The BBC: portrait of a British institution

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A la tête de 10 chaînes de télévision nationale, plusieurs chaînes internationales et locales, 10 chaînes de radios nationales, et 40 chaînes de radio locales (soit un total de 23 000 employés), la BBC est une référence en matière de qualité de programmation et d’impartialité. Le tout sans publicité ! Cette institution chère aux anglais (son surnom affectueux est “The Beeb”), est pourtant souvent critiquée. Aujourd’hui son énorme budget subit des coupes qui remettent en question la pérennité de l’organisation telle que les anglais la connaissent.

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The history of the BBC

Broadcasting House London, England, UK

“Our mission : to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain. Our vision: to be the most creative organisation in the world”. These are the BBC’s values, set by John Reith, the BBC’s founding father, in 1927, when the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation, a non-commercial entity established under a Royal Charter. These values still characterize the British public service broadcaster and helped it build its reputation of cultural excellence and impartiality.

Indeed, rapidly the BBC had to face its first major government confrontation over editorial independence, during the General Strike of 1926, when it refused to be the government’s spokesperson. During World War 2, Winston Churchill made his famous inspirational speeches over the BBC’s airwaves, and the BBC also gained a reputation for objective and independent journalism.

Though, if the BBC monopoly on radio services lasted until the 1970s (which explains the phenomenon of pirate radios), a commercial and independent television network, ITV, was launched in 1955. Nonetheless, the BBC kept expanding and producing cult TV: in 1953, 20 million viewers watched the coronation of Elizabeth II on the BBC. In 1963 the science-fiction series Doctor Who aired for the first time -and is still in production 49 years later! The anarchic comedy Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast from 1969 to 1974. The Live Aid concert was broadcast in 1985. The soap EastEnders began in 1985 and became the BBC’s most watched programme ever. Well-acclaimed sitcoms like Absolutely Fabulous and The Office delighted its audiences in the 1990s and 2000s.

The BBC entered the digital age long before many of its competitors. It is a pioneer regarding video on demand and its IBBC iPlayer successfully launched at the end of 2007, enables viewers to catch up on its programmes “anytime, any place, anywhere”. Moreover the BBC website has grown exponentially and receives an average of 3.6 billion hits per month. It has become one of the fifty most consulted websites in the world.

Quality and creativity are the BBC’s major characteristics. But it also yearns for high ratings and good reviews and in order to make that possible, the BBC is divided into general interest channel (BBC One and BBC Two) and more confidential channels (BBC Three for young adults and BBC Four for culture).

And the BBC is not financed by advertising. So where do its £5 billion budget come from?

Quality has its cost, especially in times of crisis

The Television Centre, a television and radio studio since 1960, sold in order to meet the budget

The BBC’s funding mostly comes from an annual television licence – an official permission required in many countries for the reception of television broadcasts. In 2010 it cost £145.50 per household and in 2010 the government had the BBC Trust – the BBC’s governing body- freeze the licence fee at that price until 2013. This means that the non-departmental public body is facing one of the biggest challenges of its history as it will have to reorganize and survive deep cuts in its TV and radio programming budgets. The BBC has already agreed to cut its budget by 20 per cent over the coming years, but the former director general Mark Thompson (and soon-to-be-CEO of the New York Times Company) warned against further cuts. Nonetheless, after plans including reduction in posts and the sale of the Television Center, a new reduction plan is to be negociated between Mark Thompson’s successor and the Coalition government.

Although the BBC is part of the British identity, the variety of the different services that it proposes has sometimes been perceived as having a damaging effect on the private sector or being a sheer waste of money.

England and the BBC, a love story?

Beyond that, as a British institution, the BBC has often been criticized. According to BBC’s executives “the audience approval is all [the BBC] have”, and the company has often faced crises regarding its audience. Recently it was Andrew Gilligan’s report on Iraqi weaponry. (He wrongly accused the government of having transformed the dossier on Iraq weapons of mass destruction to “make it sexier”, misleading the Parliament. His source later committed suicide) and the phone-call prank by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.

Moreover, the BBC yearns for both high ratings and quality, something that is often quite difficult to conciliate. That’s why, some BBC executives, or British people complain about the company being too commercial, too politicaly correct or even too populist.

Nevertheless, the BBC has achieved the status of a full institution in the British landscape, and of a well-recognized media corporation in the world. For more than 90 years, the BBC remained the key element to a good tv night in British homes ; it’s not likely to change overnight.

Aurélien BOYER

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2 thoughts on “The BBC: portrait of a British institution

  1. Pingback: The rise and fall of BBC star Jimmy Savile | Frogs Save The Queen

  2. Pingback: Is there a British cinema? | Frogs Save The Queen

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