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The BBC faces oblivion

When was the last time you watched television? I don’t mean “when did you last watch nondescript streamed content on a large screen?” I’m talking about linear, live, terrestrial TV. If you’re anything like me, or seemingly a large chunk of the population, I’m willing to bet that you’ve not sat down and watched anything concurrent since around the time Maroon 5 was in the charts. Sure, maybe you’ve stared blankly at the weather map for approximately four seconds while you’re waiting for the smart TV to kick in, or dutifully joined your parents while they’re watching the news or some new drama that you just have to see – but in earnest, it’s been a while.

This shift away from traditional media is nothing new, but it’s becoming more palpable by the day. Russell T Davies, the screenwriter and creative force behind Doctor Who, Years & Years and most recently It’s A Sin, was compelled to comment on the state of the BBC and its place in the modern media landscape. He lamented the fact that despite the stellar quality of modern television programmes, many produced by the BBC themselves, the broadcaster is doomed to be consigned to the history books. They are facing “oblivion.”

The way things stand, I tend to agree with him. There are a myriad of factors threatening the BBC’s existence, or rather their cultural clout and general relevancy. The first of these is the current government. I know, it’s a hackneyed tune, but the Conservatives’ attitude to the BBC is at best apathetic and at worst openly hostile. Their age-old favourite modus operandi, funding cuts, has been used to devastating effect, either out of mindless penny-pinching or as dissuasion from speaking out against the government line. This latter point is in spite of the fact that the “Beeb’s” news section increasingly seems like a mouthpiece for the kind of propaganda that’d make Pravda blush – portraying the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as a literal superhero springs to mind.

Besides government string-pulling, there are other dogs at the BBC’s door. The most pressing of these, to Davies, was the spectre of the US streaming titans; Netflix, Amazon, and Disney have dominated and dictated the public conception of what “television” has now become. The broadcaster’s plan to counter this is: do nothing. The BBC displays a bizarre stubbornness to throw its full weight behind its online ventures. In 2016, BBC Three was moved from its dedicated linear station spot to an online-only model within iPlayer. Far from being heralded as a key step forward into a new age of television, many pundits sounded the channel’s death knell, as though it had been put out to pasture. In the years since, BBC Three produced such critical and commercial smash hits as Fleabag, This Country and Normal People. But instead of viewing this as a clear sign of success for the online approach, the BBC has recently claimed to be toying with the idea of bringing the channel back to its stable of linear stations.

It’s nonsensical – presented with a resounding success on a silver platter, the Beeb turns its nose up. They came close, but they’ve ultimately failed to understand that what the big streamers are offering isn’t merely convenience; it’s originality. The strength of the content alone wasn’t what made these programmes the shows on everyone’s lips, it was the freshness and immediacy combined with it that makes streaming more than just another delivery platform, which is seemingly how the BBC views it. Their misreading of this could lead them back to where they started.

It’s rather telling that Russell T Davies, long-time proponent of the BBC, chose to distribute It’s A Sin on Channel 4. If the BBC is to survive, it must rise to the challenge of the streamers, rather than sitting on its hands.

Illustration: Katie Moore