Exploding TV: The BBC responds

In a speech to the Royal Television Society (one wonders what could ever be royal about television), Peter Fincham, the controller — that is, chief programmer and boss — of BBC One, responded to a column I wrote about exploding TV for Media Guardian.

I suspect that Fincham and I disagree only by a matter of degree — though that may be like missing by five degrees when building a bridge from either end, meant to meet in the middle. He believes in the value of linear TV channels and seems to think that the internet is a nice complement. I believe that television has the opportunity to grow in untold new ways — in programming, distribution, choice, interaction — and that the old channels are becoming the complement to the new. Some of Fincham’s points and my responses, in turn:

YouTube’s great. Google’s great. It’s all great. But if the conclusion you draw – and some people love drawing it – is that television is over, I think you might just be wrong.

The one simply doesn’t follow from the other. I read an article in the media section of the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, by Jeff Jarvis. Not sure who Jeff Jarvis is, but he sounds like a man who keeps his nose to the ground.

The headline – so unremarkable as to hardly grab the eye – was ‘Television is dead’. This is what Jeff said: ‘All the old definitions of TV are in shambles. Television need not be broadcast. It needn’t be produced by studios and networks. It no longer depends on big numbers and blockbusters. It doesn’t have to fit 30 and 60 minute moulds. It isn’t scheduled. It isn’t mass. The limits of television – of distribution, of tools, of economics, of scarcity – are gone.’

What I’m saying is that rather than being ‘over,’ television has the opportunity to expand as never before. I just wrote an expansion of that Guardian column and some posts here for the magazine published by aforementioned Royal Television Society; I ended it this way: “All the limits that used to define television are gone. TV can now become whatever we want it to be.” I don’t look at the old, linear channels as the definition of TV; I look at them as the limitation on TV. Fincham continues:

Anyone here still got a job? Elsewhere in the article, Jeff says ‘My teen son and his friends are getting hooked on new series not via TV but through the web and iTunes.’

Ah, Jeff’s teen son and his friends – I feel we know them well. They have a great life – more media choice than ever before, gadgets we never dreamt of, chatrooms, websites, iPods. The only downside is having Jeff standing in the corner of the room trying to work out what they’re up to.

This sort of breathless over-enthusiasm for the overnight destruction of television is reminiscent in some ways of the dotcom boom of the late Nineties, when all conventional businesses were apparently heading for the scrapheap.

It also reminds me of the late Sixties – yes, I can just remember them – when a bloke I met in a youth hostel assured me that Western civilization was on its last knees and the future lay in self-sufficient collectives living in Wales.

Well, some companies are headed for the scrapheap. And I’d say this reminds me more of the advent of cars. Trains and horses are still around, but so what?

The trouble is, it’s missing the point. Conventional television – old media, linear, whatever you want to call it – and new media don’t exist in opposition to each other. In fact, they’re perfect partners.

We agree. Only I don’t think they are separate entities in partnership. I think the two merge and meld in wonderful ways, if only you’ll let them.

Jeff Jarvis assumes that where technology leads, our tastes will follow. He thinks that to embrace the new, it’s necessary to reject all that’s familiar. I think he’s wrong.

Any anthropologist will tell you that our ancestors, although they lived in caves, had exactly the same brains and bodies that we have. Evolution just doesn’t move that fast.

Actually, yes, we agree: I believe is that our tastes do not change rapidly. What is changing is our opportunity to express those tastes apart from the tastes of network programmers who tried to tell us what we should like.

Fincham goes on to praise a literary show the BBC had just carried and he asks:

Does Jeff Jarvis’ new world of television mean there’s no room for adaptations of Jane Eyre? And if so, is that something we’ve gained? Or something we’ve lost?

People like programmes. Seems like a pretty obvious thing to say, but in our noisy and novelty-driven world it can’t be said often enough.

They also like, in my view, an intelligently-balanced linear schedule. Yes, of course video on demand will enable us to create our own schedules and time-shift programmes at will. But we won’t want to do that all the time, will we?

I do so dislike it when executives say that “people like” what they make. We, those people, like lots of things. Sure, that includes programs. But it also includes much more. Do we like the programmers’ linear TV schedules? Not much. That’s why God invented the remote control, VCR, PVR, and cable/satellite box: to give us choice and control over our consumption of media. Now we also have the power to create media. And Fincham says about that:

User-generated content is a wonderful thing, but it won’t simply replace the professional stuff. There’s such a thing as a user-generated garden shed – you buy it from Homebase and put it together yourself.

Or there’s the other sort, which I must admit I prefer – you get somebody else to do it for you. The two markets don’t cancel each other out – they co-exist.

I did not say that they would cancel each other out, nor did I say — headline aside — that old TV would die. I argued that TV can be reinvented, reborn, reinvigorated, if only you’ll let it. I’ll also argue that TV has not been such a passive experience since the invention of the remote control 50 years ago. You program. We click. We began programming our own networks even then.

Fincham does acknowledge that distinctions will disappear:

When we’ve lost the distinction between terrestrial and digital, it will be replaced by a new distinction – between channels that originate, and channels that don’t.

And between channels that have range, and channels that are niche. . . .

When I was growing up – this isn’t an exact analogy, but it’s got some similarities – department stores were sorry places. The world seemed to be passing them by. You could have been forgiven for thinking they were in terminal decline. No, they weren’t.

They just needed refurbishing, refreshing, they needed to be made modern. Now look at them. Try getting into Selfridges on a Saturday morning – you’re trampled to death in the crush.

The equivalent of Selfridges on a Saturday morning, you might say, is a mainstream channel on a Saturday evening. Seventy per cent of the population have access to up to 400 channels, but for the last two Saturdays more than 15 million people have come to two of them as BBC ONE and ITV1 take position and fire arrows at each other.

Well, perhaps that’s another difference between over there and over here. I haven’t been to Macy’s for years. I buy my clothes and books and gadgets online. I’ll take Amazon over Bloomingdale’s. And I do believe we will value the producers of programming — which includes the BBC — over the networks that simply carry it.

Fincham concludes:

I’m a big advocate for linear viewing, for proper programmes, for television in the sense that we understand and have always understood it.

Riding both horses in tandem – that’s where the future lies.

But real television, 30 minute, 60 minute, 90 minute television in all its recognisable genres and forms, with challenging content and full production values, with the best talent and the most varied ideas – that sort of television is not just for Christmas, it’s for life.

If you’re as lucky as I am, to be running the BBC’s flagship television channel during this time of enormous upheaval, you’re not working in a backwater.

Quite the opposite. You’re on the frontier. There’s much, much more still to explore, and it’s a very exciting time to be exploring it.

“Proper” programs? “Real” television? Who’s to say what proper television is? With all respect, it’s not you, not anymore. Just because you run a channel does not mean that you run television anymore. We do. That’s just the point.

We out here do, indeed, like your proper programs and the good news is that, if you’re clever, we have so many more ways to find them now and you have so many more ways to find us. You also have the opportunity to broaden your definition of what makes TV — whether that comes in 3- or 30-minute increments — with new ideas and new talent. You have the historic chance to make TV more than a one-way, linear channel. So, yes, we agree: there is much, much more still to explore. So explore.

: See also Raymond Snoddy’s reaction to the speech in The Independent.