The BBC: Promoting the nation’s intelligence


QI is probably one of the top comedy panel games on British television. To those who don’t know, the show is hosted by the famous Stephen Fry who asks a bewildering range of obscure near impossible to answer questions, ranging from topics such as history to zoology and from astronomy to neurology, to panel of often confused comedians. They then offer characteristically comic but often wrong answers before Stephen Fry enlightens us in his ever amicable and well-spoken manner. What’s great about this show is it’s broad popularity, being enjoyed by many people who would not regard themselves as academically minded. Similarly, the BBC frequently runs documentaries, like for instance Stephen Fry’s “Planet Word”, or Dr Brian Cox’s “Wonders of the Universe”, which, like QI, also promote the value of learning and intellectual inquiry to the British public.

This point really struck me when I was in a kebab house late one night in my home-town near Liverpool, and, for reasons I can’t honestly remember, I was explaining to my dis-believing friend how the first Homo-sapiens in Europe were Black Africans, and the already settled Neanderthals were white-skinned. “He’s right you know!” suddenly exclaimed a bloke sitting next me. “You’ve been watching that documentary on the BBC haven’t you?” And so ensured a drunken conversation over the origins of humanity in a kebab shop, this all personally demonstrating to me that the BBC certainly does ‘inform, educate and entertain the masses.

So why then, is the BBC successful at what it does? In order to understand why, it would be helpful to look at other channels on TV which also aim to inform and educate viewers. These other channels, white entertaining and informative, fall short in educational category. For instance a look at the National Geographic’s TV schedule today, reveals documentaries about deer hunters, tornado chasers and border police on the US-Mexico border. Informative and entertaining yes, but not all that educational, evidently not BBC standard. Similarly, the History Channel’s main programs include very historical documentaries about ice-road truckers, lifeboat hero’s and something called “vampire island”. As for the actual history documentaries the History Channel airs, there seems to be an obsession with WW2 and a slightly unnerving fascination in the Nazi’s. So why then is BBC programming of superior quality?

The crucial difference between these channels and the BBC is that these channels on Sky are privately owned, earning their money from advertising. This means that their overall interest is maximising profit by airing shows which will get the most viewers. This leads to a race to the bottom as private TV directors dum-down and sensationalise their programs to maximise viewer ship,  at the expense of producing television shows that are actually educational.

The BBC is very different. It’s public not private company, and funded by TV licencing fees instead of advertising. This lends the BBC a regular and reliable source of income, meaning that the BBC does not have to blindly chase profits like directors in other TV channels do. This gives the BBC the freedom to pursue it’s own mission statement, to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. Given it’s prominent position in British (and indeed, global) television, the BBC can air serious documentaries and still attain a high number of viewers in ways that private TV companies can not.

The moral of the story here is, reader, that we shouldn’t apply the capitalistic model of chasing money wherever it may go, to all aspects of society. There are very good reasons why schools and the NHS in Britain arn’t privately owned, and this is because that, while capitalism can certainly make money, it doesn’t often bring about what is actually morally good for society.

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  1. Good article. 🙂 I’m a bit confused as to how an article on the Beeb suddenly became an economy jibe, though. The BBC has to tick boxes like every other channel. Yes, they’re not concerned with making money, but they still have to consider their ratings, and abide by the rules which allow them to make money. So while they’re being educational and so on (and brilliantly so!) they also have to be a lot safer than other channels. Much of this is fantastic (think of Fox and shudder…) but it does mean that, as educational as they may be, they can’t be ahead of the curve like some other channels.

    Now, as an example of a channel which encourages great programming while making money, look at HBO. As a paying-only channel the viewers are investing, and they expect returns. The quality of the shows (Rome, Carnivale etc) are amazing. They don’t make trivia programs, so I can’t make a great comparison, but their attention to detail in their historical stuff is good.

  2. P.S. You spelled “dumb” incorrectly. But keep it in, the irony is amusing. 😉

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