Most television critics write as if it’s business as usual. It really is not. The crisis in public service broadcasting (PSB) is deepening. ITV is shaking off its obligation to show arts, religious and current affairs programmes. Channel 4’s audience share has fallen below 10 per cent for the first time in 12 years, putting it under enormous pressure to go further downmarket. But the big crisis is at the BBC, which is using the little-watched BBC4 as a dumping ground for minority programmes, and which cannot be trusted to reform itself. This leaves only two possible saviours for PSB.
The first is Melvyn Bragg’s radical proposal that television licence money should be allocated to public service programmes on any channel rather than just handed to the BBC. The second saviour, and potentially the most exciting development in British broadcasting policy since the Annan report (which created Channel 4), is Ofcom. The early signs are not only that Ofcom might link renewal of the BBC’s charter to a real commitment to PSB, but that it is prepared to nail down clear definitions of what PSB actually means. Defining PSB as a handful of programme categories – science, history, arts, religion, current affairs and so on – leaves too many loopholes.
In November, Ofcom began its full year-long review of public service broadcasting. One of its central tasks is to spell out when such programmes should be available and on which channels. It is not enough to have Panorama and the Ten O’Clock News clinging to the edges of prime time, or for arts programmes to be banished to BBC4, or for an Arena documentary to go out at 11.45pm on a weekday night, as it did in December. PSB programmes should be available to a large number of licence-payers, on the two main television networks, before 10.30pm.
Furthermore, a minimum number of hours per week should be stipulated for PSB programmes, and these should be made available all through the year. On 25th October, BBC2’s controller Jane Root wrote to the Guardian about her "commitment to arts coverage." That week, BBC2 showed two arts programmes: The Big Read and a documentary about Kathleen Ferrier, first shown on BBC4, and repeated at 11.20pm on a Monday night. This was not unusual.
The hardest task for Ofcom will be to define the content of PSB. A number of simple keywords might be helpful here. First, diversity. Horizon has been a great science strand over almost 40 years largely because of its variety of formats – as well as standard documentaries, programmes such as "Hospital 1922," which recreated the world of a London hospital 50 years earlier, with the parts taken by real patients, nurses and doctors; Jonathan Miller and Patrick Uden’s documentary, "Ivan," exploring Parkinson’s disease through the experience of one sufferer; and "Life Story," a drama based on the race to discover the structure of DNA. Or take Monitor, the BBC’s arts strand from the early 1960s, which included films on Elgar, Giacometti and pop art; opinionated pieces by critics like John Berger and Susan Sontag, as well as more filmic pieces by directors such as Ken Russell and John Schlesinger. Diversity of formats and voices must be protected.
Secondly, margins. We need to move from a television culture obsessed with celebrity and sameness to a BBC that produces more programmes which are challenging and complex. In the last few months, the South Bank Show has produced documentaries on Camus and the musical collaboration of Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. BBC2 has produced nothing comparable recently, though such programmes were routine in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Closely related to this is the right to cause offence. I don’t mean risqu? chat with Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton. I am thinking instead of programmes which touch a political or cultural nerve, like EP Thompson’s cancelled BBC Dimbleby lecture on the cold war, promptly picked up by the new Channel 4. Or Howard Jacobson’s Channel 4 polemic, Sorry, Judas, about antisemitism. I wouldn’t defend Robert Kilroy-Silk’s recent remarks, but what is the chance now that the BBC might screen a serious polemic against Arab politics?
Another keyword is ambition. Think of the ambition behind huge series like The Forsyte Saga or The Great War, both of which ran weekly for six months, or Alan Yentob’s support for an almost nightly arts programme, The Late Show. Or of the burst of ambition in the mid-1960s which produced long-running series like Horizon, Tomorrow’s World, The Money Programme, The World About Us, Playschool and Jackanory.
Finally, independence. This means freeing programme-makers from the Dilbert world of BBC middle management. A recent documentary on BBC1 had to be approved by four different executives before it could be transmitted, even though the producer had been making programmes for 20 years.
Without these priorities, PSB will not be worth having. Ofcom must not settle for good intentions. It must have the intellectual rigour to think through the detail. If it succeeds the effects will revolutionise British broadcasting for years to come. If Ofcom fails, there is no way back.