Wednesday, 30 January 2008

From BBC to BNC: Anthony Lilley Part 3

The good ol' BBC. To an American such as myself--well, let's just say to me--it's a force for good, a provider of quality television and radio programming and the repository of beneficial notions of "Britishness." But to an actual Brit it's something much more complicated. The British Broadcasting Corporation is the 800-pound gorilla in the room during any discussion of the media here.

Which is important to know when considering Anthony Lilley's third lecture last night. (I reviewed his first two lectures here and here.) It was entitled "Network Media as Public Space" and it was an impressive and largely successful attempt to explain why regulators and politicians need to comes to grips with the changes digital developments are bringing, going forward. ("Going forward" is one of those Internet-era phrases, like "long tail" and "space" [as in "social media space" or "search space.")

The forces at work conveniently all begin with the letter C:
Choice: More channels on TV. More pages on the Web.
Context: We can access information and entertainment in more and more places--a mobile phone while walking down the street, a screen in the back seat of a taxi cab.
Control: It's passing from broadcasters to us, "the people formerly known as the audience."
Conversation: We're increasingly sharing media back and forth, be it photos on Flickr or videos on YouTube.
Put this all together and you get the fifth C: Community--bunches of people interested in the same things, able to find each other more easily. We're rooted in our common likes, not only by that old limiter of affinity, geography.

Then Lilley moved to the principle of market failure, explaining that governments only invest in things that the market won't provide. That's the main argument for the BBC: The cultural, social and democratic benefits brought by the BBC wouldn't otherwise come about without the license fee. (Briefly, each household in Britain pays about 140 pounds a year. That money totals close to 4 billion pounds and it is the main budget for the BBC.)

But just as my act of sunning in the nude to provide my body with much-needed Vitamin D can frighten and disgust the neighbors, so too public investment in media can have unintended consequences. It can stifle competition. One can argue that a sober and thoughtful current affairs program broadcast at 9 p.m. on the BBC is important, but why do you need a celebrity ballroom dancing show at 8? Wouldn't the market provide that? Perhaps, goes the counterargument, but it's important to capture the viewers at 8 so that they'll stick around for 9. Besides, if everyone's paying 140 quid, shouldn't they get some value for their money beyond dutiful documentaries about global warming and dead sea turtles?

There are many definitions of what public service broadcasting should do. Lilley offered this one, among others: It should inform, stimulate interest in arts and culture, reflect and strengthen cultural identity, make us aware of different cultures. And it can do that by being of high quality (a heavily subjective area), original, innovative, challenging, engaging and widely available.

And here's where Lilley neatly pivoted and asked the audience to open their minds a bit. Interactive, networked media can do all of the things public service broadcasting demands of itself. Lilley argued that interactive media--computer games, Web sites--are by their nature educational. What's more, we are moving towards a world where there isn't an 8 p.m. dancing show followed by a 9 p.m. current affairs show. There are only shows that you download at your leisure.

In other words: Is the BBC putting its money in the wrong place? Should it be--my words, not his--the British Networking Corporation instead of the British Broadcasting Corporation?

I didn't hear Lilley commit to that notion, per se, and he was a little vague on what a BNC would look like. (More investment in radio; definite investment in educational computer games, especially those the market isn't providing; explore advances in "non-linear comedy.") But I think he's right that the landscape is changing and will change further. The dilemma that the BBC is facing--and The Washington Post, come to think of it--is that we're on one galloping horse and we need to switch to another. But, frankly, our horse has served us well, and making the leap to the other one--blowing up the notion of "broadcasting" and "mainstream"--could go horribly wrong. So we try to do both. Lilley thinks that's a recipe for disaster.

The decisions we have to make aren't easy ones, and in the case of Britain they are political decisions. "We're coming to a moment where that political judgment must be made," he said. (He also said, ruefully: "Our politicians think the media is the newspapers. They aren't thinking about it.")

How do you translate Lilley's ideas into change? I don't know, but I'm glad I'm not the one doing it. Do you risk altering--even perhaps destroying--something that has worked well, in the hopes that it will work even better in the future?

By the way, Lilley didn't use the word "meme" once last night. And he reiterated that he would assemble his last lecture from the blog postings of his readers. If you've always wanted to lecture at Oxford--albeit through the black-clad, bewhiskered person of Anthony Lilley--now's your chance. Go here and make a comment or ask a question. Or just leave a comment on my blog.


Ken Payne said...

Thanks for the debrief. I've now managed to miss the last two of these lectures, but understand them more than the one I went to.

Still, there's a strong whiff of guff about it all, don't you reckon? All those C concepts - I can think of another word starting with C...

But still, on the Beeb he's right - Non linear scheduling argues for a smaller BBC, which is handy, because the government has just cut our funding. but then you risk losing large parts of your audience - the ones that are there through inertia or because they love programmes about traffic cops that you're no longer making.

So you end up as a kind of PBS/NPR on heat - well, that's not such a bad thing to be... I've never bought the argument that we have to have the naff programmes so that plebs and the yoof will eventually grow into astute connoisseurs of Radios 3 and 4.

Anonymous said...

Plebs and yoof and Radio 3 and 4.

The BBC is funded by a hypothecated tax. How much should the people who pay the piper be able to call the tune?

Ken said...

God no - that'd be anarchy! Live stonings and the like every night ... have you ever seen the Running Man? A patronising paternalism is the only way. It's what government does very well with taxes.

As for the plebs/yoof, I said i disagreed with the commonly-held managerial line that we should make stuff for plebs and yoof in order to grow brand loyalty in the hope that they might eventually become renaissance princes and lovers of Newsnight Review.

For me, the Beeb ought to be much smaller and more closely geared to market correction.

mark from alexandria said...

I just don't see where the quality, diversity, or quantity of programs available to the "Great British Public" would be significantly served by the imagined reforms of the Beeb. Look at what has become of the PBS once the politicians started mucking around with it. As has been noted by others, Monty Python would never make it to the air on PBS today. The Beeb, like the Monarchy may seem anachronistic to some, but I believe the UK is better for having them.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

During my years in England I listened to BBC radio every day. I thought it managed to cater to a wide variety of listeners, running the gamut from the elite Three (not so elite any longer, some devotees complained) to the less highbrow Four and the demotic or democratic One, Two, and Five. Its interactive Website "Have Your Say," which invites comment, seems to draw many more Five than Three or even Four listeners. My strong impression is that the listening and viewing audience is quite stratified. That situation is probably unlikely to change soon.

John Kelly said...

I have sort of been with Mark from Alexandria on this: the BBC ain't broke, don't fix it. It may be an odd, cobbled creation, but what a wonderful odd, cobbled creation it is. But I can see now that if you're going to take its mandates seriously--the high-minded way it justifies the license fee--then you have to brainstorm about ways the organization might need to change with the times. It's no use broadcasting great BBC programs if no one watches them. and if the purpose you're meant to be serving--educate, inform, stimulate (yes please!)--is better served via other media, then that needs to be thought about.

John Kelly said...

There was one PS I wanted to add from Lilley's lecture. When he was answering my question about how he would spend 4 billion pounds of feepayers' money on the BBC he made a point of saying "Don't touch news. Don't touch factual." For what it's worth....