Speech given at Polis, London School Of Economics
Tuesday 15 November 2011
I'm here tonight to talk about what the BBC is for.
My colleagues and I have spent the last nine months – working through our Delivering Quality First savings – with that question uppermost in our minds. When you have to decide how to cut your spending by 16 per cent a year – 20 per cent allowing for some reinvestment – it's an issue you keep coming back to.
Not that I'm here to complain. The rest of the public sector has been asked to make very similar cuts. We've been a lot more fortunate than many parts of local government. And the economies we've been obliged to make are in line with those demanded of many of the UK's cultural organisations.
Yet, there is something about such a large budget reduction that makes you sensitive to any spending that could be said to be wasteful or unnecessary.
On the first point, BBC television will already have taken out one billion pounds in efficiencies by the end of next year; and that's before the DQF programme even starts. Savings of a further £200 million per year in productivity will then need to be found once DQF gets going in 2013/14. Despite what you read in the papers, there really isn't a lot of waste left in the system.
Some anomalies endure, however.
One that really stands out is the several million pounds of licence fee income we have to pay every year to Sky for them to re-transmit our channels. This practice dates from the early days of satellite when government wanted the established broadcasters to support a new start-ups, Sky and BSB.
Today, given that 57% of the content watched in Sky homes comes from the terrestrial networks BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, it does seem strange that we should pay the richest broadcaster in the UK for the privilege of providing the majority of their audiences. In the case of the BBC, it costs £10 million a year – which adds up to a total of £50 million over the remaining years of the charter.
If Sky were based in the US, France or Germany, they would be paying the public broadcasters, not vice-versa. But the BBC isn't asking for that. We're just suggesting we have better uses for £10 million a year of public money than to give it to such a wealthy company. It could, for example, restore all the budget we have had to cut from Local Radio and BBC Four combined.
Anyway, whatever happens to that issue, we've had to get on with making our plans. And we've had a certain amount of time to interrogate the core principles that are bound to inform such a far-reaching budget reduction exercise.
It's been instructive to observe a pretty consistent reaction to the challenge – both inside and outside the BBC. Most people's first thought about how to save the money is to propose to cut things they don't like or don't use themselves.
Outside the organisation, significant parts of the broadsheet press call on us to abandon the output they're confident their readers don't watch or listen to. But I think the papers need to be a little more curious about their readers' relationship with the BBC.
In the latest tranche of research we do every quarter, I was amused to see that where 80 per cent of the British public describe themselves as “glad the BBC exists”, in the case of Daily Mail readers the number rises to 84 per cent; and for The Times's readers it's 91 per cent.
When it comes to coverage of the BBC, isn't it good to see these papers in particular have nothing but their readers' interests at heart?
But the papers aren't the only people guilty of thinking "If I don't like it, it should go". This view asserts itself inside the BBC too. Nearly everyone who works there is powerfully attached to their output and believes that what they do is what the BBC is for. Ask the question inside a BBC building, and you'll almost always be told cuts should be sought elsewhere.
Yet for me, step one of Delivering Quality First was to remember the inciting sentiment of the American Revolution: "no taxation without representation". Everyone pays the television licence fee. In my opinion, there can simply be no question over whether everyone should get something for it.
Of course, that can't be allowed to become a charter for a split personality BBC, where simply chasing ratings across some of the output is balanced by a commitment to the virtuously unwatchable elsewhere in the schedule. To do its job, the BBC needs a guiding principle for bringing public purposes to bear on every aspect of our work.
I understand that this confounds the pure market failure view of the BBC's role, which says the commercial British TV market is unusually good at providing high quality TV in many genres; the BBC should therefore be charged with concentrating on stuff the market has less appetite or ability to supply.
The night before the fourth episode of David Attenborough and Alastair Fothergill's sublime natural history series Frozen Planet is an interesting moment to address this question. We've had countless emails and message board postings over the past three weeks telling us that this is what the BBC is for; that the series is worth the price of the licence fee alone. The three episodes so far have been watched by an average nine million viewers per episode, and our viewers have awarded the series so far a quality score of 94 out of 100, one of the highest such ratings of all time.
Yet is even Frozen Planet the kind of thing a market failure version of the BBC would be encouraged to make? Of course, the skills of the BBC's natural history unit have been honed for generations – the fruits of guaranteed licence fee investment over many years. But in recent times, big commercial players have become much more interested in natural history. In the United States, Discovery has built a multi-billion dollar business on the back of it. More recently, Disney has started to invest serious money in natural history films. With pure market failure to define the BBC's mission, it might not be too far-fetched to say the BBC's Natural History unit has done its job – educating the public here and around the world to want high quality nature films – and the time has come to leave continued provision to the market.
I don't agree with that, of course. But we'll come back to natural history in a while. Beginning a search to discover what the BBC is for in earnest, let's take a look at TV drama instead.
We seem to be living through a mini golden age for TV drama investment. It's great for the industry that ITV, Channel 4 and Sky all say they are investing more in the genre.
Indeed, such is the scale of Sky's enthusiasm they've talked about commissioning Original British Drama – a phrase they liked so much, they lifted it word-for-word from our marketing campaign earlier in the year.
Anyone interested in the health of British TV drama could only celebrate this level of commitment – from all the big broadcasters.
But I firmly believe this strong commercial interest in television drama is in no sense an argument that the BBC should weaken its commitment. The very opposite in fact. Our audiences tell us they value the provision of excellent TV drama on a par with anything else we do. We believe our public service funding model and our creative philosophy makes us best placed to provide the widest range of ambitious drama for all audiences.
While the other broadcasters have certain audiences their commercial targets oblige them to concentrate upon, and therefore certain types of drama that they're much more likely to make, we labour under no such constraints. We are committed to providing a home to the whole spectrum of what great television drama can be.
Last year saw extra investment going into BBC Two drama and the next few years, DQF notwithstanding, will see reinvestment in BBC One drama. This spend represents the guaranteed base-level funding which ensures writers, producers, directors, actors and everyone else involved in British TV drama production are never at risk of simply being stood down altogether. Historically, ITV investment has tended to wax and wane; we should celebrate it while it's here but not forget that with the world economy teetering on the brink of its own Greek Tragedy, it may not be here forever. The same could be said for Sky.
The second and most distinctive reason to see BBC drama investment as uniquely important comes – unimprovably – from the great Huw Wheldon, who is famous, among other things, for defining the role of the BBC as "to make the good popular and the popular good".
Now the BBC happens to be blessed with two of the media's great mission statements – both of them from before the age of corporate spin – which means they're better written and more honest than most. If you're scrabbling around for a comparison, how about these core values? "Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence." Such was Enron's mission statement.
Lord Reith's biographer Ian McIntyre suggests the great man borrowed "inform, educate and entertain" from the American public service broadcast pioneer David Sarnoff. If so, at the very least, the borrowing was testimony to particularly good taste.
In parenthesis, I suspect what Reith meant by "entertain" may be a little different to its modern meaning. After all, this was a man who read rousing passages from the Bible for relaxation. And an observation that McIntyre records Reith making later in life – when he said "I was always afraid of television" – suggests to me Reith might have found BBC Three's Don't Tell The Bride challenging fare.
However, in what history has set down as Reith's tripartite legacy, the BBC was given a task of the utmost clarity; and thus a commitment to entertaining people was set in stone.
Huw Wheldon's less well-known dictum builds on Reith, of course, but delivers a more complicated exhortation with admirable economy.
Wheldon is an inspiration. As a soldier he won the Military Cross for an act of exemplary gallantry the day after D-Day in 1944. He was an LSE graduate as it happens, Bachelor of Science in Economics. And he came back to the LSE after retirement from the BBC to become Chairman of the Court of Governors here. At the BBC, he launched and edited the legendary arts magazine programme Monitor and went on to be Controller of BBC One and Two, and finally Director of Television – casting a giant shadow across the post I now hold.
To my mind, his exhortation "to make the good popular and the popular good" can be treated as the mission for BBC drama today – indeed the mission for all BBC TV programmes today. It conspicuously does not mandate a market failure version of the BBC. Neither does it go down well with our highbrow critics, who all feel - though don't all dare to say – we should have no truck with the popular at all.
To make the popular good in drama, one must first have a proper sense of what the popular is. This is simply enough achieved by listening to what our audiences tell us and tracking their behaviour in the real choices they make. Ipso facto, it is part of the BBC's core mission in drama to make soap operas – even though commercial companies make them. Making soap operas good then follows intuitively. We're under no pressure to make soaps that are "as good as possible while remaining congenial to advertisers" – we simply have to make them as good as they can possibly be.
And we don't seem to be doing too badly. In 2011, alongside a number of other cherishable accolades, EastEnders has won the two grandest: the Royal Television Society Award for best soap and continuing drama. And the Bafta for best continuing drama. In the judgement of our peers, our main soap is a very high quality affair. And there's simply no challenging its popularity. EastEnders is averaging nine million viewers per show in 2011; it's a mainstay of the BBC One schedule.
Of course, ITV make bloody good soap operas too. And the competition between theirs and ours for originality and innovation benefits both. It's an untestable counter-factual, but would Coronation Street be as good if EastEnders weren't there? Or vice-versa?
Wheldon's point is that part of our duty is to take popular forms and strive to make them as good as they can be. Implicit in his phrase is the thought that what the public decides is important. I like that. Wheldon's dictum obliges us to listen to our audiences and understand what they place value upon. That's why the BBC should definitely continue to make police dramas too – even though between January and June this year, on a rough count, 44 per cent of the new dramas ITV broadcast were about the police one way or another.
Police or crime drama is a very popular TV form – people love it – and therefore, Wheldon says, we have an obligation to help make it as good as we can. The BBC's success with Steven Moffat's wonderful Sherlock makes this point as well as anything. And there's a new series to come early next year. Crime drama but not as we know it – a police show made wonderfully different for no reason other than that's what the BBC is supposed to do.
If anything I think the first part of Wheldon's nostrum is even more important than the second. To make the good popular. One of the reasons I love this phrase is that it clearly establishes the BBC's obligation to take some responsibility for judging what is good. You don't get £3.5 billion pounds of public money a year without some responsibilities and this is clearly one of them. It means we shouldn't choose to cover artists on Imagine or The Culture Show just because they're popular; we must instead make television about people and art we believe are good. That's got to be our starting point.
And it puts us closer to our purist critics – but not perhaps as close as they'd like. They might rework Wheldon here as "Make the good, whether it's popular or not". But that's why Wheldon's words seem so clever to me. Anyone with a determination to identify and focus upon the good, I reckon, must also be resolute about striving to share the good, to make it popular.
If you're a professional communicator, and something is important or beautiful or special in any way at all, surely you should be interested in seeing it experienced by as many people as possible. Which doesn't mean you've failed if you don't reach a large audience. Of course not. You've only failed in my view if – having created something you believe to be important and worthwhile – you don't try to take it beyond the closed circle of those already in the know.
Applied to drama, "make the good popular" sets out another essential strand of the BBC's drama commissioning strategy. At any one moment, many more things are good than are popular. And the pressures on commercial TV companies to sell ads into the drama they make result in a narrowing of range in particular. The BBC has an obligation to explore the full range of drama genres far more vigorously than any commercial company should feel obliged.
The drama in prospect from BBC One for 2012 bears this out. The Controller of BBC One, Danny Cohen, and our Drama Controller, Ben Stephenson, are committed to delivering an ambitious range of popular drama that, to my mind, will make the channel the most distinctive home for mainstream drama in the world.
As I mentioned earlier, the beginning of 2012 will see the return of the Bafta-winning Sherlock, where our superstar sleuth confronts a femme fatale as clever as he is; an infamous hound; and his nemesis Jim Moriarty. Abi Morgan's epic and romantic adaptation of Sebastian Faulks' modern classic Birdsong will follow, along with Sally Wainwright's family saga Anthony And Cleopatra, the story of two 70 year old's falling-in-love, and the impact this has on their warring families.
Also coming up are the modern thriller Inside Men, about a heist gone wrong; the funny and heart-warming series Call The Midwife written by Heidi Thomas of Cranford fame; and an "only the BBC would make it" film about Noah – Reith would have been pleased – written by EastEnders's top script writer Tony Jordan. For the BBC, range and high quality are critical. And these are only some of our 2012 highlights.
I think Huw Wheldon would also have been satisfied with this past year's wonderful reinvigoration of drama on BBC Two, where Controller Janice Hadlow and Ben Stephenson have deployed the £25 million set aide for them to glorious effect in expanding the range of genres usually featured in British television – adding Victorian Gothic angst in Crimson Petal And The White, sports history in United and showbiz biography in Eric And Ernie. All that on top of the "popular made particularly good" through the wholly distinctive Hugo Blick crime series Shadowline and David Hare's beautifully wrought spy drama Page Eight.
Range – it's vital to the BBC. And range explored in the privileged context of our independence from commercial imperatives. I would invite Britain's drama writers and producers to test our appetite for range still further than they already do – we live in extraordinarily interesting times and I would relish still more drama that explores the society we live in and the challenges it sets to people to make something of their lives.
I've used drama as a stand-in for all BBC content throughout this speech, but the lessons apply every bit as powerfully to the other genres – comedy, entertainment and factual. We're delivering the big music entertainment format The Voice next year because we believe it has all the makings of a very popular show that we believe we can make very good.
Returning to Frozen Planet, I reckon we're broadcasting a series here that delivers both Wheldon's desiderata at once. It's good because that's the only way the team knows how to make things; it's popular because it's so extraordinarily good. Our Live Plus Seven Days consolidated viewing figures, just in today, reveal an impressive twelve and half million people watched the first episode either live, recorded or on iPlayer in its first week.
In conclusion, I know I've spent comparatively little time on Reith's "inform" and "educate". Both are self-evidently what the BBC should do. Though I'd be tempted to emphasise our increasingly solitary role as the 21st century unfolds and expand on "inform" by adding "without ulterior motive". An ambition not easily found in the modern media.
I think you could add a few words to "educate" too – "to educate without excluding". An education from the BBC – unlike many others – can't be upgraded by paying more.
And as for "entertain", it too could perhaps be expanded for the modern age: "to entertain without exploiting or degrading our participants or our audiences". Either way, I believe it's strikingly important for the BBC's future that entertainment was one of the founding obligations of our past.
But when all's said and done, the most important modulation of Reith's mission to entertain comes from Wheldon – with his forging of an unbreakable link for the BBC between what's popular and what is good.