Saturday, 28 March 2015

The Problem Isn't Just Clarkson, It's The BBC Too

The BBC has an extraordinarily high number of good looking female presenters. It is evident that when it comes to the job of a TV presenter, ugly males are discriminated against at a ridiculous level. Only joking.

Behind the joke, though, there is an element of truth - television companies appoint presenters based on what they think the viewers want. If they favour good looking women then ugly men are being discriminated against. If they favour intelligence then unintelligent people are being discriminated against. But in protesting about this what we're actually doing is protesting about viewers' tastes, because it is viewers' tastes that contribute most to television programmes.

Viewers prefer an intelligent person hosting Newsnight; but they don't mind unintelligent people in the Big Brother household. Naturally, Newsnight and Big Brother have largely different audiences - but that is precisely why viewers' tastes work differently for each show.

I hadn't planned on blogging anything to do with the recent Jeremy Clarkson affair, but it can't be left unsaid that even if his straight-talking, non-pc libertarian politics was anathema to the BBC, his sacking was actually down to his repeated bad behaviour for which most other people would have also been sacked.

But while we've seen the emergence of a heated debate between Clarkson's supporters (who wish he hadn’t been sacked) and the many opponents (who are glad he has been), the big issue that underpins it is the very existence of a state-funded BBC imposed on everyone in the UK through a compulsory licence fee. State-funded television is a guaranteed way to ensure that the corporation will not primarily be driven by providing the best TV for its viewers.

Suppose Café Nero suddenly came under state ownership, where the need to provide desirable products and a good service was alleviated by the guaranteed flow of taxpayers' money. Do you think Café Nero would then be better or worse? It would obviously be worse, because all the market pressures to consistently perform well and give people what they want (or lose out to competition) would diminish.

Similarly, being guaranteed by state-funding, the BBC is less alert to the market pressures that other companies have to consistently provide popular TV. The current director of BBC television Danny Cohen (pictured next to Clarkson above) has done something akin to a Café Nero executive who decides to remove one of the top selling coffees from the menu - a move that would guarantee to upset and elicit action in the Café Nero shareholders.

It's not first time Danny Cohen has done this. He's the chap who demanded that all-male BBC panel shows must be discontinued. He's also the chap who insisted that the BBC's comedy was too middle class. He's also the chap who publicly asserted that the BBC needed much more diversity in its programmes.

Being state-funded, the little notion of letting the viewers decide what and who they want to watch is pretty alien to the BBC. To see why, imagine a time when television watching is even more sophisticated than it is now. In the future all viewers' experience involves paying only for the packages or channels or individual programmes they want to watch. In other words, what you watch and what you pay for would be entirely dictated by your personal preferences. Instead of some priggish left wing bien pensant director asserting how many males are on a panel, how middle class the comedies are, how many black or white people there are in each drama, and which presenters should be sacked, the public would vote with their most powerful tool - by staying tuned, by changing channels, or by switching off.

Given that I'm a mandatory license fee payer, I don't actually have any issue with Clarkson's sacking in this particular case. After punching someone, the BBC felt they had to act tough on Clarkson and make an ethical decision, even if it means losing a popular presenter and a popular TV show to another channel (probably SKY TV). But I hold that view largely because I don't really like Top Gear or have much interest in Clarkson. If the BBC sacked someone you or I really loved watching, and denied us the opportunity to vote with our remote control, I think we'd feel the dissonance a bit more.

In all likelihood, most people who support Clarkson's sacking are probably people who aren't that bothered about watching him and Top Gear, whereas most people who wish he hadn't been sacked are probably people that do like watching him and Top Gear. And that little fact alone gives perfect exhibition to the extent to which the BBC is in need of market forces.