Should we laugh or cry at the recent events in the grubbier
commercial side of the British television industry? For some the
reassertion of the amateur hour-ethos is good news, a sign that art has
not prostituted itself before mammon. For others, it’s another nail in
the coffin for Britain as a global player.
At first sight, the passing over of Sue Farr for Matthew Bannister for
the top marketing job at the BBC appears based on extraordinarily
parochial reasoning. Flailing around as we must for an explanation
behind the unseating of one of Britain’s most successful marketers of
recent years, we can only alight at a desire on behalf of the incoming
director-general, Greg Dyke, to keep the talented Matthew Bannister (see
interview, p10) within the corporation. Which is fine, except that -
whatever attempts there may now be to rewrite the past - Bannister has
no marketing experience.
Imagine the outcry if Farr - or Jane Frost, for that matter - had been
given the post of controller of Radio 1 or something similar.
While the BBC takes two steps back, the Government appears intent on
keeping ITV stymied in the quicksand of Britain’s impenetrable media
ownership legislation. In the week that the Government announ-ced it
needed to take further soundings in the proposed Carlton/United News &
Media merger, Bertelsmann and Pearson announced a deal that changed the
face of European television. We all know why the UK advertising industry
and Carlton-United’s domestic rivals have contested the merger proposal,
but try explaining the regulations to anyone from abroad. It is yet
another example of that great British habit of turning assets into
Some will find it inconceivable that television might go the way of
shipbuilding, coal, motor-cycles and cricket and football. It’s the same
arrogant, blinkered world vision that conveniently ignores Friends,
Frasier, Seinfeld, ER, The Sopranos and Ally McBeal to insist that we
have the best television in the world, that asserts we have nothing to
learn from Cannes because we create the best advertising in the world
and that is disappointed every time a major football tournament comes
around although we have won nothing since 1966.
Some may find the amateurism that so long characterised the British
attitude to sports such as athletics and rugby union reassuring - a sign
that even in business we are playing fair and letting the real talents
have their head. But, the stark truth is that be it the BBC, ITV,
British athletics or rugby, professionalism is what is required to
survive at the top international level. The moves of the last week are
fiddling or, to be more precise, tinkering while Rome burns.
They are the TV equivalent of blaming BMW for the fact that Rover could
not make cars the British public wished to buy.