For Tomorrow’s Witness

By Don Redding


September 11th – The challenge for TV and its regulators

"Our best destiny, as planetary cohabitants is the development of what has been called “species consciousness” – something over and above nationalisms, blocs, religions, ethnicities. During this week of incredulous misery, I have been trying to apply such a consciousness, and such a sensibility." – Martin Amis, September 18, 2001

Death from the sky on 11th September immediately challenged humanity with the need to understand. What conditions, political culture, gulfs of misunderstanding and hatred lay behind that immolation? Media commentators implicated their own industries. The culture of celebrity, the obsession with trivia, the downgrading of factual knowledge by the media of the 1990s were revealed as historical errors. A new ‘mission to explain’ was required. Is this just a brief flurry of remorse? Or does it signal the return of the hard, factual, in-depth television documentary as a priority cultural form? The answer will lie with the action of larger technological, economic and regulatory forces upon the mainstream media.

We got to this low point of understanding because of the trends underpinning television culture in the 1990s. The rise of pay-TV changed the ‘ecology’ of broadcasting. As Channel 4 broke from ITV; as ITV moved towards a single, fully commercial operator; as the BBC changed goals to ‘justify’ its licence fee, UK television became a ratings chase. Pay-TV was not the only competition for ‘eyeball time’ – the internet’s exponential expansion, and associated phenomena like gaming, meant that audiences would fragment, and desert mainstream channels. With all media increasingly digitally delivered, all platforms would ‘converge’, allowing users to escape the ‘tyranny’ of fixed, mixed schedules, to surf in and out through niche and tailored services. As desperate broadcasters chased these fleeting users, the idea of compelling, informative factual programming going out in peak time – and succeeding on criteria other than ratings and/or demographics – died.

The imperative from 11 September is to know about, understand and respond to cultures different from our own, gaining the capacity to direct our political and personal involvement with them. One category of factual programming – ‘international issues’ – takes on special importance. From 1989 to 1999 3WE monitored the hours of non-news-and-current-affairs factual programming broadcast on terrestrial free-to-air TV. They declined by 42 per cent – despite the advent of Channel 5 [1]. Programming which showed developing countries fell by 50 per cent. What’s more, these programmes were progressively marginalized to off-peak slots, and in-depth programming gave way to ‘lighter’ genres such as cookery and travel filmed on location, together with the kind of wildlife coverage which has been critiqued by environmental charities as dealing with furry f**king and fighting, rather than the relationship of nature to human development.

beyond-the-veil-jenny-matthews.jpg©Jenny Matthews 

In 2002-3 these trends from the past will be cemented into the future. New legislation to reform the regulation of ‘communications’ (broadcasting, telecommunications and the internet) was framed for the needs of the 1990s, not the post-11 September world. 3WE and other civil society groups [2] believe the new communications Bill will particularly threaten the mass availability of high quality documentary and other factual genres. Rhetorically, in a globalised world the government says public service broadcasting is ‘as important, if not more important, than ever before’ and that regulation must meet the needs of ‘citizens’, not just of people as ‘consumers’. But this masks a fundamental weakening of the regulatory framework.

The public service broadcasters (free-to-air channels 1-5) will be ‘required’ to provide factual programming on ‘international issues’ to varying degrees. But these programmes, together with religion, education, science and culture will be placed in a new tier of regulation, ‘tier 3’. Broadcasters’ performance against their statutory requirements to deliver ‘tier 3’ programmes will be regulated by… the broadcasters. This ‘self-regulation’ will consist of making a generalised ‘statement of promise’ each year, and then saying how they have done. Judging by the abandonment of public service commitments which 3WE tracked over the last decade, the broadcasters cannot be trusted with this dual role. There will be regulators. The BBC will remain supervised by its governors and by the Secretary of State for culture, media and sport – a dubious system which even BBC supporters feel is failing the public – while commercial broadcasters will come under a new body, OFCOM, which also handles telecoms and the internet.

Given the now perceived critical importance of information, knowledge and understanding of our global society, OFCOM’s paramount concern should be with ‘positive content regulation’ – that is, ensuring a public service, covering ‘information services essential to citizenship’, as the government calls them, is properly delivered. It should have proactive, graded and specific powers of enforcement. In practice, the government is proposing only a passive ‘backstop’ role for OFCOM, leaving it to concentrate on a thousand other issues of licensing, spectrum management and economic regulation.

Other forces also indicate a gloomy future for documentaries. The other effect of 11th September has been a faster economic recession and loss of advertising. In the UK, ITV and Channel 4 are freezing their programme budgets, while the BBC is retrenching its factual programmes department, leading to fears that new factual commissions will dry up rather than increase. At all broadcasters, ‘education’ is increasingly seen as more ‘appropriate’ to an online (i.e. cheaper) platform. Meanwhile, there is a real danger of ‘digital drift’ – dumping ‘minority interest’ programme categories, such as ‘international issues’, on to niche digital channels with limited accessibility and laughable budgets. 3WE is concerned that BBC 4 TV, a new service dedicated to ‘tier 3’ programming and with a budget of just £40 million will, despite government ‘guarantees’, undermine what is offered on BBC1 and 2.

liberty.jpgLiberty, image from the web

From the public service broadcasters’ point of view, the new legislative framework gives them what they want. In a survey of commissioning editors, channel controllers and others by the Department for International Development [3], they said international subjects did have a place on their channels – but not as ‘issues’ of self-evident importance. They had to garner popular audiences through ‘innovative’, people-focused stories. The ‘tier 3’ concept is designed precisely to allow this get-out – no quotas is supposed to mean creative freedom.

Independent producers, NGOs and in-house journalists with ambitions to tackle burning international subjects know this line is an excuse. The real barriers to commissions are the misuse of audience research by a generation of television schedulers who do not know that public service broadcasting exists to bring people something they were not aware they wanted but recognise as important when they see it. Broadcasters instead are guided by ‘what people say they want’, and therefore argue that people don’t watch things about ‘far away places’ – unless they directly identify with them. What broadcasters describe as ‘innovative’ and ‘imaginative’ therefore involves transferring to exotic backdrops whatever populist genre is current: docu-soap (Channel 4’s Airport series filmed at Lagos airport); cooking and makeovers (Ground Force doing Mandela’s beds); or ‘reality’ TV, dropping ill-assorted Brits into foreign climes and seeing how they meet its ‘challenges’ – living wild, getting home again, running a beach bar.

Entertaining enough, these programmes inform us about little other than how Meg from Barnsley reacts to mosquito bites and a strange diet. This is not a recipe to nourish our minds to cope with climate change, globalised ‘free’ trade, intercontinental refugee movements, the withholding of drugs from developing countries, and the fracturing of cultures which led to the ‘war on terrorism’. And the blatant failure of ITV’s Survivors suggests people know this.

With these larger forces at work, it seems unlikely that a new media dispensation will come about through pious wishes. What is required is a strong regulatory framework capable of encouraging and enforcing a media culture fit for citizens of the global information society. 3WE, a coalition of development and environment charities such as Oxfam, the RSPB, Save the Children and the World Wide Fund for Nature, will be campaigning hard for a citizens’ agenda to be first priority in communications reform, along with the wider voluntary sector campaign, Public Voice. If you want a future for the TV documentary, join us.


[1] Losing Perspective, IBT, 2000
[2] See Challenge the Blight Paper!, Vertigo, Spring 2001
[3] Watching the World, DFID, 2000

Don Redding is co-ordinator of 3WE: e-mail