Sunday, November 2, 2008
I can’t picture Gordon Brown sitting down with a mug of Horlicks listening to the Russell Brand show. Yet in the middle of the worst economic crisis for 70 years, with catastrophe looming in the Congo, he somehow found time to pronounce on a radio programme where just two listeners had phoned in to complain. There’s no doubt Brand and Ross’s answerphone messages to Andrew Sachs should never have been broadcast: they were lewd, offensive, and would have been an invasion of privacy whether or not they had been transmitted. But did they warrant such apocalyptic reaction?
The answer depends on how old you are. The events of last week brought into focus one of the biggest problems facing the BBC: how to engage with “Youth”. Commercial broadcasters need youth audiences because advertisers demand them, but the BBC needs “The Young” because without them the licence fee will soon become irrelevant.
That’s why BBC Three was launched. According to its latest ratings, this network still fails to attract substantial numbers of its target audience of 16 to 24 year olds. Last year my development team set up focus groups with scores of young people to uncover their interests and viewing habits. The results matched the BBC’s own research: young people are hard to shock, but love being shocked; they find almost nothing on television relevant to them except Skins and Shameless (both on Channel 4) or, if they‘re back from the pub in time, Two Pints of Lager and A Packet of Crisps. In other words, they craved shocking comedy. Enter Russell Brand.
This isn’t a new problem for the BBC. When I was a producer on Nationwide, being the youngest member of the team at 24, I was given a weekly slot to produce which my bosses imaginatively called Young Nation. It was November 1976, so I booked the Sex Pistols. We recorded an interview that was (to me) hilarious, but utterly untransmittable. So I told Malcolm McLaren that we’d have another go but, if they actually wanted any publicity from us, they’d have to toe the line. Anything offensive would be cut out. They got the message, and I got the first interview with the Pistols.
Bill Grundy was not so lucky. They went on live, and Bill was drunk. It ended his career. But my interview was so bland, I doubt it did anything for Jonny Rotten’s record sales.
The big challenge for the BBC is how to reach this elusive demographic without alienating the vast majority of us now too old to “get” juvenile shock humour. Or rather, we do get it, but we simply don’t find it funny any more. Even Jonny Rotten now does adverts for Country Life butter; yesterday’s anarchists are today’s Mail On Sunday readers.
I’ve listened to the whole of the Ross/Brand piece on You Tube and I found the series of apologies, each compounding the original offence, to be quite amusing, probably because it’s a well-tried sitcom technique. However, the underlying premise and the dialogue reminded me of embarrassing nights of drunken mirth (and regretful hangovers) in the Student Union. By contrast almost all young people I have spoken to found it funny and can’t understand all the fuss.
Not that you’d believe this if you read the tabloid that stirred up middle England. Yesterday The Mail on Sunday ran the headline: Exposed -- the BBC and the Myth of ‘Yoof’ and reported a BPIX survey alleging that 71% of young people found the broadcast “unacceptable”. BPIX is a mysterious organisation. Their website has been “under construction” for years; unlike legitimate polling organisations, it publishes no supporting data, nor the complete questions asked. Yet the Mail uses it, in its own words, to “blow a hole in the BBC’s argument”. I bet Mark Thompson wishes someone would blow a hole in the Mail on Sunday.