1980s >> 1982 >> no-939-november-1982

Screening capitalism

This is the month when — if the ballyhoo is to be believed — our lives are about to take on a new dimension. A fourth television channel is to begin broadcasting in Britain.


But who believes the advertising? Let us make a little bet — a prophecy. By November 1983 we shall be able to look back on a year’s broadcasting on Channel 4 and see that it has churned out much the same mixture as BBC1 and 2 and ITV1. How can we be so sure? Not because television isn’t capable of much more interesting. attractive and relevant programmes; but because what is broadcast is ultimately decided not by the producers or programme controllers — but by the demands of British capitalism.


Capitalism’s demands fall into two broad areas — the economic and the political. Economic constraints dictate how much can be spent on programmes, where the money is to come from, and whether there will be advertising. Political constraints decide what things may or may not be shown and what points of view shall predominate. These were the capitalist realities faced by the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting set up by the Labour government in 1974 under the chairmanship of Lord Annan. Their job was to consider submissions from a wide range of interested groups and organisations who had very definite ideas about how television should be used, but not much appreciation of capitalism’s imperatives. When the Committee finally presented its report in March 1977 (538 pages, and half as many again in appendices), it proposed the setting up of a new Open Broadcasting Authority which, it hoped, would give programme producers greater freedom from interference and more scope for initiative than existed in BBC and ITV. The Labour government dragged its feet in agreeing to implement the Report (Queen’s Speech, November 1 1978); and when the Conservative Party was elected they scrapped it and announced (Queen’s Speech, May 1979) that the fourth channel would be placed under IBA control with a modified arrangement for programme production. The £70 million estimated cost of the first year of operation was to be raised by subscription from the independent television companies who would be allowed to sell advertising time on Channel 4 and also to sell programmes to the IBA subsidiary set up to control programme provision.


A loss-making enterprise will not be tolerated unless the capitalist class, usually through the state, agrees to provide the money. And they do not do that unless it performs a function valuable to them. What has become clear in the development of British television is that the British capitalist class can eat their cake and have it. ITV has shown that it is not only quite “safe” politically, but that it is also a vast financial success. The BBC, funded directly by the state, but having its budget tied more and more explicitly to the licence fee, has found itself struggling to compete for audience ratings, and so becoming more and more like ITV in what it offers.


The sort of television this gives us is predictable and has strong similarities with television all over the world. Its main characteristic is that it is directed, almost exclusively, at the working class. Not simply those on low incomes, of course, or those whose work gets their hands dirty, but all of us who depend on a salary, a wage, or the dole for our living. Part of the reason for this is that the other class, the capitalist class for whom we all work, either in private industry or through the state, is such a small minority of the population. And television is a mass medium. Its advertisements have nothing in common with those in Queen, Country Life, or even The Times. Working class viewers provide a huge market for mass-produced commodities, and advertisers will pay hundreds of pounds for a few seconds’ access to that market if they are convinced that viewing figures are high.


The most expensive time for advertisers is in the middle of the evening, because that is when most workers turn to television. After a tiring, often frustrating and humiliating, day at work and a crowded. stressful journey home, thousands of workers in Britain eat a meal at roughly the same time and flop in front of the television set. What they see and hear must not disturb their recreation — this period of rest and recuperation which, together with a night’s sleep, enables and encourages them to go to work tomorrow and tomorrow.


This is the other part of the reason that television is devoted to the working class: it has become part of the process of government. As the most powerful means of mass communication yet devised, it plays a crucial part in persuading the working class to leave the land, factories, mines, railways, shipping, airlines, and so on in the hands of the ten per cent who own them. It helps to ensure that we do not seriously object to continuing to manufacture and manage their wealth, building up their profits. It encourages us to acquiesce in policing one another, managing one another, and generally running their whole exploiting system for them. And in times of economic slump like the present, it prevents the working class from asking fundamental questions about the idiocy of a social system that throws millions of them out of work — not because people do not need the products and services but because there is no longer enough profit to be made in producing them.


Television performs its daily task of selling capitalism to the working class by methods that have been well tried in cinemas and newspapers, pulpits and classrooms for many years. Its cardinal rule is never to acknowledge for a moment that it is in fact talking to the working class. It cajoles us as consumers, flatters us as responsible citizens, stirs our pride as Britons, chats cosily to us as gardeners, appeals to our appetite for food, titillates our sexual feelings — but. as people who spend the main part of our lives working for a ruling class, it never addresses us at all. That is quite sensible. The one thing feared by the capitalist class (who are very class conscious) is that workers should realise their unity of interests as a class, because that will herald the end of their reign.


What comes out of the television screen is therefore of two broad types. On the one hand, there is a wide spread of entertainment meant to be amusing, diverting and inconsequential. Workers who have spent all day at housework, or a machine, or a desk, or a steering wheel have had about all they can take of capitalism’s realities. It is not therefore surprising that they will escape, without being very critical, into Crossroads, or the weak situation comedies about couples who are not quite living with one another, or the antics of athletes dressed up as buffoons in It’s A Knockout. They can work off some of their frustration and anger watching the increasingly vicious variants of the cops and robbers theme in series like The Professionals. They can travel, if only on film, to those interesting parts of the world that their wealthy employers visit in person. And occasionally they are allowed a film tour round one of the actual homes of the ruling class.


The other type of television offering is information, ranging from news at one end of the spectrum to popular science programmes at the other. The television companies, and especially the news departments, begin with the pretence that they are impartial. This is, of course, a lie; and occasionally they are caught out when conflicting reports from other countries turn out to be nearer the truth. But. by and large, news and current affairs programmes do their work by carefully selecting what they show, by emphasising some aspects at the expense of others, and by the attitude of the commentators and interviewers. Government ministers, industrialists or churchmen are nearly always treated respectfully. even reverentially, whereas workers on strike or trade unionists (usually out in the street, shouting above the noise of traffic, or on a secondary screen in some distant studio) always come across as slightly peculiar, disgruntled people who no sensible viewer would have anything to do with.


The assumption behind all information programmes is that the structure of society is basically sound, and that everything would really be quite all right if it weren’t for this or that unreasonable person, or group, or party, or other nation. “Impartiality” on this understanding means keeping things fundamentally as they are. To a large extent the camera operatives, reporters, directors, producers and controllers work as they are compelled to. for fear of losing their jobs or missing promotion: but it is also an unfortunate fact that the glamour of working in television allows them to forget, all too often, their own position in the working class.


Unaware, for much of the time, of the political and economic strings from which they dangle, they are able to persuade themselves that their enthusiasm for the status quo is their own impulse. Channel Four will not make a dent in all this. Nor will it be able to avoid its share of the job of trying to prolong capitalism by distracting and deceiving the working class. Nevertheless, television is a medium only, not a message: and once the working class wake, up to who they are and what they really want, they will, begin to use television with a power and a purpose that dwarf today’s offerings into the popcorn they really are.


Ron Cook