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.

  • Hi Jeff, Thanks for you insightful and detailed respond to Peter’s speech. I think BBC is a great institution but I think I have been thinking too much “BBC can do no wrong” and too much of “CBC should copy BBC” lately. Thanks for shedding light on this important area and your views of BBC’s take on things are much appreciated.

    Keep up the great blog.


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  • penny

    Why is this self-admitted biased organization still on the public dole? Isn’t it long overdue to cut the BBC loose and make it compete in the marketplace?

  • good conversation. but, why is he not supposed to say “the people” while you feel free to claim “we, the people”, who are you, ey?

  • Franz,

  • Jim Karna

    There’s parallels to be drawn with the Sunday newspaper comments. While things are moving increasingly to media on demand, the consumer takes what they want when they want; and undoubtedly as a generation grows up with the technology they’re in a better position to embrace. But there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    There’s still a certain charm and allure about sitting down to watch something live, as it happens. In the same way as there is buying a Sunday paper and leafing through, battling the crowds at Selfridges or wandering round a record store. It’s easier to buy from Amazon, certainly, but far less satisfying than browsing

  • ““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.”

    With all due respect Jeff, are you seriously suggesting that armchair critics like yourself define a media in the same way and with the same weight as people who actually make television programmes? That’s rather like saying that the people who wander around galleries and go home to make a simple watercolour define what art is as powerfully as (say) Matisse.

  • Ian: It’s not armchair critics. It is the audience, the public, the people who decide what to watch. They/we certainly decide what is and is not proper TV. And now that we can make TV — no passive armchair people, us — we can define tV by making it.

    And I’d hardly call American Idol Matisse.

  • Jim Karna

    American Idol is Pollock. Clearly.

  • Nicolai Porsbo

    Reading your post makes me think of another example that might make sense in this context: Movies. In a way you could say that the tv channels of tomorrow are the movie theaters of today.

    Historically, movies were tied to theaters much the same way that TV sees itself linked to flow channels. I’m sure, that when tv came along there were those that argued that movies outside theaters would not be movies. And probably they said that theaters were important, because nobody would want to sit in solitude and watch movies.

    They probably also said, that “theaters would never die” and therefore “movies would remain the same”. Well, they were of course right and wrong.

    Theaters still exist (as will flow channels), but their role has fundamentally changed, insofar as theaters now primarily act as platforms for launching movies, not for all consumption of movies. Nowadays, a movie is watched so much more via dvd, tv and internet that it’s the movie itself that is an important medium; not the theater. In the same understanding, the flow channel could easily evolve into the big launch platform for “tv-videos” or whatever we choose to dub this new, liberated tv-format.

    The fact that movies have gone through this change over time, may also explain why it’s been so relatively easy for movie studios to embrace new forms of distribution, whereas “tv studios” in many countries have been so closely connected to their “theaters”, that they see all new distribution forms as something that they must somehow combat rather than embrace.

  • “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.”

    YouTube is not great, TV is not dead, but it is dying.
    It will be over soon, and you can see its slow agony.
    When most young people prefer to spend their time in front of a computer screen and do not care a bit anymore for what They are broadcasting on TV, when the only people who really watch regularly TV are the old people who have nothing better to do and nothing else they know how to do, when even the commercials beging to be less effective on TV, then you realize that something IS changing.
    TV, the old style TV will disappear as well as the old style television set.
    In its place there will be a monitor, big, small whatever, connected to a computer in front of which people will consume their meals.
    With one hand, while with the other they will click with the mouse or in the future who knows, they will use both hands and communicate with the voice.
    But hands or voice or whatever, THEY want to be a part of the entertainment.
    They do not want to consume, they like to produce.
    Because creating is million times better than watching.
    In a conversation the amusing is being able to talk, not only listening
    Yes TV, as sad as it can look to people of my generation, is definetely changing.
    It began as Home entertainment, and to stay as it began it needs to follow the patterns of the new entertainment.
    It has to become the Place where you watch and you show.
    Just like the Internet.

  • “““’`’User generated content is great but…..”
    I think it only fair to point out to our friend at the RTS that Harry Potter was ‘user generated content’, that JK Rowling was not a ‘professional’. In the world of print, which produces some pretty good stuff, EVERYTHING is ‘user generated’. Soon, the same will be true in TV.

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  • ronbo

    Fincham: what a supercillious fucking putz (am I allowed to say “putz”?).

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