Television today: illogical, crazy, dumb

11th April 2013

Let’s suppose that Arts Council England employed the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and a team of researchers and production staff to put together a substantial 3-volume history of the art of the Netherlands. ACE committed, let’s say, £300K of public funds to the project and this was felt to be money well-spent. The result was generally agreed to be engaging, authoritative and a valuable contribution to extending awareness and understanding its subject.

Now imagine that it was announced that the book was going to be available for just one month. We could all read it together during that month, but after thirty days the book was going to be hidden away. We couldn’t even consult it in public libraries, although it might come out for another month at some point in the future, and it might be the case, although no-one could promise, that we could buy our own copies in the future.

What do you think? Appropriate use of public money? Viable model for subsidised cultural production? Well, um, probably not. But this is EXACTLY the way in which television about the arts (and much more) works now. It’s illogical, crazy, dumb – and we are all the poorer because of it.  Yet no-one seems to notice just how weird it is.

The second episode of the three-part The High Art of the Low Countries, written and presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon, premieres tonight on BBC Four. The series is a substantial project, and like the critic’s earlier explorations of the art of Spain, of Germany, of The United States and of Russia, it is engaging, authoritative and a valuable contribution to extending awareness and understanding its subject.

I don’t know, but I would guess that BBC Four has spent around £300K of licence fee funding on the series. And within a month it will disappear. There may or may not be a DVD release in the future, and some errant knave might upload it illegally to YouTube. But otherwise this publicly funded contribution to knowledge and understanding will disappear. Just like those other series written and presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon, and the series written and presented by other nice art historians and historians and classicists and scientists and more.

I recognise, of course, how we’ve reached this illogical, crazy, dumb set-up. I know that it is locked in place by custom and practice, by terms of trade and by other contractual arrangements, and by deals for all sorts of rights. I know that it came about because television used to be one thing – a limited medium of live broadcasts – and now it’s a hundred other things. Today the technology exists, not least via BBC iPlayer, to give us all continuing and free access to programmes like The High Art of the Low Countries. But we are locked into a system that is, simply and straightforwardly, wrong.

We are all prevented from having continuing access to cultural products for which we have paid. That’s the bottom line. And we should not simply accept that. Remember Network? How about if we all objected to the way things are by following Peter Finch’s example…


  1. M.K. Hajdin says:

    If the BBC won’t make the programs available, art lovers will have to help themselves by downloading the episodes off the internet.

  2. Twas forever thus. Plus at least now we have PVRs and before that video as another option. Before then, when it was gone, it was gone.

    But the blanket seven day iplayer trust agreement is a monster because it covers even things like this which have a relatively limited afterlife and has a radio loophole which would mean exactly this kind of material would still be streamable if it was just on audio.

    All eight episodes of The Art of the Monarchy are still up:

  3. Paul Tickell says:

    Yes, another example amongst many demonstrating that Thatcher and all her wiles did NOT bring about greater freedom of choice.

  4. John,

    Once a programme is broadcast, it should stay broadcast. We should aim to achieve this by whatever means possible.

    However, it is worth pointing out that in various ways this principle exists now and is acted upon. An exception in the 1988 Copyright Act allows educational institutions to record free-to-air broadcasts and to re-use these onsite for educational purposes. This is overseen by a licensing agency, the ERA, to which all (but one?) universities belong. Universities can either record programmes themselves or make use of the BUFVC’s back-up recording service or Thanks to this exception and the initiatives it has permitted, a huge amount of UK television is readily available for any student who wants to make use of it.

    Operating under another copyright exception, and by special arrangement with broadcasters, the BFI manages the national television archive which has been archiving via off-air recording a substantial part of UK television since 1985, all of it accessible to anyone, albeit with the requirement to visit its central London base to do so.

    This is good for the scholar, but frustrating for the general viewer. However, pointers to change do exist. In 2011 the BBC announced a change in its Service Licence for BBC4, Radio3 and Radio4, giving them the ability to offer programming on-demand for an unlimited period after broadcast. See, where Roly Keatings says: “What it means is that BBC for the first time has a clear, defined remit to start building a ‘permanent collection’ of some of its best programmes for free online access by anyone in the UK now and in the future…”.

    Instances of acting on this can be found – see for example the excellent Noise: A Human History radio programme, all 30 episodes of which are being made available online for a year.

    The building blocks are there.

    Conversely, I had a conversation with a BBC radio producer yesterday who was complaining of the difficulty of getting support for making programme content available online, not because of rights issues but because of audience apathy after the immediate of broadcast and the attendant publicity. Simply said, too often programmes which do stay online can suffer from a waning of interest, and though we value the idea of the long tail, how thin is that tail going to be allowed to get?

    But still, once a programme is broadcast is should stay broadcast, just as once a book is published it should stay available on a shelf somewhere. Just don’t forget that in many cases those programmes sit on shelves too, and not enough people are getting up and finding them.

  5. John Wyver says:

    An excellent response, Luke, as I might have hoped – and you’ve covered far better than I could points that I was thinking about for a follow-up post. But this is an issue that’s not going away – and as you indicate there are the first signs of changes ahead.

  6. Intriguingly,the original Roly Keating blog post appears to have disappeared from the About the BBC blog. But it can be found on the Internet Archive: The service review to which he refers is on the BBC Trust site, here:

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