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Artillery Row

Auntie to the rescue

Can the BBC give us daytimes to remember?

Cometh the hour, cometh daytime television. It is not popularly associated with the classics of broadcasting history, comforting though Countdown and Cash in the Attic may be to viewers unfazed by the unforgiving minute. Yet, with most of the British population being confined to home, we will all now have the chance to view a lot more daytime telly. This is its moment. It can confound our low expectations. We know it can entertain, gently. But can it also give us the other two Reithian imperatives to inform and educate us?

Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, has announced the Corporation’s response to the Coronavirus crisis. Schedules and output are being amended to rise to the challenge of a vastly increased daytime audience that will be in search of information as well as distraction. Auntie is coming to our rescue.

It was only a little over a fortnight ago that Hall was expressing the aspiration that the BBC would develop “a much warmer relationship with the British public which is less the ‘Auntie’ of two or three decades ago.” No more our old-fashioned stickler for standards, suddenly our mate down the Dog & Duck. And yet, here we are, a couple of weeks later, very much back in need of the highest quality public service broadcasting. It was our help in ages past. Can it be our hope for the next few months to come?

There is certainly much in the new scheduling that fits what we would expect of public service media in this crisis. The BBC will prioritise the dissemination of virus-related news and information, along with advice on health, fitness and wellbeing. There will be a daytime Health Check UK Live “to address the concerns of viewers who are in isolation,” a daily Coronavirus podcast and a weekly prime-time special on Wednesday evenings. There will be phone-ins on Radio 5 Live (admittedly not exactly a novel format on that frequency).

And for those whose spirits may be lifted by hearing less about the virus, the BBC will deliver other means of distraction. There will be a virtual church service on Sunday mornings on local radio. A daily education programme for different key stages and age groups with additional content on the BBC Red Button and iPlayer will be aimed at those who would normally have been in the classroom. As described it is not obviously going to keep them in the living room.

For entertainment, we will have easier access to repeats with iPlayer boxed sets (without the box) of Spooks, Waking the Dead, French and Saunders and Wallander. For the highbrows amongst us, there will be Culture in Quarantine. Scattered across the Corporation’s channels and online platforms, this will bring us views of “shuttered exhibitions, performances from world-class musicians and comedy clubs and new plays created especially for broadcast.”

It is not reasonable, given the resources and the time-frame, to expect the BBC (and even less any other network) to magic-up a banquet of high quality new content at the flick of a wand. Except in its virus-related programming, if the Corporation is going to offer us more, then it has no option but to serve up repeats.

But what a feast of vintage fayre we could enjoy. Making more of the great documentaries of the past available on iPlayer can be done rapidly and easily. There is already a sizable back catalogue if you navigate the A-Z search icon on the iPlayer documentaries page. However, simply dumping more at the foot of that page risks viewers having to spend a long time scrolling between wheat and chaff.

Making more of the great documentaries of the past available on iPlayer can be done rapidly and easily.

There are ways around this. Without any significant extra cost, there could be a daily expansion of “the BBC Collections” range (in which specialists select their choice of documentaries that are exemplars of their particular interest, like Janet Street-Porter’s choices on post-war architecture or Sir Simon Jenkins on London). Through such curation, the best is not only highlighted but connected in a comprehensible progression.

Yet, good though this would be, a great opportunity will be forsaken if all we get is more stuff on iPlayer. After all, if we know what to look for, we can probably find it on YouTube already.

For all the ability of streaming and downloading to make accessible the archive’s deep trove, viewers still value a daily channel schedule (even if they no longer watch it all live). It draws attention to what it is vital, what is being consciously showcased. It confers status and signals our attention.

Given that BBC One and Two’s daytime content will be coronavirus-loaded, this should have been the moment when BBC Four became the National Gallery and British Museum in our home. Besides the best documentaries, school-age viewers could have been treated to a revival of the “Programmes for Schools and Colleges” format that dominated BBC morning output in the 1960s and 1970s but which has now lost all cohesion. This is one programming format that really could be done afresh, at speed, and without enormous expense. Doing so would accord educational output far greater dignity and prominence than what is seemingly in the offing for our teenagers at a loose end.

There is no compelling reason for why daytime telly has to be downmarket. After all, the BBC’s daytime radio output is not noticeably more lowbrow than its evening scheduling. Yet, BBC Four will not be expanded to offer daytime quality programming because of a decision taken at its inception. Rather than make the necessary investment, the BBC opted to have BBC Four share its bandwidth with the pre-school channel, CBeebies. CBeebies would monopolise it during the day. This is why BBC Four doesn’t start its daily schedule until 7pm. The ability to offer educative and cultural daytime television was lost.

There is no compelling reason for why daytime telly has to be downmarket.

This is a technical issue with financial implications and it will not be solved in the next few weeks. A great opportunity for millions of home-bound Britons to be introduced to some of the greatest achievements of public service broadcasting will thus be forsaken.

But as the BBC readies itself not only for meeting the crisis of the moment, it should also reflect on how it could best justify its privileges and the licence fee in time for its Charter renewal at the end of 2027. Would daytime educational and cultural scheduling not be an idea?

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