Thursday, 22 January 2009

That’s out of my remit, guv - the curious definitions of public service

Nothing stirs the intrigue of media braying fraternity quite like a debate about public service broadcasting, so the past few days of navel gazing have proved a Class A stimulus. Yesterday's cliffhanger delivery of the Ofcom report on the matter even caused the Today programme to draw breath from it's long financial yawn and talk about it twice in one show - a public service in itself. The main thing that struck me though was the implied technical disparity between public service and commercial output. It's as if what's popular can't be useful, or that what is enriching can't be entertaining.

Whether C4 join forces with BBC Worldwide or Five seems to represent both halves of the debate - whether your output is populist or enriching defines how you're perceived. It's not a question of whether you can be both - as BBC, ITV and C4 all prove is possible - but it's why the two terms are treated as mutually exclusive. C4’s recent Sex Education project is a case in point - provocative as well as worthy it was hailed as a classic example of their unique take on the public service remit. A cross-platform box-ticker too, the producers proudly claim that the site got over 3 million views (though with a domain name like a premium chatline - - it would be hard-pushed not to. I imagine most of those who clicked through from Google were probably disappointed by the array of flaccid anatomical analysis and cringy videos of pensioners talking about dildos). It may have been educational and controversial but it was also massively popular and, judging by the volume of engagement, pretty valuable. For those of us with minds in the gutter it provided hours of amusement too - I made a sniggering bee-line for this video:

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It's significant that this whole debate is really hotting up due to the pluralistic, digital age as it is the internet that proves how out-moded the public service versus commercial debate is. A trawl through the lawless, gratis world of online content reveals the realistic pattern of people's tastes - it's innovative, porny, disgusting, intelligent, and mindless in equal measure. Given the freedom to choose people want to consume pretty much everything - simultaneously. Producers make it because people want it. Rather than quibble over who is responsible for what I suggest what should actually be merged are the terms 'public service' and 'commercial'. Then broadcasters can focus on producing simply great programming that sates our kaleidoscopic, voracious desires.