After a discussion with a pro-BBC friend over my last blog post, I have come to a point that I failed to cover; mainly because I really don't see it. The point in contention is that the BBC promotes culture and that without it, culture would die. Of course, the term culture is ridiculously vague, even by comparison to most non-committal BBC-esque terms. As wikipedia tells me, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions. The huge array of definitions makes the argument in itself slightly absurd. Which one of the definitions of culture is the BBC protecting? Generally though, what is meant is 'the arts' or high culture.
The cusp of my friend's argument was that culture is mainly a niche subject and that it cannot survive in a free-market system, where only the most profitable products can exist. This is of course nonsense. Perhaps some of the things wouldn't exist on the scale of the BBC; the proms for example. But niche markets exist in almost every area and of often regarded as valuable and standard business practice for small businesses is to compete using niche markets. A product in a niche market may not sell as many units, but each unit can usually be sold for more. Arts definitely fit into this, most people have no interest in buying paintings, but the value of art is astronomical when compared to more tacky decorations. Art was around before television and I have yet to see television become the best medium for advertising of arts.
Of course, the assumption is that if the BBC were to cease to be public, it would become a Murdoch/Sky/Fox type network. Perhaps some of it would, but I don't see the BBC as any better (except for in the case of Fox). As I said in my last post, the BBC news would be a tabloid if it were a newspaper – it contributes no new information and less depth than most of it's competition. It lacks anything special which gives it the right to the pedestal it is given. Find me a BBC news story which is better than what the rest offer, I dare you.
Back to culture. It is true that the BBC puts out programming like the Culture Show, but what does that actually add to the arts? How does culture benefit from the BBC talking about fairly mainstream art? I don't think it does. Pretty much the only things promoted by such shows on the BBC are things that could easily be found by anyone who was interested anyway. I imagine most of the viewership already know of the artists in question. I remember watching a Culture Show piece on Salvador Dalí, I already knew who he was and had already appreciated his most famous pieces (the only paintings that were shown). This is not advancing culture, this is just looking at previously acknowledged pieces of art. This is worthless, lazy programming. This is not the advancement of culture.
On the other hand, the private sector advances art. Pretty much all music is solely in the private sector. Some of it, perhaps the majority is cheap rubbish, but niche markets exist. Music of a huge array of genres exist, almost everything in tune seems to be able to be made profitably once it reaches a certain point. Where is the BBC in all this? Well, they have Radio 6 Music. A highly listened to station that could easily make a profitable venture, under capitalism, without the BBC, this could easily exist. Perhaps it could even be more expansive, allowing a greater number of new artists to get noticed by private scouts. The BBC is not required if a venture can be profitable. The BBC is only required where it safeguards or promotes something that would die without it. Would the art of Dali cease to be if the BBC didn't promote it? No. Would all niche music die if it were not for 6 Music? No. Both these things existed before the BBC added their name to them. Some new artists might become successful through being on 6 Music, but Myspace did that before them, Spotify exists, the market has provided and will continue to provide.
So, what else might be considered culture? Books. Books are marvellous, but when was the last time the British Broadcasting Corporation produced anything (other than the occasional book reading on Radio4) promoting books in any way. It could be argued that the existence of BBC TV makes it less likely for people to read books, giving them more low-brow entertainment programs, personally I don't think it does, but it doesn't appear to help. I recently finished Catch-22 and now I'm reading Ballard's Crash. When was the last time either of these were even referenced in BBC programmes? The only book that seems to be referenced by the BBC is Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Almost always poor generalised statements about dictatorships. Not exactly of high cultural value.
It doesn't provide anything the free market was providing for music and it does nothing for books, but the BBC is good in other areas of culture, right? Perhaps not, as I said before, art on the BBC concentrates on the mainstream. Nothing new comes in via the BBC. A budding artist trying to make it big goes to private galleries to sell their work, the BBC is not a route through. The BBC does nothing for them either. So what does it provide and for whom when protecting culture? Nature documentaries? I must say that Attenborough does seem to make rather good nature documentaries, but he would still have lived without the BBC, and nature documentaries are, in essence, rather cheap to produce, a niche product that doesn't require much in the way of fancy cinematography that a high class drama might require. Apart from travel to a region, it requires a small development team with fairly standard equipment to produce. Of course the BBC spend a huge amount on these programs, wastefully. There are countless other documentary channels, many free-to-air, and it is only in the area of nature documentaries that the high-spending BBC seem to have them beaten on, and not by a huge margin either. Of course, that is my opinion, but why should I pay for others to view what they think as good but have them not do the same for me?
The BBC can never cater for all niche markets, the market can. And with the market, you only pay for what you want. If you want the BBC type stuff, then you pay for it, if it costs a premium, then fine, that is what the market dictates. The only things that will not be commercially viable are the bits of art that are never valued at anything. Those bits of art currently do not get air-time under the BBC. Not having the BBC does not damage culture, you could argue that having more private networks would advance culture as smaller companies seek niche markets, but to argue the other way around is absurd. The behemoth of the BBC does not cater any more to niche groups than Sky or ITV. The BBC does not protect or promote culture, it does little more than regurgitate arts that are already fairly mainstream. The vast majority of art is privately owned, virtually all music, books and games are produced by the private sector. Virtually nothing that can be deemed cultural is produced by the BBC. Culture is made by individuals and not by the state. If you want to see what the BBC means for culture, watch the brutalised works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the recent series of Sherlock Holmes. Culture dies with the production of works like this. The BBC lacks the fundamental ingredient of culture – individualism. Individualism can only truly flourish under true capitalism and that is why the BBC will always be sub-standard when it comes to cultural material.
If you wish to nationalise culture then anything produced will most likely be forgotten in a lifetime, the freedom of expression would be lost. The BBC would never commission a work like that of Dali's, nor would it commission a great work of fiction. The BBC gets it money without having to work for it. Nothing new can be generated that way. The BBC can afford to be lethargic and so it will continue to be. The BBC is the very essence of philistinism and will never be better than that.