Now, the thing is this: BBC2 was the first of the ‘culture’ channels in Britain. BBC1 generally did fairly sensible stuff, but Beeb2 was a cut above Beeb1 and mostly appealed to the more discerning viewer. That was why I was expecting the documentary about NYC to be about the soul of New York.
I wanted to know how the city functioned on all human levels, from the heroes of America Corps to the animal known as Trump. Instead, what I got was four chirpy presenters doing short sound bites, mostly around Midtown Manhattan, on the logistics of New York. They went jumping gleefully around saying things like ‘A thousand enquiries a day?! WOW!!!’ and irritated me greatly. It was all about how the city’s wage slaves keep the Big Apple juggernaut surging ever onwards, seemingly to very little purpose of any real significance. It certainly wasn’t about people being made sad or happy, and it certainly wasn’t about the soul of New York, not unless the soul of New York doesn’t really exist and the city is little more than a place where a few million people have to live because they can’t afford to buy a homestead in the woods of Oregon.
It wasn’t BBC2 standard, at least not as BBC2 is traditionally understood. It was a disappointment, and I imagine it was another victim of the Thatcherite mentality which is increasingly requiring the BBC to become more ‘commercial.’
Let’s make something clear: The BBC is not, and never has been, a commercial institution. That’s why we have a TV licence system in Britain; it’s there to pay for the BBC so that one revered institution at least can be shielded from the sort of commercial pressures applied by the likes of advertisers and their ilk (even though it doesn’t, unfortunately, shield Auntie Beeb from unwelcome government interference. See the sad story of Tony Blair and Dr David Kelly for evidence of that.)
And all of this is, I think, a shame. And I continue to believe that NYC does have a soul, knowledge of which would be fascinating to a discerning viewer. But it seems there just aren’t enough discerning viewers to make the dissemination of that knowledge a sufficiently commercial proposition. The principle most revered by the Thatcherite mentality was imported direct from America, and has become the leading light of 21st century attitudes: It don’t count unless it sells.