The BBC is to spend £50 million on market research over the next four years in a bid to discover what viewers want.
That’s 50 million quid, the equivalent of 314,000 colour TV licence fees at £159 each. Put it another way, it’s enough to give a free licence to every home in Glasgow.
It’s a ludicrous sum of money, to discover something that the Corporation must know already — because their viewers constantly tell them. Not only do BBC executives have continuous access to audience figures, showing exactly how many people tune in to every programme, but they receive a daily stream of emails, letters and tweets telling them exactly what we all love, hate or yearn to see.
No other business on the planet has better feedback from its customers. I know because, as the Mail’s television critic, I receive hundreds of comments from readers letting off steam about their TV gripes.
If the Beeb really doesn’t know what viewers want, I can tell them for free. It’s a simple shopping list of great drama, especially period romances; thrilling crime mysteries; comedies that actually make us laugh; and dialogue that doesn’t rely on repetitive foul language.
Recent series of Doctor Who, starring Jodie Whittaker, have been an exercise in po-faced preaching. If smug self-righteousness won big audiences, 40 million people would be tuning in every week to be ticked off by a Time Lord
None of this needs to cost the earth.
While it’s true that £50 million is barely enough to make five episodes of the Netflix drama The Crown, which costs about £10 million an hour — the most expensive TV series ever — the BBC is not expected to compete on that scale of lavishness.
And the topmost item on the list, say correspondents to the Daily Mail, need not cost anything at all. We all just want to be able to hear the actors.
Nothing infuriates people more than mumbled dialogue or background music that drowns out the cast. The BBC1 crime serial Shetland was castigated for this recently, and series including Happy Valley and Jamaica Inn have been heavily criticised in the past.
Bad sound can make television drama unwatchable — yet when challenged, BBC bosses blame the viewers. Some moaners need to get their hearing aids checked, they say, and others might need to invest in a new TV set. That adds insult to injury.
It’s unhelpful, it’s arrogant and it’s wrong . . . because as the official body for recording technicians, the Institute of Professional Sound, pointed out last year, the real culprits are directors who think mumbling is somehow more authentic.
‘Directors are persuading actors to downplay their delivery and almost throw their lines away, thinking it is more realistic,’ said Malcolm Johnson, the Institute’s secretary.
Just as irritating are underlit scenes, especially in historical dramas such as Wolf Hall and The Last Kingdom. New technology is partly to blame, with low-light video cameras able to work on studio sets lit by the glimmer of a single lightbulb.
The Last Kingdom (pictured) is a series based on Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories
These shots look good when projected onto a cinema screen at an industry premiere. But watching them on a small screen at home is like staring into a mug of black coffee. Worse still, flat LED screens become dark mirrors if there’s more light in the room than in the picture.
That’s one reason why I refuse to go to screenings, and insist on watching in my home, as readers do. Television is a very different medium to cinema, a basic fact the BBC sometimes seems determined to ignore.
Without doubt, sound and lighting are the biggest cause of complaints in my postbag. But that’s not the answer BBC chiefs want to hear.
They imagine there’s an untapped audience, mostly in the 16-34 age range, who are eager to switch off their PlayStations and abandon social media, if television can only discover the magic ‘youth formula’.
In the fantasy world of the Beeb, that will ideally mean more ‘diverse’ shows, featuring actors and presenters who are more racially and sexually representative. The BBC’s favourite buzzword is ‘identity’, a shorthand for everything to do with race, sexuality, gender and self-esteem.
This is exemplified by the announcement this week of Ncuti Gatwa as the next Doctor Who. The 29-year-old Scot, born in Rwanda, is best known for his flamboyantly gay character in Sex Education on Netflix — nominated but unfairly passed over for a Bafta for the third year running at the weekend.
Gatwa is a terrific actor and I’d love to see him rescue this classic show from the doldrums.
Doctor Who has slid so far down the ratings that it no longer airs in its traditional Saturday evening slot. But if fans rush back, it will be due to his charismatic performance, and not the ‘diverse’ casting.
However much the virtue signallers at New Broadcasting House want to prove their moral superiority, viewers don’t choose what to watch according to its ‘wokeness’.
Doctor Who itself is proof of this. Recent series, starring Jodie Whittaker, have been an exercise in po-faced preaching. If smug self-righteousness won big audiences, 40 million people would be tuning in every week to be ticked off by a Time Lord.
No amount of market research will make Auntie understand this. The BBC has just spent £80 million relaunching BBC3, its self-conscious platform for ‘youth content’ — the TV equivalent of a middle-aged man in a hoodie and trainers.
Just as irritating are underlit scenes, especially in historical dramas such as Wolf Hall and The Last Kingdom. New technology is partly to blame, with low-light video cameras able to work on studio sets lit by the glimmer of a single lightbulb
The tone was set on opening night, with a documentary called Gypsy Queen And Proud, about Cherry Valentine — a 28-year-old drag artiste from Darlington who grew up in a Traveller family.
Audience figures for BBC3 have proved to be worse than the Corporation’s bleakest fears. One of the channel’s most touted new formats, The Fast And The Farmer-ish, which saw rural youngsters racing tractors, attracted about 43,000 viewers.
Beeb execs wailed that it was unfair to highlight this flop, since more viewers were tuning in via iPlayer, the BBC’s online streaming service. But BBC3 was already available on iPlayer. That £80 million was spent to relaunch it as a Freeview channel . . . something nobody wanted or asked to see.
That’s what Britain’s national broadcaster has always done wrong. The BBC hears what it wants to hear, not what viewers are telling it.
Throughout the Beeb’s existence, audience opinions have been treated as something of an eccentricity. ‘Listener research reports’ dating to the earliest days of radio are maintained in the archives, but regarded as a historical curiosity rather than an ominous indication that Auntie has never been ‘in touch’ with demand.
For decades, letters of praise or complaint were treated with equal disdain in a ten-minute weekly slot called Points Of View, presented with a wry smile by Barry Took or Anne Robinson. Now, even that minimal concession to the viewers has been discontinued.
One Saturday night this year saw a celebrity edition of The Weakest Link followed by The Wall v Celebrities, Pointless Celebrities and then Michael McIntyre’s celebrity gameshow The Wheel . . . all spread across three hours 20 minutes on BBC1. So much for variety
If the Beeb truly listened, commissioning editors would know how frustrated people are by the endless procession of petty celebrities. Instead, they cram the schedules with quizzes and panel games featuring faces famous only for being on other quizzes and panel games.
One Saturday night this year saw a celebrity edition of The Weakest Link followed by The Wall v Celebrities, Pointless Celebrities and then Michael McIntyre’s celebrity gameshow The Wheel . . . all spread across three hours 20 minutes on BBC1. So much for variety.
What viewers long for is great entertainment, terrific drama with believable characters, comedians who are truly funny, witty and revealing conversation, high-tension sports events and memorable spectacle — whether that’s colourful dance contests or wonderful wildlife documentaries.
The BBC knows this, because these shows have been its greatest successes. There is such affection for sitcoms like Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers, for celebrations of the arts such as Civilisation and the scintillating chat shows hosted by Michael Parkinson and Russell Harty, that even now repeats of them attract sizable audiences.
I’ll say it again, there’s no need to spend a fortune on market research. Viewers are only too happy to make their feelings clear. We know what we like. The BBC knows what we like. All they have to do is give us more of it.