C4's Bellamy: British TV is getting bland

Thursday, November 5 2009, 09:08 GMT

By Andrew Laughlin,

Channel 4's programming boss Julian Bellamy has claimed that a conservative culture in UK broadcasting fuelled by a chronic fear of offending the public is making TV bland.

In a speech to the Royal Television Society last night, Bellamy argued that a spiral of compliance in the UK industry "threatens to bland out the medium to no-one's benefit".

Bellamy further said that the creative vision of broadcasters is now narrowing, leading to "less surprise and variety" in the output for viewers.

"[Television] is increasingly characterised by the lack of places in which mainstream audiences can engage with provocative, non-conformist ideas," he said.

"If a fear of offending the audience begins to proscribe creative freedoms, then I believe the danger to our broader cultural life is clear. Our society will become less democratic. Less enlightened. Ultimately, less free."

However, Bellamy stressed Channel 4's commitment to pushing the creative boundaries, largely because the broadcaster should always "defend creative freedoms even when public sentiment risks being offended".

He added that Channel 4's role as a "cultural provocateur" is even more important today as it remains the "sole guardian of non-conformism and provocation on Britain's most powerful cultural medium".

Bellamy singled out the BBC as being particularly conservative in its editorial decisions, largely because a series of recent scandals have led the corporation to "avoid disruptive, potentially controversial ideas like the plague".

The BBC's conservatism is an "unintended consequence" of its method of funding, said Bellamy, as intense public scrutiny puts pressures on the corporation's ability to take risks.

"We live in an era when greater transparency is expected in the public realm... individuals and pressure groups are incredibly adept at using social media to mobilise public opinion," he said.

"The press is relentless in measuring and magnifying perceived outrage. It is becoming more uncomfortable for all broadcasters, but particularly the BBC, to stand in opposition to the public mood."

Bellamy also reiterated previous assurances that Channel 4's decision to cancel Big Brother from next year will represent a "unique opportunity for us to reconnect with our key cultural role".

He believes that the channel should always engage in "intelligent provocation", where the viewer is challenged with a worthy subject which genuinely "provokes with a purpose".

Despite "relentless competitive pressures" leaving Channel 4 with a prospective budget shortfall of 150m by 2012, Bellamy can see a "silver lining" in the broadcaster's financial situation.

"We can either continue playing the percentages, gradually diluting our distinctiveness, managing decline as slowly as possible. Or we can trust to the instincts that have served us well in the past and do everything possible to defend Channel 4's unique cultural role," he said.

"I genuinely believe if Channel 4 retreats into conservatism we will cease to be a meaningful cultural force. Putting a premium on intelligent provocation, irrespective of financial circumstance, is our best hope of staying afloat.

In terms of the 2011 schedule, Bellamy set his sights on "unambiguously entertaining" programmes which also hold a "social purpose at their heart". Predominantly, though, he sees a "real sense of new beginnings" at the broadcaster.

"I want to communicate a genuine and renewed determination to experiment with different ideas; to identify new orthodoxies to question; to discover new ways to take the mainstream out of its comfort zone," he concluded.

"We must spurn any temptation to relive past glories, as so many in television now do. This is a moment to be more focused than ever on reaffirming our credentials as Britain's most forward looking, contemporary channel."