselves in the mainstream rather than have programmes ‘just for them’. Maybe that’s not so surprising. But it might provide a bit of context for the BBC’s move of departments and programmes to Glasgow and to Salford’s MediaCity that have consumed so much newsprint in recent weeks.
I don’t think such moves make our output necessarily better, or worse - just different and more varied, and that’s what’s important. If you subscribe to Broadcast magazine, Greg Sanderson, editor of The Review Show wrote recently about the different perspectives of the team producing the show In Glasgow as opposed to London.
The BBC clearly has a duty to represent the whole of the UK – everyone pays for us so everyone should expect something from us - and to draw our talent from around the UK. I know it can seem as if it isn’t moving fast enough - and producers may still feel network ideas with local places and characters have been rebuffed by London-based (even West-London-based) commissioners who don’t know enough about the rest of the country. But it is changing, and we’re up for the debate.
So what is the BBC going to do about it through its commissioning?
We talk a lot about ‘effortless’ portrayal in Factual programmes, within formats that by their nature go around the UK (and they don’t need to have the prefix ‘Great British’ or ‘Nation’ to make the point). Examples are shows like Coast, Hairy Bikers - Mums Know Best, & Village SOS. Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow also went down well with the audience. Jana Bennett talked about the benefits of this in a speech given in Cardiff last year.
Some of this will be more long-term, such as encouraging writers and directors in drama and comedy to return to their roots and cultural background to look for authentic stories. But on ongoing productions, producers and commissioners are on the look out for a wider range of acting & comedy talent. Maxine Peake, appearing in Silk on BBC One, spoke about this recently.
Existing network strands like The One Show or our daytime strands will look further afield for content. We’ll also do more co-commissioning - involving both local and network commissioning editors to find programmes that can work equally well on BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and on BBCs One to Four.
But I know we have to be aware of the challenges to increasing authentic portrayal. Not every story about a particular community is going to speak to everyone in the manner of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding; and the line between ‘authentic portrayal’ and ‘stereotype’ is a difficult one to tread.
There’s also a lot of ‘second guessing’ by producers particularly in the Nations about what BBC network might take – so their instinct may not be to look close to home for inspiration. For producers, it’s expensive to develop ideas away from their home base – getting to know other communities and landscapes, and finding talent, means being there.
And ‘authentic’ is a very broad term in any case - as we need to take account of lots of different sensibilities and recognise that people see themselves in many different ways. Hardeep Singh Kohli’s current Radio 4 series on British identity The Alternative Census makes this point.
It’s not straightforward. But in the end, it’s what makes the BBC different, and as the excellent viewing figures for South Riding, Lambing Live, Single Father, Great British Journeys or Coast tell us, it’s what the audience expects from us.
Krishan Arora, BBC Network Supply Project
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