closing the broomcupboard

Tell that aardvark it’s a wrap…

As part of the BBC’s race to the bottom, following the Coalition’s six-year Licence Fee freeze, there was a glut of announcements made yesterday which saw knives slashed across Auntie’s output (or if you wish to be more brutal, Auntie’s face. Her loyal, service providing face).

From BBC 3 and 4 goes much of their original drama and BBC 2 sees repeats increase. Whether BBC 3 had any to begin with is a point for another thread, perhaps, although even my pro-BBC stance tends to waver a bit in the face of the channel which gives us “Snog Marry Avoid” and “Nympho Gyppos in Changing Room Hell”.

The bigger and biggest headlines of the day came in the gush of nostalgia from journos rushing to pay tribute to ‘Blue Peter’, following the confirmation that the programme would be switched from BBC 1 to CBBC. Former presenters came to bash the decision as anti-family. In addition to the demise of ‘Blue Peter’, flagship news package ‘Newsround’ is also on its way to the digital platforms, leaving the traditional post-school, pre-homework slot (or as it was known in my house, post-school, pre-SNES-all-night-homework-later) to the likes of “Great Antique Hunt”, “Great British Menu” and “Great Big Country Homes Bought by Great Big Comfortable Families with Great Big Marriage Problems We Can Only Hint Towards in the Voice-Overs”. The switch from BBC “mainstream” to “digital” was reported in very traditional terms, a kind of “analogue is best” attitude which no longer fits very well in an era when almost all British television regions no longer have analogue signals. If there was anything about the coverage which stank a bit, it was the whiff of anti-BBC pong that often seeps through any news story like this. Oh, the media says, and usually the Daily Mail for all that may surprise you, another nail in the coffin of traditional Britain!

It’s worth taking a much wider view on this. In common with most people racing towards middle age, I remember a time when “children’s television was much better than today.” We all do. Our parents remembered their television upbringing, limited as it was, having much less glitz, glamour and miming pop performances as our generation did, and the current generation are unlikely to consider “Going Live!”, “The Raccoons” or “Byker Grove” as examples of a better age. However, and I say this as an unashamed 90s nostalgist, there is a case to be made against holding on to a dedicated late-afternoon children’s television slot and all which comes connected with it. As much as it hurts every generation to admit it, society does tend to move on when you’re just in a position to consider it a scandal when it does so. Each generation has its “Oh, no, they’re not!” moment.  For some, it was the axing of “Top of the Pops”, for others “Pick of the Pops”, and for this generation, it’s…..

….Actually, that’s a point. What has been axed? Is ‘Grange Hill’ still going?

Former ‘Blue Peter’ presenter Anthea Turner is quoted in the Daily Mail as thinly criticising the move from presenters you could name to complete unknowns. The age I grew up in saw the golden age of the show – from Mark Curry and Yvette Fielding in the 80s through to Konnie Huq and Simon Thomas as I got to the end of high school. As nice as they might be in real life, I suspect the modern day presenters were stymied by the shift to multi-channel television, changes in attitude towards children’s television output, and a sudden lack of wider opportunities for cross-over/intra-channel appearances.  In short, most 21st century presenters of the show were their own Romana D’Annunzio’s, cursed to live their television existences as unknowns, curiosities on the sea of broadcasting history.

There are parts of my television upbringing which I would bring back to the screens had I the power: Saturday mornings should have the “Live & Kicking”s and “ITV Chart Show”s which were inexplicably lost to cookery shows around the time of the first digital switchovers. There point where practicality tips over to nostalgia is the dividing line where “entertaining” should always be  chosen over “instructing how to make restaurant style food to people holding hangovers in one hand and Coco Pops in the other.”

The BBC must be applauded for trying to save money under very testing circumstances. They’ve been forced to make cutbacks in the usual storm of criticism. The Morning Star calls the BBC “right-wing”, the Daily Telegraph calls the BBC “right-wing”, we all go round the mulberry bush. We’d all like to preserve our favoured bits of history in aspic – be it school days, holidays or the theme to “Going For Gold”. The Beeb is probably right, on balance, to shunt kids TV over to digital now that the platform is not so much of a graveyard anymore. Nobody likes to admit that they’re getting older, things were better in the old days, and songs used to have tunes in my day, don’t you know? There’s a greater problem with the BBC’s current list of announcements – shrinking BBC 4, hacking BBC radio to little pieces and neglecting original drama across all its channels. Let’s get into a rage for all the right reasons.

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The BBC is in a financial bind. Since the election in 2010, the licence fee has been frozen (effectively cut) and both Welsh network Sianel 4 Cymru and the World Service has been brought under its funding responsibilities. Less money, stretched so far, means serious consequences. We almost lost 6Music, and they’ve only gone and axed Something For The Weekend.

Critics of the Beeb always trot out the line “What about showing adverts or go subscription?”, the former of which is now to become a reality. If all goes to plan, the BBC is to broadcast adverts on BBC World Service programmes for the first time.

Auntie’s neutrality means last night’s coverage of this news was as measured as it could be. The phrase “thin end of the wedge” was used only in quotation. There’s probably plenty within the Corporation who think exactly that. Adverts on the BBC? Well, there’s a path now taken and there’s the destination and doesn’t it look NICE? All warm and fluffy and neon lit with advertising types raising their glasses and beckoning us all inside.

The World Service is the most iconic of all the networks prefixed with the letters ‘BBC’. Its legacy is stunning – getting news to places where it was otherwise filtered through genuinely bias sources, if indeed the news ever got to people at all. Famously, Mikhail Gorbachev heard of the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union through the Russian language World Service broadcasts.

The BBC is required to source £3m funding from commercial activities by 2014. Adverts can only be the start – and pessimists are meeting with realists to paint what that must mean for the television channels we take pretty much for granted today. Unlike its other radio networks, the World Service is not merely news and opinion; for millions of people, it’s the voice of reason, neutrality and wisdom they are denied at home. It is often the only credible news source they can access all day. Adverts may be necessary because of the new funding rules – but the consequences can only be damaging. The inclusion of commercial messages between BBC programming was always the ‘scare story’ used to shore up support for the licence fee; the scare story is now coming true.

If you’re angry about the inclusion of adverts on the World Service (which isn’t funded by the licence fee, or at least not yet), step away from the Daily Mail website. Its commentators have rubbed themselves to an awkward, disappointing orgasm over this story – “The arrogance of the Bunch of Boring Creeps….” groans one. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s tired of paying for left wing biased programming I neither watch or agree with.” faps another. “It’s about time these Socialist parasites funded their own programming.” tugs away one more.  Good old Daily Mail – for whom ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ should be a secondary by-line. Wait until it /has/ gone, DM faithful, you’ll be left with Channel 4 and product placement during the Archers (now broadcast on Virgin Nostalgia).

The “thin end of the wedge” will weaken, compromise and ultimately kill off most of what makes the BBC World Service so important and crucial as a provider of news. Successful adverts will promote the Government to force the Beeb to add commercials onto national television; and with it goes the licence fee and ultimately everything commercial companies would not dare risk paying for. Goodbye to BBC Four, 6Music, the archives of plays and interviews and live music. The World Service was a beacon – it should not be allowed to transform into a billboard.

All that glistens

The BBC has been on the wrong side of soap opera publicity this month (only one week in), with mass-appeal programmes attracting the wrong kind of focus and commentary. The soap suds were well and truly whipped with perennial gloom half hour Eastenders, with its cot-death storyline curtailed following 6,000 complaints about the additional narrative element involving a ‘baby swap’ and mental instability.

Across on Radio 4, where listeners are often less likely to take to the complaints forms and Basildon Bonds unless it is absolutely necessary, the ‘everyday tales of rural folk’ took a leftfield (see what I did there, geddit, etc) turn with the death of Nigel Pargetter. Former Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer coined the phrase “Shock Armitage to the Core”, inevitably reduced to the Twitter hahstag “sattc”, to describe the storyline which was kept under wraps (unusually for a soap opera) until the moment it happened. When it did happen, all the usual soap opera tropes were there – I listened waiting for someone to say “Please, Nigel, don’t go onto the slippy, icy roof at night in a storm, for you might fall off”, and I wasn’t that disappointed…

Both these examples show the attraction of, and problems with, soap operas as mass-market audience magnets. That Eastenders has felt the need to run with a cot-death storyline for prime-time television is a topic for another debate; that they chose to include a baby-swap element indicates part desperation (like it or not, the Beeb has to participate in the ratings war) and part acknowledgement of the hyper-reality of soap storylines (real life is never as interesting for those who don’t live in a street or square with weekly murders, affairs and morality price-wars).

The Eastenders storyline is now being wound up faster and sooner than originally intended The ‘power of the ‘net’ didn’t quite force the producers hand, though interestingly it was the founder of Mumsnet who led the charge against the BBC with claims of inappropriate sensationalism. How many television programmes have now been subjected to social media users running campaigns and groups for or against specific elements of output? Should producers be concerned by this viewer power revolution? I am reminded of Mark Gatiss’ remark about live-tweeting during television programmes; it’s best not to watch what viewers are saying in real time to broadcast, it’d drive a writer mad.

So is this just ‘Points of View gone feral’? Certainly it seems that way for Radio 4 and The Archers, where the death of Nigel has been called ‘an anti-climax’ after weeks of publicity and heavy hints in newspapers (though Twitter and Facebook did play a part in whipping up suggestions for what exactly would cause Ambridge to shake to its core, running from a gun rampage to a character turning on the radio, hearing the Archers themetune and causing a time-vortex across central Cambridgeshire).

Soaps are very rarely failures for channels with the time and investment to keep them high profile. When Channel 5 launched, they did so with a soap (“Family Affairs”) and when that soap began to falter, killed off the main family for an effective relaunch. ITV capitalised on kitch being cool with relaunched (and dream sequenced) Crossroads. For the BBC, Eastenders and Archers are testament to quality and patience, loyalty and treating audiences with as much respect as possible. Why these recent surges in criticism matter is because the last point has not been upheld, like a contract not being respected.

For the Beeb, shaky confidence in soaps matters. These two incidents should recall, however briefly, the one instance of Auntie getting it completely wrong, the launch and plane-into-mountain collapse of Eldorado in 1993.

This ‘sun, sea and scandal’ soap (opening credits somewhat truncated here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmUpuMcQlUU) bumped Wogan off the schedules and was promoted across the BBC as the best soap launch since Eastenders in 1985. To cut costs (it was filmed entirely on location), producers used untried actors and simplistic filming techniques. The results were disastrous. It would close its doors in 1994, a million or plenty thrown away, leaving the Corporation red-faced through shame rather than sun-tan.

Notable elements of the Eldorado disaster are legendary. The international cast had many who could not speak fluent English, so were given entire scenes (often 3 or 4 minutes long) of dialogue in their native tongue without subtitles. To help viewers in the UK understand what was going on, contrived scenes appeared later on with laden dialogue (“So, Swedish girl, you are having problems with your partner, maybe you should tell me all about it before your next Swedish-language scene with him?”

What is still known as the ‘Eldorado effect’ hampered production. If you want to know what a swimming pool sounds like through a boom mic, watch old episodes, as the lapping water would be louder than the actor’s voice. Filming in bare villas, not studios, meant echoing footsteps and laughter sounded unusually flat, or lifeless.

Ultimately, the programme finished because viewers did not feel engrossed in the lives of the ‘everyday folk’ soaps need for success. Ex-pats living abroad, shacking up with 17-year old girls or having a bemused Spanish speaking waitress as a live-in lover at your exclusive villa, did not give the mid-90s soap audience (generally those suffering from the recession) much attraction to tune-in.

Pre-internet campaign groups, all pro-Eldorado viewers could do was demonstrate outside Television Centre demanding Alan Yentob’s head on a stick. There was little sympathy.

For Eastenders today, the cot-death storyline will bruise the brand but not hoik the show off the screens anytime soon. The BBC has forgotten about the core audience now being joined by a multitude of on-line keyboard warriors ready for action whenever outrage is afoot. Eldorado was badly written, terribly acted and too well-meaning to be saved. But nothing is too big to fail, as we are learning to our costs. It’s only television, granted. If it’s not scaring too many horses (unless it’s supposed to, like the Archers or Emmerdale), just switch off…