(or, why BBC should put their material on Youtube).
The future of TV is on the net. Too bad the leading TV producers don’t understand it.
This year I am living in the US, without a TV. So far I have not missed it – we have Netflix for movies and Youtube for music and clips. Having to chose your programming yourself means zero hours channelsurfing on the sofa, and a delightful lack of background noise from breakfast TV shows and similar junk.
But – what to watch when you want a little fun? For my youngest daughter (she is here in Boston to take a year of US high school) and I Friday nights have been spent in front of our nice 23 inch monitor, wathing Never Mind the Buzzcocks, a great, wild, satirical quiz show about pop music. And when I want to relax by myself, there is the unsurpassable QI, a [deeply intelligent/self-indulgingly moronic] quiz show with a pop science bent. Or I can watch some of BBCs great series, such as Stephen Fry’s programs about the English language.
Through Youtube, I have come to know and appreciate comedians and actors such as Bill Bailey, Phill Jupitus, Jo Brand, Noel Fielding, Alan Davies, Jimmy Carr, Sean Lock, Rich Hall, John Sessions, Rob Brydon, David Mitchell and Dara Ó Briain, just to name a few. I have learned a lot and laughed even more. The episode where Emma Thompson describes how she used her body to terrify Stephen Fry to complete breakdown or where Jack Dee serves the mother of all putdowns to Sandy Toksvig and Ronni Ancona are complete jewels.
Which brings me to a sad point: The channel NickFromFulham, who (assuming there is a Nick and he is from Fulham) has put up all these videos, was recently shut down from Youtube. Where should we go now for our witty and intelligent entertainment? You see, almost none of the stuff that BBC produces is viewable outside the UK, except in short snippets, on DVDs, or on the anemic BBC America channel, for which we would have to get a TV, and then put up with programs that are both delayed and also watered down in terms of swearwords, sexual and scatological references and much of the Britishness that makes Britain both British and bearable.
The funny thing is, of course, that if it wasn’t for Youtube’s technical capability and NickfromFulham’s diligent uploading and characterization, I wouldn’t know much about QI and nothing about Buzzcocks. Which makes me wonder a) what else is out there, not just in BBCland but in many TV stations around the world, and b) why the heck doesn’t BBC (and NRK, its Norwegian state-funded equivalent and all others) put their stuff out in digital format?
To the first point: I gave a talk to NRK in June, about disruption in the media industries and so on. As part of the discussion of how to strategize for the future, I urged them to fill up available spots in their many channels with stuff like QI – quality shows that have a very local appeal, but in an increasingly global world will have global appeal without sacrificing quality. When you treat your viewers as intelligent, they will act intelligently. To quote David Foster Wallace, in his his brilliant essay E Unibus Pluram:
TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.
The point being – with infinite channel capacity, you can attract a large audience, in many countries, by not pandering to the lowest common denominator. (The fact that QI is one of BBC’s most watched programs shows that the common denominator may, in fact, not be so low after all.)
The future of TV is on the net – but in order to attract people to the net, you have to release your best stuff, and gradually become the source and context of quality entertainment rather than a prison of old business models. And incidentally, slamming the door in the face of your biggest fans is not the way to go about it.
As for us? Well, my daughter is 17 and an accomplished net surfer. She can easily find and download the next episode of Buzzcocks from one of many pirate sites. Not that I like it, but what can I do? (Well, IP spoofing and going to BBC’s web site in the UK itself would be another option.) Or I can watch something else, which, of course, lowers the commercial value of all those actors and comedians participating in the things I would like to see.
Incidentally, here is one of the most watched Norwegian skits on Youtube. Let’s see if you understand it, even if it is in Norwegian (with subtitles):