City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

At the somewhat unlikely forum that is the Churches’ Media Conference 2005, Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire, my ultimate boss, BBC Director General Mark Thompson, delivered what I think is an absolutely fascinating and thoroughly inspiring speech. Touching as it does on a few topics often covered here – on-demand media and navigation, cultural production and consumption, and digital cities (yes really). As is my wont I’ll quote from it at length, though I reckon it’s worth reading the full speech.

First up, Mark Thompson brings Steven Johnson, and his Everything Bad Is Good For You, into the case for defence against the charge of the collapse of cultural life:

"I imagine cultural pessimism as a kind of trench system with one set of arguments ranged behind another. In the first trench are claims about the stupidity of contemporary culture and broadcasting, its mindlessness, its pandering to under-achievement, its lack of intellectual challenge. Exhibit A: The Ascent of Man. Exhibit B: Celebrity Wrestling. Enough said."

"Well be careful – and get hold of a copy of Steven Johnson’s new book Everything Bad is Good for You. In it, Johnson makes a compelling case that, far from a decline into stupidity, the main movement in popular culture over recent decades has been towards greater sophistication and cognitive challenge. He compares current dramas and comedies like The Sopranos and The Simpsons with their equivalents 30 years ago and finds more layering, more complexity, greater not lesser demands placed on viewers. The same with feature films, the same with video games."

"I believe that, although of course there are counter-examples, the same trend is visible in this country as well. They used to say that sex sells newspapers: right now it’s more likely to be Sudoku."

"Compare the architecture and complexity of the Harry Potter books with Biggles or Bunter. Compare – though I’m treading on hallowed ground here – the plotting, the characterisation, the wit, the cultural references in our new Doctor Who with the linear simplicity of the original."

"Or look at two really great BBC comedies: Yes, Minister and Armando Iannucci’s recent political satire for BBC FOUR, The Thick Of It. Now Yes, Minister is an enduring and sophisticated masterpiece: we’ll still be watching and enjoying it ten or 20 years from now. But it’s instructive to consider it alongside this more recent comedy. The Thick Of It makes the viewer work harder. The weaving of character and plot is more intricate and more fast-paced, the political and cultural allusions more intricate and delivered more quickly. You’re not told when to laugh. You’re not told who to sympathise with, who to despise. It’s a switchback of mood-swings and reverses. You just can’t look at The Thick Of It and think there’s been a loss of creative or intellectual nerve over the past 20 years."

"Some people will object, of course, that there’s been a fall-off in the volume and impact of some serious genres: arts and religion would probably top the list. And there’s some truth in that. But other serious genres are in the ascendant. History has enjoyed a famous revival over the past decade. There are more specialist factual programmes – science, natural history, religion, documentary – on BBC ONE today than there were in the Eighties or Nineties. On Radio 4 Melvyn Bragg and his guests on In Our Time are exploring intellectual territory – mathematics in the high Renaissance last week – which has probably never been covered before by the BBC."

Then, via a section on Radio 3, BBC 4 and our approach to classical music , we get this, on what he calls ‘Life in the digital city’:

"Here’s William Wordsworth writing in the 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads in a passage which caught Susan Sontag’s eye: "the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies"."

"Wordsworth imagines a kind of negative feedback loop where the craving and the growing speed of transmission of information lead to a kind of cultural scrambling: in his words blunting "the discriminating powers of the mind" and reducing it "to a state of savage torpor". It’s as if Wordsworth had woken up in a sweat one night at Dove Cottage with the world of Big Brother, Blade Runner and CNN running somehow in his head. There’s two layers to the nightmare: first the anxiety that urbanisation and the industrial revolution would tear a hole in the traditional cultural order; and below that, a more elemental fear that too much information delivered too quickly will drive everyone mad. Looking back, we can see that the industrial and social revolution which Wordsworth was living through did profoundly change the culture."

"But while Wordsworth and Arnold and many others mourned the passing of the old order and new words like alienation and anomie came into use to try to describe the dark side of city life, the new age also produced astonishing new peaks. In Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Joyce, the city itself became a central subject, a kind of hero."

"But it’s that second fear, "the craving … which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies", that blunting of the "discriminating powers of the mind", the "almost savage torpor" which strikes one as so telling today."

"Because we’re clearly living through a second revolution in the building of the human city. In Wordsworth’s time, you had physically to move to London or Manchester or Glasgow to be exposed to that hourly information flow. The city we’re building now is virtual and the information and entertainment it contains is continuous, relentless and is expanding and accelerating all the time. The city is in our heads and it’s open 24 hours a day."

"Now you’ll find everything in this city – specialist arts and literature to cheer the most jaded cultural pessimist, religious websites and blogs to hearten the most doom-laded moralist, and if you preferred the books and programmes of yesteryear, well they’ll all be available online as well."

"Nonetheless I believe the fully digital world poses enormous new challenges for public service broadcasters. How can we begin to help our audiences make sense of this new all-pervading digital environment? And if we think that broadcasting can still be a force for good, how can we make sure that that good actually gets through?"

"Because I think it is possible to imagine at least a couple of elements of a dystopia in the future: of an information overload so overwhelming that it’s easy for the best ideas and best content to get lost or to be restricted to privileged minorities as they arguably were before the advent of broadcasting; and of a growing restlessness and dissatisfaction which leaves some members of the audience never settling down to fully absorb anything – channel-hopping and browsing for ever. It won’t be enough for public service content to exist. Unless it also cuts through and connects in the end it will vanish."

Absolutely. And then, with that, we see an exploration of things as close to my heart as analogies to the digital city – navigation, engagement and the user experience in a world in which on-demand and linear broadcasting seamlessly coexist.

"Again, though, our history and our instincts tell us not to despair. It was once widely claimed that the greater sensory stimulation of television was bound to kill radio sooner or later. In fact radio – and BBC radio in particular – is as healthy, both creatively and in terms of its audience, as it’s ever been. Indeed one recent success in BBC radio points to a very different and more hopeful vision of that digital future. Every month listeners are using the web-based Radio Player to make nine million downloads of BBC Radio programmes."

Nor are these downloads extracts from the Radio 1 Chart Show – rights issues mean that we can make virtually no popular music available on the Radio Player* – but a broad range of output, including some of the most challenging programmes on Radio 3 and Radio 4.

In a sense this is the opposite of the Wordsworthian nightmare: instead of losing the most valuable material in a haystack of ephemera, this is using the potential of the new digital media to make permanently available programmes which once would have more or less disappeared after first transmission.

"As you may know, we hope to harness on-demand technology both to open up as much of the BBC’s TV and radio archive as we can, for the public to use whenever and wherever they want – as well as letting broadband-enabled households pick from an entire week’s current output at any moment."

"Now all this amounts to a virtual redefinition of what broadcasting is: no longer necessarily rooted in a single moment; no longer to the same degree an intrinsically and necessarily shared experience; but with the possibility of the same kind of permanence which other cultural objects – literature, for instance – have always enjoyed."

"This all presents the BBC with major new challenges. Navigation and sign-posting become key. We can no longer assume that the public will simply bump into great programming, that the mere act of real-time broadcast will guarantee big audiences."

"Developing projects which have a connected life across channels and media, which present a series of stepping stones for viewers and listeners seems more important than ever. Our Beethoven project is a good example of this, not just across radio and TV but across different channels in our portfolio: viewers on Friday night could move straight from the documentary-drama on BBC TWO to a fascination dissection of the Second Symphony by Charles Hazlewood on BBC FOUR."

"The big events – the genuinely shared moments – will become all the more important: and it’s one of the most interesting (and counter-intuitive) developments of the past few years that the really big events, whether it’s Euro 2004 or the D-Day anniversary or even the return of Doctor Who, seem to be getting bigger, not smaller."

A couple of points here:
*It looks like something has been lost in the translation of this transcript online, as just to clarify, there are nine million streaming requests for programmes per month, not downloads. And that means that virtually all of our popular music broadcasting is available on-demand in the Radio Player. Actual downloads we’re offering are generally focused on speech content for rights reasons, except with the our Radio 3 Beethoven trial, where they are performed by the BBC Philharmonic.

Another point is that work we’re doing here is investigating what sense of shared experience might be possible in an on-demand world too. So just as ‘cultural objects’ online can have both ‘permance’ and social interaction around them – synchronous and asynchronous – we believe we can fold those experiences back into on-demand radio listening experiences, as well as live radio listening experiences.

Overall, I found the collision of issues in this latest speech fascinating and frankly I’m extremely heartened to hear these kind of messages, delivered in this kind of way, from the top of the organisation I work for. Naturally, I’d be interested in your reactions though I can’t promise I’ll be able to join in the debate.

BBC Press Office: Speech to the Churches’ Media Conference 2005, The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire


5 responses to “Mark Thompson on a virtual redefinition of broadcasting and life in the digital city”

  1. juniorbonner Avatar

    looks like you’ve been moonlighting as your boss’s speechwriter


  2. little more than a placeholder Avatar

    The New DG

    I think I’d taken the BBC far too much for granted until I left the UK. The current podcast trial…


  3. Dan Avatar

    Ha ha, juniorbonner! Not so …


  4. Little more than a placeholder Avatar

    » Trackback: The New DG from little more than a placeholder: “I think I’d taken the BBC far too much for granted until I left the UK. The current podcast trial…” [Read More]


  5. julakim Avatar

    Interesting … didn’t know that. But what is the digital city?
    I made a post on local radio stations in favelas from Rio de Janeiro.


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