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Sunday 7 April 2013

Postscript: *Northern Ireland only: Why is the BBC ghettoising the Troubles?

BBC iPlayer as displayed by the Nintendo Wii

Over at Slugger O'Toole, Mick Fealty promoted my post asking whether the BBC was ghettoising films about the Troubles by only showing them in Northern Ireland.

*Link to Mick's post with warning that Google is saying 'site compromised' of Slugger as of writing.

This attracted some interesting comments, as you'd expect from the leading website devoted to Northern Irish politics and life.

One piece of interesting pushback came from Brian Walker, a former BBC journalist, Political Editor and manager in Belfast.

Walker said that BBC Northern Ireland (NI) are not to blame.
The national networks are commissioned by a team under their own controllers. I’m sure the local BBC do their best to get network showcases. For one thing it spreads the costs. I wouldn’t rule out versioning and airing on BBC4.
Possibly, though my survey could only turn up one example of that transfer to British BBC TV.

Another commentator, Nevin, added this nugget of evidence:
Not just NI, it seems:
Q673 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You have mentioned Scotland and Wales. In England you hardly get a Scottish story. On Newsnight you have the opt out and there is a real sense that with devolution bits of the country have been cut off from each other. 2005 source [pdf file]
This is a news related comment but it has wider relevance. One of those giving evidence was Pat Loughrey, the then BBC Director of Nations and Regions and former BBC NI Controller.
I haven't watched much Scottish or Welsh regional output because, frankly, it hasn't appealed. But this complaint sounds like one to do with the BBC's structure being 'ghettoised'.

Walker also commented on one show I pointed at as, I thought, suitable for such a transfer, the history of Ulster Presbyterians, 'An Independent People':
This was an ambitious series but in concept definitely NI/Irish, I’d say, and well worth doing in those terms. It could be probably aired in its present form in Scotland without much of a remake but I think it would need subtantially reversioning for the networks.

This is not a criticism by any means. NI’s audience is distinct and not all ambitous programme ideas should be made on the condition that they are only worth funding if they get network airings.
I'm not so sure about that on revisioning. For one thing, BBC4 has vast amounts of time to fill, which it generally does with repeats (not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that), so why not repeat that show there. For another, check the schedule, there are some remarkably esoteric shows on. Plus that show had a fascinating middle episode on the role of Ulster Presbyterians in the American revolution.
I take the unfashionable view that the NI audience needs its owns share of high quality expensive programming. And not all of it should be made for networks in mind. Great if you can co-commission or export some of it but not always essential and not always appropriate.
No, but that wasn't my point. Film and television is replete with examples of shows which were made for very specific audiences yet found much wider appeal. I don't think this is 'either/or'. What seems to be happening -- one region's shows being blocked out, perhaps because of the way the BBC is structured --  is a deprivation for the British audience if we rarely if ever get the chance to see something from that perspective, something not made with 'us' in mind. Or put it this way, we still watch American shows which have no consideration, are not revised, for 'us' -- or Danish ones for that matter.

Australia is fortunate in having what I think is a unique in the world TV channel, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), which was set up by a Liberal (conservative) government in the 1970s to cater for an increasingly multicultural Australia. That channel shows TV and films from literally all around the world and is full of gems which audiences for whom the programming wasn't done (i.e not the minority from the relevant country of origin) are grateful to get an opportunity to see.

Walker does point out that the TV landscape is rapidly changing, shown by the fact that I am able to watch '*Northern Ireland only' shows at all on iPlayer. However, again, I beg to disagree as, from my web experience for one, the looming era of thousands if not millions of 'channels' does not really mean that the masses will find something. We will probably always have someone, whether a public or a private corporation, to whom we hand over the remote control and say 'I've had a hard day at work, here, you curate for me'. Most people, after all, only regularly visit, what is it, seven web sites? What shows, after all, does iPlayer, more specifically the Editors there, promote? Not BBC NI ones, or other regional output, as far as I can see, ever.

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