? Audience homes in, but BBC plays away

Without doubt, the BBC produces world-beating programmes that it exports throughout the world. In the future, should the BBC invest in top-notch exports or in popular homely programmes?

David Attenborough’s recent series “This Perfect Planet”  was several years in the making and with a huge budget for commissioning the best wild life photography. Teams were financed to catch those almost impossible shots – of iguanas laying eggs near the rim of a live volcano, of a mother penguin climbing cliffs to return to their young, or of crossing achingly torrid deserts in search of dune insects. This is a triumph of documentary film-making that boosts the international sales of the BBC.

The new and 17th Director-General of the BBC, Tim Davie, has decided that the BBC should concentrate on these big exportable productions, rather than on numerous cheaper homemade documentaries  – less expensive because they do not involve the travel budget, the high-end gadgetry, the sheer technical skill of the pricey global films. His presentation this month of the new BBC business plan sounded like an ace exporter revealing plans to concentrate investment on the brand’s best exports. He has decided to cut some £400m from the homemade programmes

But is this really what British  TV audiences would prefer? Thanks to the review by Peter Hamilton, we can take a critical look at the actual audience ratings for 2020. The top 10 documentaries were:

ChannelProgram‘000 *P4+Share**
1BBC 1Antiques Roadshow7,84629.0
2BBC 1The Repair Shop6,88528.9
3BBC 1Countryfile6,88334.4
4ITVBradley Walsh & Son: Breaking Dad5,79927.0
5BBC 1Top Gear5,77026.7
6ITVLong Lost Family: Born Without Trace5,65724.6
7BBC 1Who Do You Think You Are?5,27423.1
8BBC 1Ambulance4,94624.8
9ITVAnne: The Princess Royal at 704,90423.9
10ITVBradley Walsh: Happy 60th Birthday4,84820.6
+ means numbers per 100000 viewers  ** means share of viewers at that time

So the top two chime with British nostalgia, along with “Countryside”, yearning for rural life neatly packaged  on screen. There are three to tickle the testosterone: “Top Gear” and the two Bradley Walshe shows. The most viewed show on British Royalty is, surprise, the one on the 70 year old Princess Royal, in preference to the more salacious one, “The Diana Interview “ that appears only at rank 33. “Ambulance” shows a liking for adrenaline fuelled health crises, while there are two that suit those who love to delve back into poignant ancestry stories.  I guess that “Top Gear” would be the most expensive in this list, because of its multiple locations and use of various vehicles, but then it is also a world export, widely viewed in many other countries that purchase the licence to show it.

The next 20 rankings are:

11ITVThe Real ‘Des’: The Dennis Nilsen Story4,73524.1
12ITVWelcome to HMP Belmarsh with Ross Kemp4,45718.3
13BBC 1Extinction: The Facts4,37422.4
14ITVThe Virtual Grand National4,28027.4
15BBC 1Dame Vera Lynn: We’ll Meet Again4,25625.5
16BBC 1Primates4,21116.8
17BBC 1Garden Rescue4,19021.5
18BBC 2Inside Monaco: Playground of the Rich4,17817.8
19BBC 1DIY SOS4,16019.9
20BBC 1Planet Earth: A Celebration4,10921.7
21BBC 1Eat Well for Less?4,02918.7
22BBC 1Blue Planet Revisited3,94223.2
23BBC 1Sue Perkins: Along the US-Mexican Border3,91318.6
24BBC 1Reported Missing3,87220.8
25ITVCilla: The Lost Tapes3,84417.7
26CH424 Hours in Police Custody3,82414.6
27BBC 2A House Through Time3,81617.5
28ITVAbsolutely India: Mancs in Mumbai3,80717.0
29ITVPaul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs3,80117.7
30BBC 2Gardeners’ World3,79816.1

More crime interest there, and coming above a David Attenborough “The Extinction”.  “Garden Rescue” comes above “Planet Earth” (and above  the punditry and fine photography of “Gardener’s World”). Dame Vera Lynn and “A House through Time” again reveal British nostalgia for past scenes, while “Inside Monaco” is glittery escapism. The only one in this list that is serious current events reporting is that one along the Mexican border.  However, at least these most-viewed programmes show varied choices and types of documentaries, and switches between channels. The fact that most of them are made in the UK keeps the money circulating here, not just for the stars of the show and their camera team, but for all the huge back-up of staff and resources required for documentary film-making. 

Tim Davies proposes to cut £400m of this.

Does he propose to use the enhanced money from the big ticket exports  to finance more home-orientated documentaries?  Probably not – this is Global Britain..we will export more in order to finance more exports. This is also just as the industry, with Netflix and Amazon, and Disney, is providng more competition, both globally and for British audiences.  And the Tory Government, by decriminalising non-payment of licence, is squeezing BBC income, even forcing it to subsidise the free licence for the over 75s basic income claimants. 

The declared proposal is to make the BBC a subscription service alongside its competitors like Netflix and Amazon. 

The declared proposal is to make the BBC a subscription service alongside its competitors like Netflix and Amazon. The problem with this is that global accounting methods support mass sales. To gain the greatest sales and audience ratings, a film product has to have global appeal. Yet what is evident in the actual British viewer ratings is that local and specific is preferred.

Under the proposed policy, what we will get is a few marvellous big-budget, globally-saleable films. amid many boring mediocre imports, mostly from the US, that are chosen because they are cheap, not because they relate well to the local and specific in the UK.

We could switch our subscriptions, to Netflix and Amazon, and get to choose more high quality films. But maybe that is not the day-to-day British-made entertainment many of us actually want, as evidenced in the 2020 ratings.

So instead, let’s clamour to avoid the subscription competition and stick to the licence fee.