Bad News at the BBC

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There's no surer sign of a fading soap opera than a lurid plot twist. Unlike their glossy American counterparts, British soaps traditionally aim for stolid social realism, depicting ordinary folk pursuing humdrum lives. Now dwindling audiences are spurring producers to unleash implausible killers and gothic disasters on their workaday protagonists. Take the hapless citizens of Walford, a fictional London borough that is the setting for EastEnders, one of Britain's top-rated soaps. Recent episodes have seen a troubled adolescent kidnap his estranged stepfather, chip-shop owner Ian Beale, to exact revenge for his psychopathic mother's death in prison. Ian's current wife Jane was shot during her attempt to free him (keep up now: the gun originally belonged to a pedophile who targeted Ian's 13-year-old daughter). Jane's doctors say she'll survive her injuries, but such infusions of melodrama may not save EastEnders from inexorable decline, or help sustain its progenitor, the British Broadcasting Corporation.

In the past few months, the BBC has itself resembled a superannuated soap, the long-term future of the 85-year-old institution called into question as it lurches from embarrassing revelations about editorial lapses to high-level resignations, job cuts and threatened strikes. Management has apologized for such breaches of trust as falsifying the results of a public vote to name a cat on the children's show Blue Peter (producers rejected the winning entry "Cookie" in favor of "Socks") and showing a trailer for the documentary A Year with the Queen with scenes shown out of sequence to suggest (deceptively) that the monarch had stormed out of a photo session. That scandal claimed a number of scalps, including the boss of BBC1, Peter Fincham, who resigned on Oct. 5. Two weeks later, the BBC's director general Mark Thompson announced plans to kill off some 2,500 jobs, mostly in news and factual programming, and to sell the Corporation's iconic West London headquarters, Television Centre. Management is now locked in talks with unions, which have threatened industrial action if an agreement on the layoffs is not reached by Nov. 5. "The BBC's problems are manifold," says Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror newspaper and now a journalism professor at London's City University. "There are more dramas at the BBC than ever get shown on screen."

How did it come to this, that an institution revered for the quality of its output, a global role model for public-service broadcasting, the backbone and guardian of British life, "monolithic and ingrained into our culture," in Greenslade's words, should suddenly seem so vulnerable? One source of the Corporation's problems can be found back in Walford: 9 million saw Jane tackle Ian's crazed captor — far shy of EastEnders' record episode in 1986, when over 30 million watched nothing more dramatic than the marital breakdown of a pub owner and his barmaid wife.

Back then, viewers had only four channels to choose from, all terrestrial, and all required to include some content intended to benefit society: BBC1, the home of EastEnders and the rest of the BBC's most popular output; the more esoteric BBC2; the commercial network ITV; and Channel 4, then only four years old and set up to break the duopoly of the BBC and ITV. The greatest challenge to EastEnders' popularity came in the proletarian form of ITV's long-running soap Coronation Street.

Today EastEnders is menaced by something far more dangerous than a rival show and way deadlier than any serial killer dreamed up in a script meeting: the digital revolution that's wreaking global havoc in industries as diverse as broadcasting, newspapers, magazines, film and music. Challenged by technologies that allow anyone to read news, watch TV or listen to music on a bedroom computer (or to make these things oneself for consumption by other people on the same computer), these businesses are frantically scrambling to reinvent themselves. EastEnders must now fight for an audience not just with other terrestrial channels but with cable and satellite stations, while younger Brits spend more and more of their time trawling online sites like YouTube and Facebook. Mark Byford, the BBC's deputy director general and the Corporation's head of journalism, says there's a noticeable "falling away" of large swathes of TV viewers who are "under 35 and especially under 25." The BBC derives 78.5% of its $8.5 billion income from an annual license fee of $275 payable by any household equipped to receive TV; in return, it's obliged to cater to all ages and socio-economic groups. "In a world of fragmentation, a world of more choice, of a revolution in how people are accessing content, one of our big, big challenges is to hold that reach," Byford says.

An even more fundamental challenge is to convince the government and the public that the BBC should continue to exist in something close to its current form after its 10-year charter expires at the end of 2016. For almost two decades, the BBC had expanded its operations rapidly as it tried to keep abreast of convulsive changes in technology and viewing habits. It funded these adventures with cash from license payers. It was already beginning to slim down again when, in 2006, the government agreed to a lower-than-inflation increase to the cost of the license fee over the next six years, leaving the broadcaster with a $4 billion shortfall. Cutting jobs and selling property will keep the Beeb afloat for now, but underpinning today's turbulence is a deeper question that even its own managers are asking — in this brave new digital world, just what is the point of the BBC? Amid conflicting answers lies the key to the future not just of the BBC but the whole of British broadcasting.

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