Tony Fyler goes in search of common sense. This bodes well…
Question: What does it matter, in this click-now, merchandised, bite-sized world we live in, who makes your favourite bit of geekery?
I’m asking because a fellow contributor here recently brought up a fascinating issue. Sesame Street – which proudly proclaimed to a world of kids that they should ‘Come and play,’ cos ‘Everything’s A-OK,’ has been essentially bought out. The Children’s Television Workshop show, which has historically been shown on that bastion of broadcasting Communism that is PBS in the US (that’s the Public Broadcasting System), has been scooped up for a hefty bag of swag by HBO.
Now HBO is not the broadcasting AntiChrist – far from it (that would be Fox you’re thinking of) – but the move itself is instinctively worrying, because the product is a well-loved and long-trusted show aimed at the youngest consumers out there – children – and it’s been shifted from a public broadcaster to a private, profit-driven-one, for a hefty fee. Does it, when it’s shown on a for-profit network, retain the same trust?
Arguably, it should – if you have a product that lives or dies on its brand-trust, and which brings in a very impressive income, arguably you have no inherent incentive to change it to suddenly make it an ad-heavy, product placement, corporate plastic sham.
Of course, arguably, we should all live in peace and harmony with one another and hold hands and sing songs all day too, but that’s not the world we live in either. Programming is content and content is product and for most corporate TV networks, the game is to maximize return on the investment into product, through ad-buys, through merchandising and through other connected sources of revenue-flow. And that can frequently mean the influence of the almighty dollar is felt in the creative decision-making process – the artists, and even, god-help-us, artistes who create the shows we love can find themselves pressurized by decisions about which advertisers will pull out if things are said, or people cast. And the illusion of creative control dribbles away, drop by idea-rich, juicy drop, down the plughole of commerce and dross.
Clearly what was needed, and what was sadly lacking, was a voice in government circles to defend the integrity of PBS programming.
What, my learned friend asked, was to stop Doctor Who going the same way? If even the Muppets aren’t safe, isn’t it the height of ostrich-headed arrogance to assume that Doctor Who would be protected against the harsh commercial realities of life?
Well, let’s see.
On the one hand, would commercial channels bite each others’ hands of to take control of Who?
Yes, probably – getting ‘possession’ of an insane money-spinner like Who would be a dream come true, and we’ve recently seen a similar situation in the UK when Top Gear, the BBC’s other top money-spinning show, fired presenter and journalist Jeremy Clarkson, for hitting a producer. His two co-hosts, James ‘Captain Slow’ May and Richard ‘Hamster’ Hammond followed him out of a job and the three are to resurface on an Amazon-made show, for which they will probably have sackfulls of specially pre-softened money dropped on their heads. The BBC’s cast for the ‘new’ Top Gear sounds by comparison insanely lukewarm, and many of the audience, looking for hardcore misogynistic mechanical halfwittery, will follow the original trio to Amazon.
“But,” I hear you cry, O BritBrothers and BlightySisters, “the BBC is a unique broadcasting institution unlike any other in the world, and unlike PBS in its position as part of the national heritage and fabric of the country. With Top Gear, something had to be done – you can’t go around hitting people and getting away with it just because you bring the Corporation oodles and oodles of cash. But they wouldn’t sell the Doctor out from under us for vulgar profit, surely?”
There is actually something to this argument – the BBC is indeed a unique broadcasting institution. Its position as a publicly-funded broadcaster is supposed to ensure it the money to make not only the programmes most wanted, but also those most needed for the cultural wellbeing and diversity of the British nation, and the world. It has a budget mandated by the TV license (My American wife found out about this the night before our wedding, and it was nearly a deal-breaker). For the non-Brits, just as you need a license for a wedding or a gun or a dog, in the UK, you need a license to watch TV. It costs a good chunk of change, and it funds the core of the BBC. I know…Communism. These days of course, far more than in decades past, it’s only a part of the story of the BBC’s funding, with overseas licenses to show BBC programmes like Who, and merchandising being massively significant sources of additional funding. But while the BBC is technically independent of the UK government, it’s independent in that special sense where the government feels free to meddle with its funding and make performance demands every now and again – most usually when the makeup of the government includes a handful of brainless Neanderthal corporate hacks. We currently have a government in which the Culture Secretary think the license fee which has supported the BBC since its beginning is actually evil, so yes – you might want to savour this, my learned friend and I agree very rarely – there is a likelihood that the BBC will come under increasing financial pressure to maximize profit, and yes, that might include selling off one of its biggest family jewels in the name of short-sighted budget boosting.
If the BBC were ever stupid enough to sell Doctor Who outright, it would leave Who open to all the commercial vicissitudes of casting (probably only four of the Doctors we’ve had would have been cast by commercial networks, and in the case of Paul McGann, he was an acceptably beautiful compromise candidate), plot, location and storytelling format. This was the case to some degree too (see Paul McGann) in the co-funded episodes in Who and Torchwood life.
So is Who in danger of following Elmo and the gang into the cold, profit-driven world of commercial television?
Ultimately, that depends on the Axis of Idiocy at work at the BBC. If you sell off your biggest egg-laying chicken, you can buy the eggs you need for some years, but eventually, you’re going to be craving an omelette on a Saturday night and be straight out of luck. I’d like to think this lesson in basic egg-onomics makes sense to the bigwigs at the BBC. But with a government that’s no friend to culture (popular or high), and the potential for what sound at the time like exceptionally lucrative deals with commercial players, it would be the equivalent of using a colander as a rain hat to assume an ongoing climate of staggering benevolence towards our favourite show at the BBC, or to assume that the time of commercial first-run Who could never come. The one thing that gives hope in that scenario is that the BBC does polarize and divide the British people like no other network does to the people of any nation anywhere (no, not even Fox). By virtue of the fact that it bald-facedly takes our money to support its output, people in Britain feel they ‘own’ a bit of the BBC, and assume the attendant right to voice their opinions on what it does, as if they matter. Whereas most other networks have to listen to the voices of their advertisers, the BBC is under some notional obligation to listen to its viewers. And Who-fans have form in this regard. Not spectacularly impressive form, maybe – don’t make me drag out the video of ‘Doctor In Distress’ again, because I will if I have to – but form in organizing opinion against decisions by BBC bosses nonetheless. Correctly played, any BBC under pressure enough to sell a property like Doctor Who could explain that pressure to the British people, and even conceivably make it an election issue. Britain’s Labour party (Democrats, for the Americans) has just elected Jeremy Corbyn (Bernie Sanders), to lead it - a committed advocate of nationalized industries and putting national assets beyond the reach of corporate interests. Any attempt to sell Doctor Who could become a political football in the battle of ideas the next time Britain goes to the polls. That, if anything, is the difference with the BBC and its position in the UK psyche compared to PBS in the US. There’s enough fundamental difference between the political parties, and the BBC has enough of a position as part of the nation’s beloved infrastructure, to make a genuine fight over such a move possible.
Given enough cojones and common sense at the BBC.
Y’know what, just in case, where’s my colander…?
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk