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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Digital dos and don'ts

By Norman Lebrecht / September 5, 2001

DEAR Tessa,

Is that the time? You will by now have found that, in the diverse worlds of culture, media and sport, it is always the eleventh hour and someone is banging on your door demanding a decision.

Well just this once, let them wait. You are about to allocate two new digital television channels and five radio slots next week, and all the indications are that you will give the lot to the BBC.

Apart from predictable whingeings from the Murdoch machine and the Robinson Greens of commercial TV, you will have encountered little resistance from party or press interests, most of which regard Greg Dyke's BBC as a household pet, harmless and easily brought to heel. Do not be deluded by the consensus. This is the wrong decision - wrong in principle, wrong in practice, wrongest of all in timing.

There are two compelling reasons for suspending the allocation of new channels for the time being. The first is the cardinal principle of good governance: that public authorities should not intrude into commercial areas that are being healthily developed by private enterprise.

Both new TV channels are niche-orientated. The proposed BBC3 will aim at under-35s and BBC4 at the kind of people who listen to Radios 3 and 4 and say they rarely watch telly "because there's nothing on".

Neither you nor I can vouch for what under-35s get up to on their sofas, but their media needs appear to be reasonably well served by the likes of MTV, Sky1, Rapture, Bravo, The Box and terrestrial Channel 5 with a range of libido, pop music and lifestyle viewing. Why let the BBC invade this crowded pool just as recession is starting to bite both advertising and subscription levels?

Cultural TV is even more vulnerable to public intrusion. Aside from the free-view Performance channel, which plays dump-bin videos on cable packages, a clutch of new players have been struggling to get up to speed.

Artsworld, headed by the rumbustious former Covent Garden chief Sir Jeremy Isaacs, runs 10 hours nightly of top opera, ballet and theatrical work, mixed with bought-in documentaries. Carried on Murdoch's Sky, it needs 100,000 subscribers to make a profit and is some digits short of the mark.

Slightly more robust is Digital Classics, also on Sky. Digital Classics makes its own programming with stars such as Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu and recoups costs by selling rights to terrestrial stations while revving up its network.

There are two other cultural players on the virtual scene -, which plays music and jazz, and, which wants to be the web-home for premier orchestras. Most of these start-ups would be jeopardised by BBC competition.

You are, I know, sensitive to their position. One of your first executive acts was to ice your predecessor's £150 million culture-online plan, which would have conflicted with all those perky dotcoms that tell you what to do, where to go and how to get the cheapest tickets. The grounds for caution here are much the same.

Then there is the practical case against entrusting the BBC with cultural treasures. Over the past decade, as you well know, BBC-TV has all but eradicated live concerts, opera, ballet and theatre from its output. Now it wants them back, but in a segregated ghetto.

Those who know the corporation from the inside fear that it has neither the will, nor the know-how, nor the resources to resume cultural broadcasting. Most of its senior executives are frankly philistine, its middle management impotent. Week after week for the past 10 years, they have turned down award-winning performances and bio-docs. They cannot break that habit overnight.

BBC4 has been given a launch budget of £26 million, less than half the outlay for the under-35 channel. It may seem enough to start with for six hours a night but, once you deduct the cost of foreign films and the fathomless fetish with news - who needs news in the temple of art? - all that will be left for live performance is an internally estimated £4 million. You do not get many nights to remember for £4 million.

The bid for BBC4 seems more gestural than substantial, an early shot in the next charter renewal talks. We could get a better deal by importing the Franco-German ARTE channel.

Before the BBC is granted a cultural channel, it needs to show some bona fides. Let Jane Root eat her words and expose BBC2 audiences to the Halle Orchestra and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Let's see Greg Dyke more often at the ballet. Let's see the new chairman, whomever you appoint, make culture of every kind - Keats to qawwali - a corporate priority.

There is no reason why you cannot put the new licences on hold for a year or two. Better, surely, to ride out the recession and then see if the BBC is credible and capable of adding value to the growing map of cultural output on television, radio and the internet.

Take your time, Tessa. Time is on your side.

With best wishes,


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




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