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21 September 2010

What We Can Learn from Mad Men

A complex and interesting comparison of the British and US television landscapes by David Elstein:

The Adam Smith Institute published a paper last month by David Graham on replacing the BBC licence fee with a voluntary subscription. As part of our debate over Public Service Broadcasting we published a widely read, robust response by Steve Barnett, who defended the merits of public funding of broadcasting. His argument included certain assumptions about what his target (right-wing think tanks) is taken to believe. But if these assumptions are in part false (as I believe), one result is likely to be that the BBC fails to open itself up to vital creative and financial opportunities that could put an end to the steady decline of its influence in UK broadcasting.

Arguing with assumptions is quite demanding for readers, as these first have to be unpicked before they can be examined. In this case, there are two levels of assumptions, both tied up in Steve’s treatment of HBO (Home Box Office), the high-quality cable TV subsidiary of Time Warner. HBO has produced some outstanding content, so much so that its success challenges a traditional core defence of public service broadcasting: that only public subsidy through an institution like the BBC can ensure intelligent, accessible quality drama, which the market would otherwise fail to deliver to our screens. Why, then, does the US market-place create television drama that is so much better than the BBC’s? And why are Steve and the many who share his views in such strong denial of the facts about the US market, and their implications.

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