JOHN McGURK NOVEMBER 8 2016
Instead of trying to be all things to all men (and women) and failing, it’s about time the BBC woke up to the reality of 21st century broadcasting and worked out exactly what its purpose is.
The question arises with even greater prominence as the corporation last week celebrated the 80th birthday of it’s television service.
This coincided with the launch of what has been billed as the TV drama event of the year made not by the corporation, but by the American subscription service Netflix and which is due to run for 60 episodes.
The Crown — a warts and all biography of the Royal Family from 1947 until the present day— is said to be the most lavish and expensive television series ever produced and so far has cost £100 million for just 20 of those episodes.
It’s the kind of historic and compelling drama, made in Britain, which used to have audiences glued to the box on Sunday nights. It tells the story of the death of King George VI and the succession of the young Princess Elizabeth and her new husband Prince Philip.
The frailty of The King; the naivety of the Princess, the resentment of The Queen Mother; the hedonistic lifestyle of the Prince; the carefree attitude of Princess Margaret and the doddering foolishness of Winston Churchill are all gloriously exposed.
But only a measly five million UK viewers are likely to be following it, around a third of the audience for The Great British Bake Off and less than 25% of the households reached by the BBC, which means that The Crown is being watched by a minority of domestic TV viewers which is a great pity.
The BBC, of course, could never have afforded such extravagance from the licence fee, particularly when the cost of replicating The Queen’s wedding dress alone was some £50,000 while another 30 second scene involving the royal train apparently ran up a bill of £200,000.
Surely the reason is because of the BBC’s current commitments across the great many outlets it services involving two TV channels, five national radio stations, the world service and a plethora of local TV and radio stations scattered across the nation in a complex broadcasting network full of duplication and inefficiency.
Isn’t it about time the BBC decided what its priorities are if it really wants to compete in the digital age against such global competition?
In fact, the question isn’t just about competitiveness, it’s about survival.
Unless the corporation starts to concentrate on what it can do best, instead of trying to please everyone, then it’s very likely to be left behind as audiences turn to other TV providers who seem to be much better at exploiting the technology and winning global audiences.
What those upstarts Netflix and AmazonPrime can also satisfy is the television binge-watcher by providing a whole series in one sitting. Those who quickly get hooked on a show don’t have the frustration of waiting another week to see the next episode.
While this may not exactly be the healthiest way to consume television, it does appear to be the modern way and, whether we like it or not, watching a complete series in a couple of sittings is what folk now want to do.
Alas, this is not something which the BBC currently offers but it is going to have to start doing so very soon.
Netflix in particular has pioneered ground breaking television with examples such as Breaking Bad or House of Cards terrific shows which BBC licence-payers who don’t stray far from terrestrial channels will have little idea about.
These shows have arguably been the most watchable television dramas ever which the BBC, once the home of television drama, can now only dream about.
The corporation has had to give up successful offerings such as The Voice and The Great British Bake Off, and has lost a great many sporting rights, because it cannot match commercial rivals.
The BBC makes great play of the value for money viewers achieve from the £145.50 annual licence fee but if it wants this arrangement to continue, it’s going to need radical change and new thinking.
Sure, this year’s big budget series Wolf Hall and War and Peace were both excellent but there’s a great deal of drongo TV as well.
Maybe the BBC should start its new thinking by getting rid of that nightly programme which struggles to feed the brains of the nation…the One Show.