Television's Faustian pact

The TV industry has been repeatedly restructured, leading to a culture of rampant commercialism. It'

The copious commentary on British television's faking crises, including Jeremy Paxman's recent MacTaggart Lecture, doesn't show Britain's media in the best light. The chorus of TV executives bleating that the core issue is a loss of "trust" is a poor substitute for probing analysis of the underlying reasons why television's standards and integrity have been undermined.

In many accounts, the BBC's current woes are conflated with the pervasive malaise afflicting the TV industry. This is not to excuse the BBC, which should neither have been caught up in "Crowngate" nor have faked competition scams. But the wider problems have been worsening for a decade, and they affect the BBC because the corporation is inevitably influenced by the wider broadcasting ecology.

The causes of the problems are several. Hypercompetition from the early Nineties onwards has led to a culture of rampant commercialism and entrepreneurialism from which the BBC is not exempt, as is shown by the promotion of ratings-chasing, sensationalist and populist programmes. Crucial, too, are the changes to working conditions, in particular a catastrophic decline in training, the growth of short-term employment, the erosion of career structures, and endemic ageism, which leads to experienced producers being turfed out at 50 or before.

But the most important cause is obscured in the present debate: the outsourcing of production to independent companies, the leading lights of which are international businesses, and which are particularly tempted to put profit over standards and quality. This is where the government comes in, as the prominent position of the independents is due to repeated restructurings of the industry, during which the old producer-broadcasters were dismantled and the independents were given more and more of the cake. Right now, spurred on by a disappointing licence-fee settlement, the BBC is making further cuts to its already depleted production base - the sole non-commercial production powerhouse in British television - and increasing independent programming. Why should this matter? Because with outsourcing, the lines of communication and responsibility are fragmented, making it difficult for broadcasters to oversee and enforce standards with recalcitrant commercial suppliers. This problem is rarely acknowledged and little understood in the public debate.

The independents are a varied bunch. Some, like Endemol, are multinational subsidiaries that pride themselves on delivering ratings. Others, like RDF, the company at the centre of the BBC's "Crowngate" row, play a more complex role, acting as a kind of fig leaf for the new industry structure by aiming to combine commercial nous with quality and cultural ambition in programmes. Such companies can sometimes cross-subsidise to support adventurous fare. But, as an RDF executive told me, ultimately their operations are driven just as much by the bottom line. That RDF's creative director, Stephen Lambert - previously in charge of some of the BBC's finest documentary output - was the man who edited the culpable publicity tape is a tragic but telling symptom of the Faustian pact driving the TV industry. This is not just about Lambert's individual failing; the rot is systemic.

Some commentary, and even the report commissioned by Ofcom from the former BBC executive Richard Eyre, insists that the blame for ebbing standards lies primarily with the broadcasters who commission shows, and not with lax independent producers. But this unjustifiably absolves the indies, which now take a large share of the rights in their productions, from the professional and moral responsibilities to ensure that their programmes conform to the standards expected of British television. Nor do the complaints about poor leadership from the ranks and columnists deal with the real issues when the forces identified here are endemic.

Renewed values, purposes, leadership: these cannot stem the tide when the incentives are stacked to encourage deliberate deception and the manufacture of celebrity. Finally, nor is it true to claim, as some executives complacently do, that audiences have only recently decided they expect more from television. For some years research has shown that audiences are mightily fed up with the diet of derivative, low-quality output. The BBC cannot reverse the rot alone. As Ofcom has recently grasped, integrity and quality are best cultivated competitively between media companies that are regulated and funded to deliver them. When will our government listen, and redesign the monster of a restructured industry it has created?

Georgina Born is the author of "Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC" (Vintage, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?