This is a blog post about dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction I have felt from programme-makers, commentators and experienced myself as both a researcher and consumer of arts content. Dissatisfaction with the current arts proposition and indeed the BBC and PSB more broadly that I believe can be summed up by the statement ‘it’s not enough’. Now, often this is a phrase used in a quantitative sense in reference to funding and output hours. However, I propose that such rhetoric can often overlook some of the deeper issues and weaknesses at the heart of the BBC’s current arts proposition and indeed PSB more broadly. In this blog post I’m going to briefly outline two primary areas of contention.
Firstly, it’s not enough just to say that arts programming is in itself evidence of the BBC’s distinctiveness.
Perhaps unsurprisingly most of the debate surrounding the future of the BBC during the current charter review period seems to centre on the notion of market failure – that is, does the BBC provide something that the market otherwise wouldn’t. Within this rhetoric the term ‘distinctiveness’ appears quite regularly on both sides. Should the BBC have programmes like Strictly Come Dancing when surely this type of light entertainment is already a staple of commercial broadcasting schedules? Is the BBC broadcasting enough ‘distinctive’ programming to justify its continued public funding?
Within the broader categories of ‘public service genres’, arts output hours and spend is often used as something of a litmus test by policymakers and evidence by the BBC for how well PSB is performing in terms of distinctiveness. But with commercial broadcasters such as Sky Arts now providing ‘public service like content’ (some would even argue to a better extent than the BBC) and the plethora of arts content available online through sites like YouTube, this argument no longer seems to hold sufficient weight.
With pressure from the government and the centre-right conservative press to demonstrate value for money and efficiency, it is also unsurprising that the BBC has increasingly succumbed to the logic of the market in both its rhetoric and output. However, within this context the very public service values that have been the driving force behind some of the BBC’s most distinctive arts programmes have seemingly been eroded.
Short documentaries by the likes of Ken Russell in the early 1960’s were spaces for experimentation, resulting in arguably some of the most ground-breaking pieces of arts television ever produced, most notably Elgar (1962) and The Debussy Film (1965). In the 1970’s and 1980’s Arena films such as My Way (1972) and The Private Life of the Ford Cortina (1982) were radical and innovative, artistic works of cultural significance in their own right.
In comparison, the arts offering today is strikingly formulaic. Although some may argue that the value of such programming lies in introducing new audiences to the arts, the preoccupation with garnering popular appeal through heavily formatted arts series leaves BBC One (and increasing BBC Two) schedules dominated by bland, uninspiring programming. How can it be argued that such programming is proof of distinctiveness?
If there’s any genre that invites risks and creative innovation it’s the arts. Free from requirements to appease advertisers and shareholders, PSB has historically been positioned as the most conducive environment in which to nurture these values. But where is the space for this bold and innovative filmmaking in BBC schedules today? Any claims of distinctiveness in reference to the arts proposition must surely be presupposed by a production and commissioning culture in which experimentation and creativity can thrive.
Secondly, it’s not enough to say that public service provision is merely about making the arts available to people.
Another problem with judging public service commitments through quantitative measures such as output hours is that it often neglects to account for the social and cultural value of the programming being produced (or not, as the case may be). This is really about the public in ‘public service broadcasting’. Who is actually being served and what is the service being offered relative to this.
Although the BBC might claim its primarily responsibility and duty is to the audience there is arguably little evidence of this within the current arts proposition. Indeed many will state that the arts audience is inherently small, and whilst this may be true in comparison to other genres such as drama, it is all the smaller for a lack of provision that reflects and speaks to the real diversity of culture in the UK.
The first issue to highlight here is how narrow the majority of the BBC’s arts coverage is, with much of it centred on a prescribed artistic canon. Where are all the programmes that devote care and attention to the artistic merits of say street art and video games? Or provide an in depth look at the work of contemporary artists such as Theaster Gates and Teresa Margolles? The arts are so diverse, so why isn’t this reflected in the BBC’s output?
Alongside this, those who present these programmes are too often older, white, upper middle class and male. While this remains the case it seems hard to envision a future in which ‘the arts are for everyone’ on the BBC. To truly speak to the UK in all its diversity there needs to be a diverse range of voices doing the talking. Representation is important, and in the arts it seems strikingly absent.
Another major concern in relation to this is arts provision in the nations and regions. The concentration of arts funding in London and Glasgow has resulted in a production ecology in which Wales, Northern Ireland and also northern England are not only invisible on the network but also within their own regional output. In serving all licence fee payers from all parts of the UK, the provision of programming that represents and reflects the diverse art and culture of the nations and regions should be a requirement, not a rare luxury as it is now.
Temple of the Arts or just a façade?
I don’t believe the issues I’ve highlighted in this blog can be solved by increased funding and output hours alone. While I don’t deny the significance of such measures, it’s certainly not the entire story. There are other, arguably more pertinent questions that need asking. Why did the BBC invest in The Big Painting Challenge rather than a weekly arts magazine programme for BBC Wales television? What kind of service does arts broadcasting actually provide for licence fee payers today?
It’s not enough for arts programming to just be there in numbers. It has to be valued and resonate with the public for whom it serves. If not then this self-proclaimed ‘temple of the arts’ risks abandoning its congregation altogether.