While we do not know yet who will win the May election, it is already clear that among the biggest losers will surely be the BBC. Whatever government we have, it is certain that the BBC will be mangled and probably dismembered. When a disease-carrying rat like Jeremy Clarkson abandons the Good Ship BBC (and please do not tell me that the “fracas” was anything but a stage-managed exit strategy), it is clear that we are in a Titanic and iceberg moment.
The usual apologia for the BBC is argued in the rhetoric of “Public Service Broadcasting”. But PSB is and always has been a ruling class lie. The BBC is a mouthpiece for the interests of the rich and powerful. It is only “objective” when it doesn’t matter. When it does matter to the ruling class the BBC reverts to its founding principles of Propaganda, Sycophancy and Bullshit.
So defending the BBC in the name of an unbiased media is pure fantasy politics — like taking sides in the Game of Thrones or sending Christmas cards to the cast of EastEnders.
But there is a different reason to defend the BBC — because the alternative is an endless flow of Rubbish Television (often featuring Davina McCall). This is the key point argued in Brett Martin’s interesting (if gossipy) book, Difficult Men. Martin looks at what he calls the “creative revolution” in American TV — a revolution which has produced some of the finest TV ever made, from The Sopranos to Mad Men and from Breaking Bad to the greatest of all, The Wire.
Most of these shows were made by HBO, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Time Warner, one of global media’s uber-conglomerates. So we are not talking socialist TV here, or anything like it. But what made HBO different was that, like the BBC channels, it wasn’t trying to sell us stuff through advertising.
HBO is a subscription channel and that means it is free from having to chase the big ratings and “demographics” that advertisers crave.
As Martin puts it, financing TV through advertising “meant rejecting anything that threatened too directly the warm feelings and the consumerist status quo that viewers would carry over into the commercial break”.
Martin goes on, “For the majority of its existence…television was an artistic dead zone… The very term ‘quality television’ used by academics to denote anything that rose above brain-dead muck betrayed the lowest of expectations.” And market-driven TV is never shy of stooping to the very lowest of expectations, producing what Martin calls a “deep-sea dive towards the lowest common denominator”.
All HBO series were pitched to all of the major US networks and all were rejected out of hand. In a world in which television is principally designed to sell hair products and frozen pizzas, David Chase was told time and again that his idea for The Sopranos was too complex, too dark, too unsettling and too un-American. Martin recounts a clash between Chase and a TV honcho on the subject of turning TV into “art” which ended with the words, “You’re here for two things — to sell Buicks and for making Americans feel cozy. That’s your job.”
That is the rubbish TV that the market produces. And that is what the creative revolution challenged. This was TV that was much more thought-provoking and intelligent. Martin writes that “this new generation of shows would feature stories far more complicated and ambiguous than anything that television, always concerned with pleasing the widest possible audience and group of advertisers, had ever seen.”
Watching Walter and Jesse in Breaking Bad was anything but “cozy” viewing and it certainly didn’t cook up any “warm feelings”.
All of the leading characters were “difficult men” and they all subverted both TV’s idea of heroism and the vacuity of the American Dream (unless Gus Fring is your idea of a self-made man). Only The Wire was driven by a seriously left wing agenda, but all these series were subtly political in their critique of society. And that was only possible because TV had been freed from the “artistic dead zone” of selling us stuff through adverts.
Today the BBC is in the hands of a cabal of tax-avoiding bankers and political zombies with the artistic talent of a toilet brush. But just occasionally it provides a space where incorrigible lefties like Peter Kosminsky and Mark Rylance can produce something with the finesse of Wolf Hall. So for all its (many) faults maybe the BBC is worth defending. Unless, of course, you’re a fan of Davina McCall.