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24 September 2014
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John Willis

Director of Factual & Learning

Speech given at the Royal Television Society at Bafta

17 June 2003
Printable version

I had fully expected to be standing here as Vice President in charge of National Programmes at WGBH in Boston, not as the BBC's new Director of Factual and Learning, just eight days into a new job.

Many times I have been asked what WGBH stands for. Given that I was only in Boston for a year, I would like to categorically deny that it stands for Willis's Great Boston Holiday.

As it was the coldest January in 120 years in Boston and that the economic climate in public television was almost as frosty, it certainly wasn't that.

Mind you, I almost changed my mind about joining the BBC when coming out of BBC White City and walking down the path towards the road, a big brown rat ran right in front of me.

It didn't answer to the name, Roland.

Knowing how keen the BBC is to save money on location shooting, I half expected to find David Attenborough and a film crew chasing after it.

I thought for a moment that the rat was leaving a sinking ship, but then I realized that the BBC was more seaworthy than most broadcasters and that, the rat, like me, was probably joining, not leaving the ship.

During my time in the States, I was continuously struck by the difference between the two countries. The Americans call oregano oregano and basil basil. They are both, apparently, not herbs, but erbs. So the former head of the FBI was J. Edgar Oover and Bill Clinton was married to illary.

In religion, society, politics and culture, the differences are less superficial and starker.

Yet, we are both glued together in one world where what happens in the Yemen or Yugoslavia impacts upon lives in Boston or Bristol. A global economy fed and powered by a worldwide information system more complex and more powerful than ever before. A universe in which cultural trends - reality TV, Harry Potter, rap music - slip seamlessly across the Atlantic.

Now more than ever, as television viewers the world over receive the same messages, has T. S. Eliot's description of television come true: "It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time yet remain lonesome"?

There's much to admire on American television. When I was at Channel 4, I led the team that brought Friends, E.R and Ally McBeal. It is hard to imagine a long-running British network series as literate as the West Wing or as brilliant and enduring as The Simpsons. In cable, HBO lead the way with The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, stunning pieces of acting, writing and production.

A well-resourced system in the world's largest market, embedded in a rich Hollywood talent base, has produced some of the world's greatest television programmes. No wonder a long queue of British television executives and critics have begun to worship at the shrine of American television.

There is much to admire and learn from how to sustain comedy and drama over many years through team writing - how to take creative risks in a commercial system, how to migrate the skills of writers like David Kelly, Aaron Sorkin and Steven Bochco into production leadership, how to make cinema and television culture cross-fertilise effectively.

But these are a tiny number of programmes at the top of a food chain that is long, bland and tasteless, like the endless strips of fast food restaurants on the edges of American towns, where Arby's and Denny's, MacDonald's and Taco Bell compete for neon attention.

Pick away at the hundreds of channels on offer and you find that the apparent choice is just a tawdry illusion. Hours of cloned entertainment, for every Batchelor, there is a Bachelorette, jostle with lame comedies and drama-by-numbers.

Then they are all recycled through secondary syndication channels so that you are never far from an old episode of Friends, or, indeed, Sergant Bilko.

Every hour of this is crammed full of commercials for up to sixteen minutes an hour in peak time, encouraging a form of television attention deficit disorder.

In this environment Americans watch anything. An eating contest, The Chicken Wing Bowl, attracted twenty thousand stadium spectators. Never ones to miss a trick, Fox has run a televised food guzzling contest, The Glutton Bowl.

Nor can we assume that American production values are as superior as the British cheerleaders of American television claim.

US daytime soaps make BBC's Doctors look as if it was written by Tolstoy or Dickens. The American versions of What Not To Wear and Pop Idol are less presented than their British counterparts.

Indeed, if there is so much to be admired in American television's creativity why have so many of their most successful entertainment programmes been invented here and then exported by Britain as formats.

Survivor, Pop Idol, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Weakest Link are British inventiveness with Scrapheap Challenge, Changing Rooms and Faking It all being re-versioned for the USA.

But it is on news and current affairs that American Television is shown at its most dispiriting.

A sprawling and diverse democracy in which only 16 per cent of Americans hold passports, no nation needs independent and impartial media more than the USA.

Yet, it wasn't just the US flag fluttering in the corner of the screens or the loose use of language from imbedded reporters using 'we', it was quite simply that much of American coverage, particularly on the cable channels, could have been written and produced by The White House.

Pentagon spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, was certain in a Television Week interview that embedding” reporters worked for the Government. Oh sure, it demonstrated in such a real and compelling fashion the professionalism, dedication and compassion of these young men and women who serve and put their lives at risk. That was an important objective.

When Fox star Bill O'Reilly interviewed retired generals before the attack on Baghdad, he airily dismissed their caution and told his viewers that the US should go in and 'splatter' the Iraqis.

Interviews with military superhawks were balanced by regular strength hawks. Dissenters were reduced to sound bites at protest rallies and described as 'the usual protestors' or even 'the great unwashed'.

Chillingly, media consulting firm Frank Magid warned: covering War protests may be harmful to a station's bottom line. Another consultant group urged radio stations make listeners, cry, salute, get cold chills! Go for the emotions, air the national anthem at a specified time each day.

Fox News led the way as the military cheerleader apparently giving both the viewers and the politicians what they want. Contra scandal star, Oliver North, reported on the ground for Fox. Bill O'Reilly calls his programme a 'no spin zone' but there's more spin than Shane Warne and Phil Tufnell combined. The channel's proud slogan is Real Journalism, Fair and Balanced, but as columnist Tom Shales put it: 'The only word with any truth in it is 'and'. Even that seems suspect'.

The success of Fox has pushed other stations to the right. MSNBC recently hired Michael Savage whose radio programme Savage Nation makes Fox News look like The Guardian. On radio, Savage's solution to the Middle East conflict, 'We are the good ones and they, the Arabs, are the evil ones. They must be snuffed out from the planet and not in a court of law.'

Above all, there was little or no debate. America's political leaders remained unchallenged. Any lack of patriotism was punished with McCarthyite vigor, even in the television industry, where CBS's Ed Gernon was summarily dismissed for a mild case of expressing his opinion.

Public television was a rare haven for robust questioning and independent reporting, but PBS is relatively marginal to American culture.

Watching BBC World or seeing reporters from ITV, BBC and Sky within network reports or watching CSPAN's coverage of British Parliamentary debates made me - and many Americans - realize just what the world's largest democracy was missing. No wonder viewers for BBC America and BBC website hits rose significantly.

For all the warts on British television, a year in America has taught me just how lucky we are to have not just the BBC, but a range of diversely funded channels with different layers of public service ambitions and obligations.

The lesson from America is that, if news and public affairs are left purely to the market, it will most likely give the government what it wants.

This swamp of political cravenness was a timely reminder of the values and obligations of public television. Its birth marks - independence, universality, diversity of opinion and quality, should be especially visible at times of war.

American commercial television exists simply to move goods or products. Public television exists to move the imagination.

Now, as I return home it looks as if the giants of American media might be following me. I feel I can't escape, I am being stalked by Viacom and Disney.

Of course, the US Federal Communications Commission is an economic regulator with narrower responsibilities than Ofcom. In terms of content, it has gums, but no teeth.

We have to hope that Ofcom who have been busy signing talent faster than Arsene Wenger or Alex Ferguson, make a better fist of regulation than the FCC who have overseen a dramatic reduction in the diversity of ownership in US radio to ill effect and have recently voted to allow media consolidation in television.

In one part of North Dakota, for example, of eight radio stations, six are owned by Clear Channel, America's largest radio owner with 1200 stations.

Defending the independence, quality and range of British television culture against the muscularity of the US media giants is a very tall order for a start-up regulator. Even American media mogul Barry Diller recognizes that media consolidation is not necessarily good for viewers.

In my personal view, it is a careless risk that should never have been contemplated, playing with matches when we don't need to start a fire. American majors will defend their bottom line with all the political influence commercial muscle and legal fire owner they can muster.

If the Government have its way over the next few weeks we have to hope that Ofcom rises to the task and that in ten years time, American television's influence here still represents the distinctiveness of The Simpsons and The Sopranos, not the wasteland that the rest of US television already is.

I will leave the final word to a friend of mine called Bill, who ran a small New England restaurant. He said to me: British Television, now that's a nice piece of cheese. I heard on the radio that our guys might be moving in there. John, for heaven's sake stop it, by the time they finish there'll be no cheese at all.

John Willis appointed BBC Director of Factual & Learning (08.04.03)


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