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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

A Return to Arts Rationing - Why BBC4 will Fail


By Norman Lebrecht / August 30, 2000

SPRAWLED on the banks of the River Dart, I fell into a deep reverie and dreamt that I heard a BBC director-general proposing a digital TV channel that would be "unashamedly intellectual, serious in intent but unstuffy and contemporary". I woke fearing insanity and rushed for a newspaper, only to discover the terrible truth: it was not me but the BBC that had lost its grip on reality.

BBC4, the new outlet for eggheads and art-lovers, is foredoomed to failure. Much as any attempt to up-dumb the media must be welcomed, this venture is fatally flawed. The BBC's brain strain will fail, not because there are too few viewers with triple-figure IQs - "we know there's a potential audience," swears Greg Dyke - nor because the licence-paying masses will refuse to fund highbrow interests.

In terms of media strategy, the "challenging" channel is spot-on, appealing to an AB1 niche audience and chiming in with the political hymns to education and inclusiveness. The only thing that's wrong with BBC4 is its originating organisation.

Until about a decade ago, the BBC was broadly trusted as a national conduit for culture. It regularly aired the work of leading theatres, orchestras, singers and dancers and, even when such screenings declined, continued to assert an ethereal role as a two-way mirror, revealing the nation to itself.

All that ended in the beady-eyed 1990s, when a new race of Birtians took over the programming console. Those BBC types who clung to Reithian ideals were either forced out or forcibly converted. John Birt is widely blamed for dehumanising the BBC, but he could not have achieved its deculturation without the collaboration of executives who remain on board to serve his successor.

Alan Yentob, often depicted as the custodian of BBC conscience, acquiesced in the TV ghettoisation of culture into Christmas and Prom slots, and the eradication of arts documentation. Mark Thomson, current head of BBC TV, rose without trace through BBC2, achieving no visible reversal of cultural dereliction.

Arts figures accused the BBC of abdicating its responsibilities. "Who do I have to f-ck round here to get a concert on air?" cried the manager of a national orchestra. Privately, Culture Secretary Chris Smith voiced concern that half a billion pounds of public money pumped annually into the arts from tax and Lottery sources was failing to attract new audiences because the BBC had blocked the traditional outlet.

It was high time for the BBC to change tune, but surely too late. Among arts leaders, the BBC is viewed with suspicion verging on contempt. Its credibility vanished years ago, along with all its best producers. The cream of British documentarists, such as Barrie Gavin, Tony Palmer and Christopher Nupen, work happily in Europe with hardly an airing back home.

Turn on French, German, Swiss, Austrian, Swedish or Spanish public television and you will catch the kind of programming that was once ours by right and which Dyke now pledges to restore, albeit at subscription price.

Desperately straining for multi-channel versatility, the BBC now needs the arts more than the arts need the BBC. The arts, meanwhile, have discovered alternative means., an internet arts broadcaster, puts performing organisations directly in touch with audiences. Jeremy Isaacs is about to launch a subscription arts channel. The options are increasing by the month. Whether the BBC should be using public money to compete with fragile commercial ventures is additionally questionable.

But the critical hole in the plan is the time warp in which BBC executive minds are fixed. At the dawn of an era when set-top boxes will enable every viewer to watch what he likes whenever he chooses, Dyke talks of providing "a style of television which you can't find anywhere else". Has he looked abroad? On the web? Beyond the weekend? Everything is about to become universally available, just as the BBC announces a new form of arts rationing.

26 August 2000: [UK News] Dyke unveils £500m BBC investment plan
25 August 2000: [UK News] Dyke scraps Nine O'Clock News on TV

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




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