I read a story on the BBC about this Christmas’s TV ratings winner, the geriatric but nonetheless entertaining Only Fools And Horses. This is a show that began in 1981, but continues on following the last series in 1996 in the form of Christmas specials. This is a good thing; yes it relies on tradition to get by at times, but it’s a great tradition, and still shows strong writing and engaging characters.
Contrast with a range of stories about the current dearth of new comedies in the US. The concern is that the current headline comedies such as Friends and Frasier are getting old (though only 12-13 years, positively spritely by BBC standards). No replacements can be found, in part because the networks concentrate on the broadest/blandest possible audience, partly because good comedy is hard, and significantly because the networks won’t take a chance on a series to grow. The head of one of the studios recently said that Seinfeld, arguably the biggest comedy in the last 20 years, probably wouldn’t have made it through its first series today because the ratings are so low.
This is a prime example for me of why the BBC is so great. While it has a duty to provide programming that people want to see, it isn’t beholden to advertisers to hit particular numbers. It can afford to stick with a complete season of pretty much anything (shifting it to BBC2 if it doesn’t seem to be working out, as expectations there are different), and even commission a second season. Hence we have three more seasons of the outstanding Blackadder, a series that many thought was funny in its first season, but most didn’t.
The pressure that BBC exerts through this freedom keeps the other commercial stations honest as well, so in the UK the adverts run for around 7 minutes per hour, as opposed to 16 per hour in the US. That alone is worth the license fee, never mind the web presence, radio stations, and now the digital stuff. It seems that this is a good model for how government can act in many areas. It provides a direct service people want (TV and radio), it provides a service people want but don’t think about (high TV and radio standards), and doesn’t cost a fortune (though it could definitely be cheaper).