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.