The BBC openly calls for 'user-generated content' - but is this a genuine request for participation from people outside the institution? Tony Dowmunt suggests a revival of the concept of access.
Television remains a very undemocratic, centrally controlled, and exclusive medium – despite the proliferation of channels on an expanding variety of delivery platforms. A key symptom of this deficit is that there are still very few opportunities to participate meaningfully in production. ‘Reality TV’ and formatted ‘documentary’ shows have obviously opened up television to a wider range of people as the subjects of programming. But this is a limited openness. The power to define its limits remains firmly in the hands of the broadcasters, and these new subjects are still objects for them to manipulate, with no ability to represent themselves in any full sense.
The BBC, through the Community Programmes Unit (CPU), for a long time provided access to BBC production resources for outsiders to represent themselves. However the Corporation lost interest in the concept of access during the 1990s, and the Unit was closed in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, Mark Thompson – when newly appointed as Director General of the BBC in 2004 – said then:
We look forward to a future where the historic one way traffic of content from broadcaster to consumer evolves into a true creative dialogue in which the public are not passive audiences but active, inspired participants. (Thompson 2004: 4)
Two years later, in a Press Release about their ‘Creative Future’ initiative, the BBC acknowledged that:
Increasingly, audiences of all ages not only want the choice of what to watch and listen to when they want, they also expect to take part, debate, create and control […]. Interactivity and user-generated content are increasingly important stimuli for the creative process. (BBC Press Office 2006)
So the word ‘access’ may now be replaced by the phrase ‘user-generated content’, but the concept of active participation remains alive, and a ‘true creative dialogue’ with its audience is still a crucial part of the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster. Of course, much of the current interest in ‘user-generated content’ is due to it being a cheap and fashionable way to source material for programmes, rather than from a genuine enthusiasm for democratic participation. ‘We are encouraging viewers to send us film of extreme weather’, said David Holdsworth, head of regional and local programmes for BBC West Midlands: ‘The aim is to open things up a bit’ (Brown 2005: 8). Soliciting sensational material from viewers to bolster conventional programming may save the BBC money, but it is hardly opening up the institution in terms of real democratic access. Even the admirable ‘Britain in a Day’ project left editorial control of its broadcast form firmly in the hands of the ‘professionals’.
It is clear that the BBC, as the national public service broadcaster, needs to find a braver role in a context in which the tools for creation are now ubiquitous, and the Corporation’s current interest in ‘user-generated content’ needs to be a more meaningful part of this role. The degree to which the BBC permits and encourages ‘user autonomy’ – genuine participation in, and power over programme-making by people outside the institution – will be a good measure of how well it is functioning in a truly democratic way. ‘The crucial project of re-inventing the BBC’s public service role in the participatory culture of the twenty-first century’ (as Mandy Rose put it in her open letter on 28 June) may well best be realised by a revival of the concept of ‘access’, alongside an institutional intervention like the CPU.
BBC Press Office (2006) ‘Creative Future’, accessed 2 June 2006
Brown, M. (2005) ‘The News from Near You’, Media Guardian, 12th December 2005
Thompson, M. (2004) ‘Building Public Value’, London: BBC