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End of an era

24 Apr 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
End of an era

The fate of programmes like Something Understood and iPM reveal much about the BBC's direction of travel, writes Raymond Snoddy

A small but perfectly formed and appreciative audience heard something remarkable at 6.05 on Sunday morning on BBC Radio 4.

After 24 years, Sir Mark Tully, the principle presenter of Something Understood signed off for the last time on a new edition of the programme.

Remarkably, even for the BBC, to save money the programme will continue to be broadcast but consist entirely of editions from the archives - or repeats as they are more commonly known - and this will continue for "the foreseeable future."

To save money the foreseeable future could run for 24 years and then of course you could start all over again and run it all one more time from 2043 to to 2077.

Just think how much money the BBC would save, and if a committee has not been set up already to see how such a policy could be extended to other programme areas, then there is not a moment to lose.

Maybe it wouldn't work terribly well for news or sport but as for anything else, apart from a few high profile big drama shows to appear to compete with Netflix, why should the BBC bother to do expensive things like make new programmes.

With Sir Mark and Something Understood the BBC may have inadvertently stumbled on a new financial model that could have the most profound consequences. The problem all along was those old diehards who unreasonably kept insisting that you had to keep making original, new programmes.

Once you get over the conceit of new programming the possibilities become endless. Why on earth keep making new episodes of Casualty when every possible human-medical drama and associated love interest has been tackled endless times before. You could even start EastEnders from the beginning again.

Seriously though, for those not listening at 6.05 on a Sunday morning or at 11.30 pm for the repeat, Something Understood was one of the most outstanding radio programmes the BBC broadcast.

Sir Mark Tully

It used literature, music and philosophy to hone in on ethics and the meaning of life and loss in a spiritual way that could be equally embraced by believers, agnostics and out-right atheists.

It should have been on in prime time rather than when many, drifting in and out of consciousness, were only able to catch snatches of its beauty. And as many have pointed out it was effectively axed in a year when the BBC had promised to up its game in religious programming.

In the last new programme Sir Mark caught the elegiac mood perfectly by quoting from the T.S Eliot poem East Coker including the line: "In my end is my beginning."

At around the same time another ground-breaking BBC radio programme iPM disappeared - this time without remaining trace.

Former head of Radio 4 Mark Damazer said he fell off his chair in excitement when the idea was first proposed to him in 2004 - "the news programme that starts with its listeners."

What could possibly be more relevant today than giving airtime to the personal "news" submitted by listeners and the longer form turning points in "ordinary " people's lives. Often they were more dramatic than any fiction.

Budgets have to be cut and choices made but the fate of programmes like Something Understood and iPM tell you something about the BBC's likely direction of travel.

In the larger scale of things Roger Mosey, former editorial director of the BBC, has just tackled some of the existential issues facing the Corporation in a big piece for the Sunday Times magazine, even questioning whether the BBC and its licence fee can survive in is present form.

The challenges of course are already familiar - the rise of Netflix and Apple and Amazon and changing viewer habits, particularly the young who increasingly prefer to watch YouTube than conventional television. At the same time, according to Mosey, Ofcom figures show that the average age of BBC One viewers has moved to more than 60.

The terrible dilemma the BBC now faces is the danger of upsetting its most loyal audiences by taking resources from the programmes they like to try to pursue the young.

Mosey does not mention Something Understood but notes the millions being diverted into developing the BBC Sounds app to woo the new generation of streamers, but which has so far only managed to annoy BBC loyalists.

Mosey believes the BBC should have bitten the bullet years ago and merged BBC Two and BBC Four to create one higher ground channel and used the money saved to boost BBC One rather than closing BBC Three as a broadcast channel.

As for the Corporation itself, the former executive quotes an unnamed well-known BBC broadcaster as saying there is now "an end-of-an-era feel about the place."

Mosey also believes the BBC has been "woefully inadequate" in creating the space on its main television channel for the biggest story in generations - the UK's relationship with the European Union, even cutting the length of News at Ten at a time of such dramatic political change.

Is there any solution to the problem that is the BBC?

"To avoid the fate of irrelevance, the BBC needs to to recommit itself to the highest standards: to surprise and delight, to inform and inspire - and at times to challenge the established order and be ready to have a row," concludes Mosey.

You could add that the BBC should consider starting with its listeners and think more carefully before axing programmes like Something Understood and then trying to pretend that nothing had really changed.

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