Big stars might be good for the ratings but they are an opportunity cost | radioinfo

Big stars might be good for the ratings but they are an opportunity cost

Monday 15 June, 2015
Jeremy Clarkson. Photo: Shutterstock

Comment from John Patkin

I have never liked Jeremy Clarkson or Top Gear. As an Australian, I have been offended by the way the English have made fun of our great country and our people, and for the purpose of this diatribe I'll keep my British passport hidden and not try to curse a birthplace shared with my Mum and two of my siblings.

We grew up on a diet of British TV in rural South Australia - Dr Who, the Goodies, All Creatures Great and Small, and Brideshead Revisited to name a few. Dad listened to World Service features recycled by the ABC. We watched one of two black and white TV stations and listened to a couple of crackly AM channels. We appreciated the little electronic media we had in Whyalla in the 1970s.

Programmes such as Top Gear fit the remit of Public Service Broadcasting as they have the potential to provide information about a product that is a daily necessity in some parts of the world. Some believe elite auto racing is also beneficial because of the technological transfer which can lead to improved economy and safety for commuters.

Clarkson got it wrong by purposely using offensive humour and causing physical damage. Freedom of speech is a tenet of public broadcasting, and the debate about bias and regular exercises in public accountability make it a cornerstone of a good democracy. In a coaching session during my short-lived career as a TV presenter, one of the senior managers espoused the role as being a guest in someone’s home, “So behave like one”, he said.

Public broadcasters such as our ABC and the BBC provide excellent free information with news and in-depth features. The BBC even provides online training for journalists. It’s too late for Clarkson to read the ethics section. Being popular is not essential for a public broadcaster, but being inclusive and offering informative and unbiased coverage to all citizens are though. The major difference between the BBC and the ABC is the development of a competitive media environment in the UK and Australia. The BBC had monopolised the sector due to strict government regulations, topography that limited the power of broadcasts, and citizens have a more visible stake through an annual tax. Due to alternatives, the ABC has faced comparatively less pressure to be at the top of the ratings.

Some argue that Top Gear’s popularity and impressive revenue provided extra funding for the greater BBC. But do other organisations, especially those with a socially conscious mandate, put poor behaviour before profit? Banks and big business in general have faced scrutiny since the global financial crisis with investors and the public, who have bailed them out, calling for better behaviour and transparency. 

Clarkson’s fall is similar to that of DJ Jonathan Ross who’s on air antics and salary controversy also challenged the BBC charter. British journalists were angered by the allegation that Ross was overpaid and his salary could have been used to employ more reporters. It makes sense. The BBC could have focused on good quality informative programmes and left the tabloid entertainment to the private networks. 

Big stars might be good for the ratings but they are an opportunity cost. The space, time, and energy given to Top Gear and Jonathan Ross take the focus from developing new content. Staff across the organisation are answering phone calls, responding to audience complaints, arranging legal advice, and meeting with fellow managers. A publicly accountable organisation that’s under scrutiny has a limited headcount to deal with operations. 

In hindsight, the tens of thousands of fans who signed petitions for the BBC to reinstate Clarkson should be ashamed. Had it been a banking executive, teacher, religious leader or politician, people would have called for his instant dismissal and an inquiry. Clarkson may make a comeback but he'll need a very low gear to get up this steep hill.


John Patkin is a regular contributor to Asia Radio Today and radioinfo. He is a Hong Kong-based Australian media researcher.

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