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17 July 2015

Why should the BBC make programmes like Strictly Come Dancing?

From the beginning, the BBC has had a brief to educate, inform and entertain. That last one isn't an afterthought. 

By Chris Bryant

So after months of inaction and with less than 18 months to go, we finally have a government Green Paper on the BBC.   However consensual John Whittingdale may have seemed in the Chamber, last weekend we learnt that the Prime Minister intends to use this process to stop the BBC making popular Saturday night entertainment shows like The Voice; in fact the front page of Monday’s Metro screamed ‘Axe The Voice and TV licence fee, BBC is told’.   

The Chancellor has already raided the BBC coffers to pay for the government policy of free television licences for the over 75s and decried what he called the BBC’s ‘imperial ambitions’. And the Secretary of State John Whittingdale thinks it is ‘debatable’ whether the BBC should even make Strictly Come Dancing, let alone show it on Saturday night and his Charter Renewal is apparently meant to be a root and branch review of the scope and scale of the BBC.

So against this backdrop we do have to ask, why don’t we accept market failure or to put it more bluntly; why should we save Strictly?

For a start, the @entertain’ in Reith’s “inform, educate and entertain” isn’t just an afterthought. When asked to choose from some words describing what the BBC’s mission should be, over six in 10 people chose ‘entertain’, more than any other.  Yes, it’s the BBC’s mission to do something more than just chase audiences and I think the BBC could take the foot off the cross-promotion pedal, but popular programming is what justifies the licence fee to the vast majority of my constituents. 

This goes to the heart of the issue.  The golden thread that runs through the BBC is that everyone gets something out of it because everyone has paid for it.  You might want Pappano on classical music.  Or a searing documentary on Syria. Or Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.  Or Eastenders.  Or Wimbledon.  But it cannot just be posh TV at the public expense so it has to have a combination of all these things.  It needs to be a universal service that can bind the nation together through that golden thread. 

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But there’s more to popular public programming to that: we have a reputation to live up to.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a foreign diplomat or politician who hasn’t praised the World Service or the BBC for its impartial news.  Unlike any other country in Europe we are a net exporter of programmes too – Sherlock was sold to 224 territories and had 67 million hits on China’s digital platform YouKu. Strictly or Dancing with the Stars as the format is called in other countries, is sold to more than 40 territories, whilst Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary was simulcast in 98 countries and 15 languages.  Our broadcasting is a key part of our international diplomacy – our soft power – and it helps bring significant money into the BBC. I am mystified that a Conservative government above all would want to limit the BBC’s news output to a pared down website.

When making popular programmes, the BBC cooperates with its commercial competitors, it commissions them from a vast range of production companies and it gives a platform for actors, directors, singers and artists whose work will regularly take them from the very commercial to the remarkably niche.

The point is that the British creative industries cohere as a balanced ecology with the BBC at its heart, and the popular programmes that bring money and audiences to the BBC help provide a focus for that ecology. 

Only a madman would take an axe to the tallest tree in the middle of the forest and not expect to do serious harm to the whole of the forest.  

So should we save Strictly and the Voice? Of course because the BBC remains our country’s biggest and most important investment in the arts and as Conservative MP Damien Green argues if we don’t have popular programmes we simply undermine the argument for a universal licence fee.  The government are trying to question the need for the BBC to provide something for everyone but I passionately believe that a public sector broadcaster run with public money should make popular programmes; making the good popular and the popular good is a laudable aim, and I’ll be fighting for the BBC’s right to continue to do just that.