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'Water cooler TV' has social and economic benefit, says new report

Category: BBC
Date: 06.05.2004
Printable version

A new economic rationale for public service broadcasting identifies the value and positive impact broadcasting has on society.

Producing popular programmes that are watched and talked about should be regarded as a valuable component of public service broadcasting and important to preserving and building the social capital of the UK, concludes a new report published jointly by the BBC and The Work Foundation.

The independent report by economist Martin Brookes (Watching Alone: Social capital and public service broadcasting) presents a new economic rationale for public service broadcasting based on the positive impact broadcasting can have on 'social capital' - the term given to the collection of shared values which shape society and provide the basis for trust between people.

Studies have shown links between social capital and improved health, reduced crime and better educational attainment.

Brookes argues that the massive growth in the number of television channels and the consequent fragmentation of audiences will mean fewer shared experiences thereby reducing social capital.

He argues that public service broadcasting has a vital role to play given its continued capacity to generate large audiences.

Without it, we risk becoming a nation of viewers who watch alone, consuming specialist channels without being able to share the experience later with friends and colleagues.

Brookes concludes that the free market in broadcasting, left to its own devices, would not produce the right mix of programming to adequately sustain social capital.

In the United States, the multiplicity of channels and small role of public service television has led to an alarming lack of overlap in the viewing habits of African-Americans and whites.

A similar study of viewing habits amongst whites and ethnic minorities in Britain shows a much greater overlap.

Brookes argues this, in part, is due to the public service obligations of the dominant providers to produce programmes which appeal to a range of audiences.

The report cites EastEnders as a powerful example of a programme's ability to build social capital and create shared experiences for all groups of society - it spans social groups and ages which may otherwise have few common reference points.

The report concedes that whilst audience size is an important factor, large audiences alone are unlikely to maximise social capital.

Audience diversity, by age, sex, race and social class; audience engagement with the content, the 'water-cooler' effect; and audiences learning about one another are also factors in maximising the social capital of programmes.

This means that distinctive, 'high-brow' programmes as well as popular programmes can create social capital.

The report highlights a number of television programmes that have boosted social capital.

The BBC TWO series Great Britons, which sought to debate and decide who the greatest Briton in history was, attempted to create 'water-cooler' discussions about Britain and its history.

The Queen's Golden Jubilee was another instance of social capital building. Through its programming and nationwide events, the BBC was able to provide both a set of shared experiences and a mirror to the nation to reflect its character and history.

Will Hutton, Chief Executive of The Work Foundation, said: "This report is a wake-up call to both the BBC and its critics. It challenges the BBC to consider new and more sophisticated rationales for its existence, and opens up wholly new debates about what it means to serve the public interest in the twenty-first century.

"But more importantly, it tears up the argument of the free marketeers who would destroy public service broadcasting.

"Media technologies have changed drastically since the BBC was founded, and in the digital era, we can no longer take it as read that broadcasting will provide shared experiences.

"We need to commit ourselves firmly to ideas of a shared public realm, and this report explains precisely why."

Notes to Editors

Martin Brookes was formerly an economist at Goldman Sachs International and is now Head of Research at the charity New Philanthropy Capital.

This report, commissioned by the BBC, was written in a personal capacity and the views are those of the author alone.



Category: BBC
Date: 06.05.2004
Printable version


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