Why Can’t Britain Make the Wire

In last Sunday’s Observer  I looked at the collapse in standards in British TV drama. Why it is that a generation ago, intelligent Americans desperate for grown-up entertainment would turn to British series on Masterpiece Theatre,and now their British counterparts watch American shows? My explanation was that British television executives did not see themselves as failures. On the contrary, and from their point of view quite fairly, they boasted that they were still worldbeaters at producing successful formulas. Unfortunately their formulaic successes were downmarket quiz shows and talent competitions.

 ”However tempting it is to heap blame on men like Piers Morgan,” I concluded,”they are minor figures. Morgan may waste his life planting wet kisses on the buttocks of the famous, and his diaries may be one of the most embarrassing chronicles of obsequiousness ever published, but most celebrities won’t appear with interviewers who challenge them and every station needs its creep.

The real trouble lies not with audiences or presenters, but in the delusions of today’s television executives. They do not see themselves as inadequates presiding over an era of artistic failure. They think they are successes – and by their own lights they are. Earlier this year, BBC2 produced a documentary on globalisation, which showed that British television was still conquering the world; not with dramas but quiz, talent and reality TV shows, whose formats local stations could buy and adapt to produce, for instance, an Albanian version of Strictly Come Dancing, a Norwegian Wife Swap or an Australian Top Gear or, and most lucratively, an American version of Pop Idol. By 2010, the BBC estimated, British TV had only 5% of the global audience but was producing half the world’s top formats.

Quiz and talent shows have always been a part of television. But whereas once we imported them as schedule-fillers from America and exported expensive dramas, now we export British dross and import American quality because globalisation has made the rewards for successful formats so great. If an independent producer comes up with a winning idea, he can dream of becoming as rich as Simon Cowell. No drama will make him as much money.”

Peter Jukes, a TV writer, contacted me and pointed me in the direction of a piece he had written in Prospect  in which he examined the same question from a different angle. He wrote about the extraordinary power of the BBC’s controller of drama commissioning. Put simply, the BBC is the major producer of drama. Because of its purchaser/supplier split, the controller of drama commissioning rather than channel controllers commissions shows and then “sells” them to BBC 1, BBC2, BBC3 etc.

   As Jukes explains,

  Although America dominated postwar television drama from Bonanza to Dallas and Dynasty, Britain had a healthy export trade. Till Death us Do Part was transformed into All in the Family, and Monty Python changed US comedy. But our most important impact was not in quantity but quality. Epic historical series such as Jewel in the Crown or experimental melodramas such as Pennies from Heaven set a benchmark for US writers and producers.

But something has happened in the last ten to 15 years. In 1994, I wrote a tribute to Dennis Potter in the New Statesman about the decline of the single authored play on British television. The most obvious cause of this decline was the concentration of commissioning into a few hands. Despite the growth of the independent sector, just four men decided what millions would watch. The difference between 1994 and 2008 is startling. Instead of being the responsibility of four network controllers, most drama is now commissioned by one person.

That person is Ben Stephenson, BBC controller of drama commissioning. He has faced mounting criticism since last year, when he made ill-advised remarks about a “limited pool of talent” for television drama. First to speak out was the former head of drama in Northern Ireland, Robert Cooper, who said that the BBC’s £228m drama budget constitutes a “near monopoly.” A few months later producer Tony Garnett, whose 50-year track record includes launching the careers of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, accused the BBC of being a cause of its decline, having “hired McKinsey and ended up a McDonald’s.”

But everyone missed the glaring issue: why are these questions being addressed to only one person? In 1994, I worried about the cultural power of four network controllers. Now you can forget Channel 4 and BBC2: they can make decent one-offs, such as Red Riding and Freefall this year, but both have basically dropped out of adult dramas. ITV has fared no better. In the 1990s the powerful baronies of Granada, Yorkshire TV, LWT and Thames had some autonomy. But their amalgamation into one corporation, followed by a catastrophic fall in advertising revenue, has turned ITV drama into a shadow of its former self. Whatever your view of public service broadcasting (and I support it) the near-monopoly of the BBC in drama commissioning is disastrous.

 

Do read the whole thing, the scene when some clueless BBC bureaucrat explains that drama should have no mystery is particularly gruesome.

The people in charge of television need to accept three things.

1.   There is a problem and they are failing to do their job.

2.   The internal market system is producing monopolistic power, which needs to be broken if British television is to do its job.

3.   It is not lack of talent which is holding Britain back but the structure of the television industry.

 

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