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The Waterloo of Quality TV? : A bill in Britain calls for the sale of broadcast rights--and this, say opponents, would destroy good programming

February 04, 1990|DAVID GRITTEN

LONDON — From a small, quiet house near a subway station in the shabbily genteel Camden Town district, a rear-guard action is being fought against government reforms that could change the face of British television.

In this building, which normally houses an independent TV production company, a large, bearded, bearlike man named Simon Albury paces restlessly, rummages through piles of newspaper clippings, takes a seemingly endless string of phone calls and summons up information on a computer screen.

Albury, 44, is director of the Campaign for Quality Television, a 550-strong consortium of program makers, producers and on-air personalities that opposes plans by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government to implement its new Broadcasting Bill. The measure, according to campaign supporters, would create a climate of financial caution and exclusively market-driven programming under which the sort of shows for which British TV is famed could no longer be made.

Among the genres described by the campaign as "endangered species" are several familiar to American devotees of public television. Splashy, expensive period dramas like "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Brideshead Revisited" and "Jewel in the Crown" would not, they say, be made in such a new broadcasting era. Nor would off-center British comedies such as "Monty Python's Flying Circus" or John Cleese's "Fawlty Towers"; they would be deemed too anarchic for a mass market.

The Broadcasting Bill, currently being guided through Parliament by Home Office Minister David Mellor, is expected to become law later this year. Its main provisions aim at reforming the structure of British commercial television. At present, 15 companies, each holding a lucrative franchise to broadcast in a specific region of the country, contribute programs to ITV (Channel 3), Britain's commercial TV network. Many of these companies--Granada, Central, Thames and Yorkshire among them--have a distinguished track record in programming that has brought them international repute. As the bill stands, franchises for each region would be awarded to the highest-bidding company--with the proceeds going to the government's treasury.

The campaign worries that the franchises could fall into the hands of companies less concerned with quality programming than profit from advertising revenues. "We fear Channel 3 could be a junk program channel," Albury says.

Thus the campaign's main thrust is to persuade Mellor and his civil servants to insert a five-word amendment into the bill that would significantly alter it. Under the amendment, successful bidders for each franchise would be those companies undertaking to spend the most money on programming, rather than offering large sums to treasury coffers.

"The government talks of companies having to make programs with a minimum standard of quality," Albury says. "But how do you objectify quality? You can't. We're saying quality programming comes from talent and money. Without at least one of the two, you won't get quality TV. So let the companies who want the franchises commit to spending a certain amount on the programming itself."

This rallying cry has attracted several illustrious names to the campaign's banner. George Harrison, now a producer, whose Handmade Fims has consumed much of his time since his Beatle days, is an ardent supporter. So is David Puttnam, Britain's best-known film producer and former Columbia Pictures studio head. Monty Python alumni John Cleese and Terry Jones have contributed time and money; Dame Judi Dench, one of Britain's most distinguished actresses, has been vocal on the campaign's behalf. And comedian Rowan Atkinson, whose cult series "Blackadder" is seen on the Arts & Entertainment cable channel, outlined the campaign's position in an eloquent speech at the Conservative Party Conference last October.

All fear that without a commitment to quality by the companies that win franchises, commercial TV will be dominated, as a campaign pamphlet puts it, by "mid-Atlantic mediocrity." Another fear is that the companies would be too preoccupied in paying off loans raised to buy their expensive franchises to invest in quality programming. Instead, the argument goes, they would be tempted to buy cheap programming from abroad: game shows, soap operas, long-canceled American series.

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