Monday, May 12, 2008
Respect to the Viewers
[Yesterday the BBC announced that one of its divisions, Audiocall, had failed to pass on £100,000 of revenue from viewers' phone calls to Children In Need. On the same day, Ofcom fined ITV £5.67million for the premium rate telephone call scams discovered across a range of its entertainment programming]
I used to think broadcasting was such an honourable profession. When I joined the BBC straight from university, it was one of the blue-chip careers, like the Foreign Office or Reuters. The day we arrived at the BBC Journalist Training School we were told what an honour it was to join. Sitting below a portrait of Lord Reith, our instructor said: “you will all become heads of departments here, provided you don’t commit either of two crimes: bounce a cheque at the BBC cash office, or forget to pay your licence fee.” For two years our training was about the right way of doing things – writing news bulletins, constructing balanced programmes, filling in our expenses forms. Above all, we were taught how important it was to respect our viewers and listeners. They funded our salaries, so their faith in our self-governing organisation was paramount.
Cut to 2008. A BBC division called Audiocall has “kept” £100,000 of viewers’ money that the public thought it was donating to charity through its telephone call revenue.
I could detail chapter and verse on this sad decline in standards, but it would fill up an entire book -- I'd best save it for my never-to-be-published autobiography. Suffice it to say that I, and other producers who rose through the ranks in the 80s and 90s, including my immediate contemporaries like Mark Thompson – are to a certain extent guilty, for we should have seen this coming.
It was in the early 90s that “premium rate telephone calls” were introduced. For an independent producer like myself, the opportunity to earn some extra profit by popping a viewers’ competition into a show was a godsend. You know the kind of thing: “Today's the Day that on 12th May 1971, Mick Jagger married his first wife. Was she called a: Doris, b: Charlie, or c: Bianca? Phone 0898123123 and you could be entered in our prize draw to win a round the world air ticket”. No matter that we made thousands every day from the call revenue and the actual cost of a bucket class round-the-world ticket was just £750. And we only gave away one ticket every 200 episodes. However, we knew it was fair because the whole thing was overseen, approved and run by BBC Audiocall, which was specifically set up to ensure veracity.
Except Audiocall wasn’t just there to make things fair: it was there to make money, because someone had the bright idea of making it part of BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s arms-length commercial organisation. That’s where the rot started. Television is about public service, not exploitation, and when the dead hand of easy money starts scratching away at editorial content, you’re just an arm’s length away from moral bankruptcy.
If the BBC was tempted by this new source of free cash, commercial television gulped it down. Soon entire programmes were being funded by call revenue. It was close to, but not quite, a lottery, and all perfectly legal.
But even in the dark days of GMTV’s absurdly simple multiple choice competitions, or the pointless “viewer surveys” on daytime television, producers would never actually cheat. Sure, we’ve occasionally pulled the wool over the eyes for dramatic effect (did you really think there were three separate holidays in Cilla’s envelopes on Blind Date?), but we never faked a winner.
So the recent revelations mystify me. Could greed have spread so quickly through the television industry? Or is it that we have promoted young people so fast, even allowing presenters like Ant and Dec to call themselves “executive producers”, so that the traditional wise heads are no longer running the ship? Well, probably a bit of both.
The catalogue of dishonesty, deception and downright fraud literally makes my blood boil. I’d like to apologise to you, the viewers, on behalf of my entire industry. Except I know that isn’t enough. It took the BBC decades to build up your trust, and I know it’ll take more than an apology or a fine from Ofcom to rebuild it.