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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Heard But No Longer Seen

by Norman Lebrecht / May 3, 2000

WHICHEVER way you look at it, and many have given up watching, BBC Television has forsaken serious music. During the 1990s, concerts, opera and music-related programming fell by half. What remains is a clutch of six or eight summer Proms and a few Christmas specials.

Whenever this column reported the decline, BBC executives demanded the right of denial, maintaining that any apparent reduction was but a temporary adjustment. Now the retreat is complete. The BBC director general, Greg Dyke, has relieved television of its responsibilities for classical music. The commissioning of TV programmes and management of BBC orchestras will centre on Radio 3 and be ruled by Jenny Abramsky, controller of the senior service, radio.

There is much to be said for the move, and some good may come of it. However, given the inter-service rivalry and the sheer brass required to put music on TV, it seems a bit like scrapping the RAF's nuclear option and ordering the Royal Navy to bomb Moscow.

Still, let's look on the bright side. In the first place, Roger Wright's recharged Radio 3 has as much chance as the wilting BBC2 of catching Dyke's ear, the more so since Abramsky is one of the few serving BBC bosses who has been known to place principle above career advantage. Neither Wright nor Abramsky can break into the television schedules, but Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, expects the BBC to reflect national artistic activity; and, with new broadcast laws in the offing, his is not a murmur to be ignored.

Secondly, the savings will be considerable. The BBC, at a conservative estimate, has been spending £250,000 a year to keep up appearances. In addition to the salaries of a Head of Classical Music and staff, there were all those Covent Garden, ENO, South Bank and Glyndebourne tickets that the BBC had to buy at full price (or receive at public expense) only to produce paper mountains justifying the disappearance of music from television.

Those like the Barbican director John Tusa, who yearn for a return to the glory nights of serious documentaries and live concert relays, may need to retune their mind-sets.

Terrestrial television will never again project minority interests at prime time with the Utopian aim of educating the masses. There is neither the will nor the public tolerance for cultural force-feeding.

The future of broadcast music lies elsewhere - on radio, as Dyke has realised; on the internet, where it expands weekly; and possibly in the growing satellite market, where Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the Channel 4 founder and former Covent Garden chief, has plotted his next move. Isaacs last week unveiled Artworld, an all-singing, dancing, movie-reeling channel that will run on Sky Digital later this year.

Isaacs, at 68, has the energy and faith to give television one last shot. A survivor of the generation that believed that television would democratise society and equalise opportunity, Isaacs has been forced to admit that its doors are now slammed shut to enlightenment. When ITV can push its nightly news past the witching hour and the BBC lets current affairs witter into trivia, any mention of "mission" and "explain" would only mystify the ratings-rotted focus groupies who run the earthbound channels.

So Isaacs has accepted the shelter and shilling of Rupert Murdoch, who has done more than any mogul to degrade the public agenda over the past quarter-century. Murdoch has shown no sign of caring for arts in the past. What he has spotted is the threat from the net, with its infinity of "niches" catering to every human interest.

The man who masters the niches will control e-media. Murdoch needs culture not because he loves it but because he cannot afford to let it slip. "Sky's remit to provide a digital vision for everyone is now highly relevant for the arts community as terrestrial TV moves away from specialist towards more populist programming," says his daughter, Elisabeth, the BSkyB boss. Suddenly, like so many dotcoms, classical music is being rated not as a burdensome loss-maker but as a vital asset.

Where was the BBC when they were mopping up the niches? The aim of BBC Digital was to embrace minority broadcasting, but while BBC planners wallowed in thinktanks, e-wizards and entrepreneurs were stealing their clothes. Classical music used to be the pride of BBC Television. Now, after a decade of dereliction, it has been decisively moved out.



Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999