Public Service Broadcasting

The BBC is determined to make its orchestras look like any others, which will put them in serious peril

When you emigrate, you learn as much about the country you leave as the one you join. Sometimes that’s helped by straightforward comparators. One obvious example is the BBC – founded 100 years ago this year, and for most of the time since, a model for other public service broadcasters from Stockholm to Sydney.

In The Northern Silence, I write about the crisis that faced public service broadcasting in Denmark pre-Covid-19, and what happened next – how the public broadcaster used its in-house chamber choir to lead national TV sing-alongs during the pandemic, thereby justifying its very existence. It offers a stark contrast to the course currently being taken by the BBC, even though the contextual challenges are the same.

Denmark opted to abolish the license fee in 2018. Now, Danes pay a media tax on the principle that public service broadcasting should, like healthcare, be paid for by everyone – even those who claim not to need or use it. The change immediately diffused the debate surrounding what was, undeniably, an antiquated way of funding a service provided by the state for the greater good.

The Danish license fee was also expensive – more than twice the cost, per household, of the UK’s equivalent. We now pay less for public service broadcasting in Denmark, which has forced the main recipient of those funds, the broadcaster DR, to make tough decisions regarding content and platforms.

When the cuts hit, DR opted to focus on precisely the things the ‘new’ broadcasters would never go near: culture, language, children’s programming, news, national identity, live music, live events and so on. Lamentably, it took the decision to close its television culture channel, DRK (the equivalent of BBC Four). Not so lamentably, many of that channel’s most interesting cultural programmes are now shown on DR2 (BBC Two), where they are seen by far more people.

That includes concerts from the DR Symphony Orchestra, The Classical Music Quiz (which also features the DR Symphony Orchestra), The Opera Trip and so on. I have written elsewhere about how DR has used its musical ensembles to create imaginative television content, the sort the upper echelons of the BBC seem to hold a pathological aversion to.

There is some sense, at DR, that the musical ensembles are the crown jewels (they include a symphony orchestra, two professional broadcasting choirs, a group of supporting youth choirs and a big band). The Director General is a regular face at concerts in DR’s own on-site concert hall, a vineyard auditorium designed by Jean Nouvel. Last week, DR unveiled its spring ‘music offering’ (no genre divides were stated) in which the ensembles were front and centre. We were promised 50 hours of television and radio content focusing on the composer Carl Nielsen alone. That’s just in April.

How does this contextualize what’s happening at the BBC? That’s easy. The wider BBC has never prized its ensembles, and seems increasingly frustrated that they even exist. By my reckoning, it’s many years since any of them made content bespoke for television. During the pandemic, the London Philharmonic broadcast far more on-screen than the BBC Philharmonic. Videos made by the corporation’s ensembles were confined to social media channels. Outside the Proms, they remain more-or-less invisible.

That’s symptomatic of a wider problem: Britain’s paralysis when it comes to talking about classical music in the mainstream media. The gatekeepers are utterly mystified or terrified by it, while those at the BBC who actually work on it are in far too deep. It’s unthinkable that the BBC would make a programme like Denmark’s The Opera Trip – an irreverent, expletive-ridden yet celebratory look at opera that mocks the art form as much as it confesses a deep, serious love for it. It has proved hugely popular, notably among people who have otherwise found opera difficult to approach.

But the BBC’s whole handling of classical music speaks volumes about its wider strategy, which by its own admission sees no room for the direct funding of orchestras and choirs in the long term. The BBC appears determined to try to take the argument to the likes of Netflix, rather than excel in the domains Netflix can’t hope to reach. If there’s any argument at all for the public funding of TV and radio stations, it surely pivots on those TV and radio stations providing content the market can’t or won’t. DR had its budgets cut as savagely as the BBC’s. Its reaction was to cleave to public service ideals. Politically, it appears to have worked.

It helps BBC bosses that the corporation’s ensembles have such little meaningful presence on TV, and that their distinctiveness on Radio 3’s airwaves can easily be glossed over. Tim Davie’s response to the various letters concerning the closure of the BBC Singers talks endlessly about community, education and reach mostly through physical presence. There’s next-to-nothing on what should be the ensemble’s trump card when it comes to actual reach: broadcasting. That is literally the BBC’s middle name.

This is surely no accident. Diluting the ‘broadcasting’ bit from the BBC Singers and Orchestras (as per Davie’s letter) means the corporation can claim these are ensembles like any other. That will make them far easier to gradually move out of the BBC’s purview, into a barren funding environment where they cannot realistically survive (already in action, with regard to the BBC Singers). That, it seems to me, is the BBC’s real strategy when it comes to classical music.