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BBC a Fountainhead of TV Creativity?


With the BBC’s status apparently under threat from the Tories, various people connected with the BBC have naturally come out to explain what a unique and valuable institution they think it is.  One of these people is Steven Moffat, producer of the highly acclaimed Sherlock, and of the new series of Dr Who.  Here’s a couple of extracts from a Guardian article covering his speech:

Its fair to say that theres only one broadcaster in the whole world that would have come up with and transmitted as good an idea as Doctor Who…” [said Moffat]

Along with the Great British Bake Off and everything David Attenborough has ever done, Who is a wonderful example of the corporations breadth, according to Moffatt. There is no other broadcaster so madly varied and so genuinely mad, he said. Can you imagine what the world would be like without that insane variety?

There’s a few things that make it difficult to form a judgement from this article, and use it as a basis to give the thumbs up or down about the BBC being a good thing:

  1. He’s only talked about the benefits of the BBC; and we can’t conclude it’s a good idea without also thinking about its costs. My home town club Blackburn Rovers would really benefit from having the entire Real Madrid team turn out for them on a Saturday, if we didn’t have to worry about those cursed transfer fees and annoying player salaries
  2. His argument in the article is based on a few examples, which is a common way of arguing, and is good and memorable and easy to visualise, but he’s given us no solid data to back up his general claim of world leading excellence and variety. For we critical thinkers, this sets off a little alarm bell: “Is he just cherry picking the good stuff?”
  3. His point about variety sounds like a red herring unless we take a moment to think about why variety is important. Does it actually matter if one big production company has a lot of variety, if the same types of things are being produced by lots of other companies big or small?

There’s other things about the argument that would make a logic buster twitchy, but I’ll stop at the 3 above.

Just because he’s not making his points in a perfectly balanced way – he’s promoting a cause after all – it doesn’t mean he’s wrong.  So let’s look at his argument.  We’ll confine our investigation to testing what he claims in the article, leaving aside the costs, and any other arguments for or against the BBC.

To have something tangible to get our teeth into, we need to clear up what he’s claiming.  We need to do that in a fair way that’s generous to the spirit of what we think he meant, but also in a way we can test with evidence.  Here’s what I come up with if I do that:

  • The BBC produces some of the best TV programmes in the world, and more than its fair share of all high quality TV programmes
  • The BBC produces a broad range of different types of high quality programmes, including some types that all the other TV companies put together don’t cover anywhere near as well as the BBC does

Let’s now look at some facts to test this, starting with BBC’s quality.  I’ve used as my source the 100 top rated TV programmes in the IMDb database.  I’ve adjusted the data to make it fair.  First, I’ve removed double counting[1], which leaves 92 programmes.  Second, I’ve given any remakes to the producer of the original series, for example I’ve given the US Office and House of Cards to the BBC.

Here’s a table showing how many of the IMDb top 100 are made by each of the top production companies.

Table 1

Go BBC.  It produces more programmes in the top 100 than anyone else, and is also the top producer since 2000.  For interest, Dr Who is in there at number 73.

Things are a tad shakier at the very top end of the ratings.  BBC has 1 programme in the top 5 (Planet Earth), versus HBO’s 3 (Band of Brothers, Game of Thrones, and The Wire); and 4 of the BBC’s 5 programmes in the top 20 are David Attenborough documentaries, the other being Moffat’s Sherlock.

Things are also a little fragile if we look under the surface at what’s been made since 2000.  Of the BBC’s 14 top 100 shows since 2000, 5 were by David Attenborough, and 2 were US remakes of earlier BBC originals.  That’s half of the BBC’s best shows since 2000 being reliant on one brilliant 89 year old and two US studios.

Let’s now look at variety, and whether the BBC makes programmes in genres that would be very weak if the BBC didn’t exist.  The IMDb top 100 contains 22 genres, and the BBC is in 13 of them, compared to HBO’s 15, ITV’s 9, and Fox’s 9.[2]

Chart 1

So the BBC is there or thereabouts in having lots of variety, even if it’s not the stand out global number one.   But what about the more germane point of the BBC contributing heavily to areas that other production companies don’t cover?  Here’s the BBC’s number of shows compared to everyone else’s shows in each genre in the top 100.

Chart 2

The BBC’s biggest areas are drama and comedy, which are also the most popular areas across the board.   The BBC is the second biggest producer of high quality drama after HBO, and is the biggest in comedy.[3]  Though this puts the kibosh on the BBC championing poorly represented genres, it does say that the BBC is making what the punters like, which seems like noble work.

The genres where the BBC really moves the dial are documentaries, with 5 of the 11 most popular, and at a pinch romance, with 2 of the 4 biggest tear jerkers.  These genres would be noticeably poorer without the BBC.

So here’s what I conclude about the BBC’s quality and variety from all this:

  • It makes lots of good programmes, more than any other producer in the world
  • It’s good at making drama, and people like drama
  • It’s very good at working with David Attenborough to produce outstanding documentaries, and is very reliant on the old fella

We can’t conclude the BBC is a good idea because we haven’t looked at the costs, or at any alternatives, but the benefits look pretty good for drama and documentary lovers.

When I look back at Steven Moffat’s claims in the article, I see what I often see from passionate advocates: he concentrates on the good stuff, ignoring the negative side of the argument, and he exaggerates a bit to tell a good story.  These are important characteristics for an advocate and a believer; but we can’t take what he says as a basis to form any solid judgement and either get behind him or boo him off stage.

Our analysis also shows something else I often see in the arguments of advocates and champions: once we accept that they’re a bit biased and take off the rose tinted glasses, they often still make some excellent points.  We can only see all that with confidence because we ignored pre-judgements, cleared up the thinking, and looked at the evidence.  No sh*t Sherlock.



[1]Some TV series have multiple series counted separately in the database

[2]The totals look high because each show is typically in 2-4 genres.  For example, Sherlock is in crime, drama and mystery.

[3]Comedy is a little deceptive because the BBC hasn’t got many comedies in the top 100 that it produced after 2000.

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