Monday 17 June 2013

Dumbing down doesn’t liberate

Yesterday’s Observer included an entertaining dialogue with the art critic Brian Sewell, who contends that the BBC’s factual programmes are “an insult to the nation”.

Sewell may push his point too far but he still has a point. There seems an overwhelming anxiety at the BBC to make everything ‘relevant’ and ‘accessible’. In practice, this means a resort to demotic language and visual gimmicks. The effect is to trivialise important subjects.

This type of broadcasting may seem more democratic and less ‘elitist’ but it is actually the opposite. Dumbing down tells the audience to limit their aspirations. It makes less rigorous demands of them. It tells them that intelligent concepts are beyond their grasp. This does not open up opportunities but limits social mobility.

The BBC’s original remit was not to “give them what they want” but to give them what they never knew they might like. But in broadcasting as in politics, leadership has been replaced by followership. The tragedy in both politics and broadcasting is that decision-makers are mesmerised by numbers. As with politicians and opinion polls, when broadcasters slavishly follow the approval ratings, the result is not a growth in approval but a steady decline in the audience. In their desperation to please, they cannot understand why they continue to lose popular trust.

In the meantime, Sewell ended the discussion by declining to appear in Top Gear’s ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’:
I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’d be terribly rude in the interview.
A pity. That is one bit of dumbed down television that would definitely be worth watching.

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