Monday, April 20, 2009

The BBC: Where British Isn't Always the Best

I live in the UK, where television and radio, alike, are dominated by the entity fondly known as 'Aunty': the British Broadcasting Company, or the BBC.

Prior to the advent of satellite and digital broadcasting, most Americans, who didn't actually travel to Europe, only knew of the BBC through Masterpiece Theatre and various other funded programs broadcast on PBS affiliates. These programs, both drama and documentary, were of the highest quality and often made our homegrown fare look tawdry and trite. They often featured reknowned British stage and screen actors, and if they didn't, they featured people who would one day be so.

Now most Americans know the BBC from its US affiliate BBC America, which - I gather - isn't very good and broadcasts the same sort of show several times daily from a schedule some two or three years old.

Here's some things the average American may not know about the BBC: it's state-funded, hence the name British Broadcasting Corporation. It's non-commercial and its funding comes solely from the television licence, which each household which has a television is required, by law, to pay annually. The licence is £150, there or thereabouts - roughly about $225 in real money. It's paid annually via debit or credit card or in cash via the Post Office, and all of it, goes to fund the BBC's programs and employees.

There are estimated around 30,000,000 homes with televisions in the UK. Multiply 30,000,000 by £150. That's £450,000,000 which the BBC has, all to itself, to spend. That's about a budget of $675,000,000. Annually.

That's a lot of money.

But in this day and age, we all know that quantity often doesn't produce quality. Mostly, the BBC is made up of very bad sitcoms (My Family starring the late Sam Wanamaker's daughter Zoe is particularly bad), the British version of Dancing with the Stars, a few cooking shows and prime time soaps. Their flagship expertise is news and documentaries, both on television and radio. A lot of people complain about the licence fee, especially when it comes time for Wimbledon, the US Elections or some major sporting event abroad (like the Olympics or the World Cup), when everybody and his dog at the BBC ups stakes and treks off on a jolly funded by the payer of the licence fee. The organisation despatched 300 journalists and lackies, alone, to cover the US Election night.

There's absolutely no avoiding paying the fee. Detector vans roam the streets at night, which can detect a house where a television licence hasn't been registered. Anyone caught without a TV licence can be fined up to £5000 (roughly $7500) and can even be clapped in jail.

And this is a democracy.

Still, the argument is that the BBC's quality is that much higher, because neither their television nor their radio is blighted by advertisements.

But it's blighted by something else.

Because the BBC is state-funded and state-owned, by extension, anyone who works under a BBC contract is a de facto employee of the State. A sort of civil servant of entertainment, if you will. For example, a few years ago, the most popular program on British television, Eastenders, hired an Indian actor who'd finished a run in the theatre in the West End. Because he wasn't a citizen of a European Union country, he required a work permit, which he had for his theatre performance, specifically. But this permit didn't cover any other sort of work in television or radio; when this was discovered, the BBC had egg smeared all over its face, because a plot had to be hastily re-written due to the actor being deported. People should have known better.

In recent months, the organisation has been shown to deal fraudulently in competitions centering around childrens' shows. In short, they cheated.

But my tale concerns something a bit seedier. Listen, read, and try to imagine the same thing happening in US entertainment. It says a lot about state-owned and run broadcasting entities.

The highest-paid and best-known personality employed by the BBC is a chappie called Jonathon Ross. Ross is a Londoner with a cheeky, chirpy Cockney accent, educated at no less than the London School of Economics. He's in his late forties and currently hosts a film review show on BBC television, a late-night chat show broadcast on Friday nights and a Saturday morning radio show on BBC national radio.

At the moment, Ross, whose trademark is a slight lisp and a speech impediment which renders all his 'r's as 'w's (he's fondly known as 'Wossie'), is on a three-year contract worth £18,000,000 ($27,000,000). Ross is, for lack of a better word, the king.

He's a bit of a naughty boy, is Jonathon. He peppers his language with risque remarks and is infamous for asking David Cameron, the Opposition leader, on television if, as a boy, he masturbated to images of Margaret Thatcher. That sort of thing.

Another 'edgy' employee of the Beeb is somewhat better known in the States, and that's the comedian, Russell Brand. Up until the end of last year, BBC national Radio 2 employed Brand to present an early evening pastiche of comedy and music on Saturdays. The show was taped beforehand and went out each Saturday night before the 9PM watershed. (In Britain, it's ok to be rude and smutty on air, but after 9PM). Brand is a comedian who openly brags of sexual exploits and his routine is rife with sexual innuendo.

Brand's particular radio program was produced by a BBC employee who was all of 24 years old.

Near the end of last year, Ross was asked to be a guest on Brand's radio show, which was taped beforehand. During the taping, they had also arranged for a guest appearance for a veteran British comic actor, Andrew Sachs, who played the iconic hapless Spanish waiter in the John Cleese television series, Fawlty Towers, from the 1970s. Sachs is 78 years old. The actor didn't show, for whatever reason; so Brand and Ross decided to ring him. They found Sach's cellphone was turned off, so they rang, on air, his home phone. There was no reply, so they decided to leave, on air, a message on the answerphone.

Now it just so happened, that Brand, had actually had a sort of relationship with none other than Sachs's granddaughter, a 23 year-old exotic dancer named Georgina Baillie. What followed was taped and broadcast on air on national radio.

Brand and Ross left messages for Sachs, to the effect that the men told Sachs, over the answerphone that Brand had 'fucked' Baillie. They didn't leave just one message, they rang back and left variations of the message - in poem, word and even in song. On air. Broadcast.

Now, maybe these men's names, Brand apart, mean nothing to you; so let's try to give them US equivalents. Try to imagine the likes of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, ringing Bill Cosbie to leave messages saying Stewart had actually known, in the carnal sense and in the crudest connotations, Beyonce, Cosbie's granddaughter. Imagine them doing this on a nationally broadcast radio program during prime time.

They would be toast. Burnt toast. Badly burnt toast.

What happened?

Brand immediately resigned. Ross was suspended, without pay, for three months. His film show and his chat show were affected by this and substitutes were gathered to present his Saturday morning show. He was due to present the BAFTA Awards, but that presentation was scrapped.

The suspension has been served and a few weeks ago, he returned with his chat show, interviewing no less than Tom Cruise on the first show. Brand is back on BBC digital radio, again presenting a show. Ross was one of his first guests. And the BBC has been fined a whopping £150,000 ($225,000) - pocket money - to be paid to the regulator. That's £150,000 of the taxpayers' money. Many politicians from both sides of the political divide in Britain have remarked on the unfairness of the public picking up the tab on this one. Brand and Ross should pay, they say.

And the culprits? They've basically given the stiff middle finger to the British public. They're laughing. In fact, on Ross's latest Saturday morning program, he was openly dismissive and derisive of this.

This is Britain, the land of fair play and justice.

You couldn't make it up.

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