Speech given at the Royal Television Society at Bafta
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.
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.
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.
answer to the name, Roland.
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.
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.
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.
society, politics and culture, the differences are less superficial
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.
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"?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
are all recycled through secondary syndication channels so that you
are never far from an old episode of Friends, or, indeed, Sergant Bilko.
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
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
we assume that American production values are as superior as the British
cheerleaders of American television claim.
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.
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.
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.
and diverse democracy in which only 16 per cent of Americans hold passports,
no nation needs independent and impartial media more than the USA.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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'.
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.'
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.
television was a rare haven for robust questioning and independent reporting,
but PBS is relatively marginal to American culture.
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
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
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.
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
commercial television exists simply to move goods or products. Public
television exists to move the imagination.
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.
the US Federal Communications Commission is an economic regulator with
narrower responsibilities than Ofcom. In terms of content, it has gums,
but no teeth.
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
part of North Dakota, for example, of eight radio stations, six are
owned by Clear Channel, America's largest radio owner with 1200 stations.
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.
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
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.
Willis appointed BBC Director of Factual & Learning (08.04.03)