Willis’ wasteland warning

BBC exec warns of U.S. values ruining U.K. TV

LONDON — A senior BBC executive has launched a scathing attack on American TV and warned that relaxing ownership rules allowing U.S. media groups to control U.K. stations risks turning British TV into “a wasteland.”

The remarks, delivered to industry peers at a Royal Television Society dinner, were made by John Willis, the pubcaster’s new director of factual and learning. He recently returned from a year at Boston PBS station WGBH, where he was VP in charge of national programs.

His choice of words echoed the oft-quoted 1961 speech of FCC chairman Newton Minow, who called American TV “a vast wasteland” and warned broadcasters that “It is not enough to cater to the nation’s whims; you must also serve the nation’s needs.”

Willis’ experience 40 years later, particularly watching American broadcasters cover the war in Iraq — coverage he described as “a swamp of political cravenness” — intensified his opposition to allowing U.S. media companies to increase their stake in the U.K.

Allowing groups like Viacom and Disney to control ITV or Five if changes to Blighty’s media laws are passed next month, was a “careless risk,” and unless the new regulator Ofcom rose to the challenge, British TV could become “the wasteland” that American TV is already, he said.

“For all the warts on British television, a year in America has taught me just how lucky we are to have not just the BBC, but a range of diversely funded channels with different layers of public service ambitions and obligations,” he added.

“The lesson from America is that if news and public affairs are left purely to the market, it will most likely give the government what it wants.”

There was much to admire on American television. As director of programs at Channel 4 he had bought “Friends,” “ER” and “Ally McBeal.”

“It is hard to imagine a long-running British network series as literate as ‘The West Wing’ or as brilliant and enduring as ‘The Simpsons,’ ” Willis said.

“In cable, HBO lead the way with ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Six Feet Under,’ stunning pieces of acting, writing and production.

“A well-resourced system in the world’s largest market, embedded in a rich Hollywood talent base, has produced some of the world’s greatest television programs.

“No wonder a long queue of British television executives and critics have begun to worship at the shrine of American television.”

But these shows were at the top of a food chain that is long, bland and tasteless, and where “the apparent choice is just a tawdry illusion.”

“Every hour of this is crammed full of commercials for up to 16 minutes an hour in peak time, encouraging a form of television attention deficit disorder,” he said.

Willis reserved his strongest criticism for American news and current affairs programs and their response to the Iraq war.

“Quite simply much of American coverage, particularly on the cable channels, could have been written and produced by The White House,” he said.

“When Fox star Bill O’Reilly interviewed retired generals before the attack on Baghdad, he airily dismissed their caution and told his viewers that the U.S. should go in and ‘splatter’ the Iraqis.

“Dissenters were reduced to sound bites at protest rallies and described as ‘the usual protestors’ or even ‘the great unwashed.’

“Fox News led the way as the military cheerleader apparently giving both the viewers and the politicians what they want.”

Willis warned that Fox’s success has pushed other stations to the right.

“Above all there was little or no debate,” he said. “America’s political leaders remained unchallenged. Any lack of patriotism was punished with McCarthyite vigor, even in the television industry, where CBS’s Ed Gernon was summarily dismissed for a mild case of expressing his opinion.

“Public television was a rare haven for robust questioning and independent reporting, but PBS is relatively marginal to American culture.

“Watching BBC World or seeing reporters from ITV, BBC and Sky within network reports or watching CSPAN’s coverage of British Parliamentary debates made me — and many Americans — realize just what the world’s largest democracy was missing.

“No wonder viewers for BBC America and BBC Web site hits rose significantly.

“This swamp of political cravenness was a timely reminder of the values and obligations of public television. Its birth marks — independence, universality, diversity of opinion and quality — should be especially visible at times of war.

“American commercial television exists simply to move goods or products. Public television exists to move the imagination.”