Making television an agent of change

Broadcast | Comment | 18 November, 2011

Social impact should be at the forefront of broadcasters’ ambitions, writes Sarah Tierney.

Last weekend, my doc The Walking Wounded won the current affairs prize at the 2011 Bafta in Scotland Awards. It attempts to use television as an agent of change and, because of brave commissioning by BBC Scotland, was first shown slap-bang in the 9pm mainstream.

I remain giddy about the potential of TV to be transformational. It can and should entertain. Who doesn’t love a bit of X Factor or TOWIE? But TV doesn’t have to be passive.

It can also inform, engage, inspire, provoke, outrage. But by keeping specialist factual, current affairs and challenging drama consigned to digital outliers such as BBC4 and More4, can it ever be seen as more than marginal?

British factual programming carries an illustrious history and is revered as the best in the business. When we are given the chance to view top-class factual programming in the mainstream, the effects are profound. The UK has a greater love of the natural world thanks to Attenborough’s legacy.

I produce hundreds of short factual films each year for Scottish digital educational producer Twig. We are part of a sea-change in education of digital companies now harnessing this programmemaking heritage, and the power of film, to engage and expand schoolchildren’s horizons worldwide.  And for adults, TV can be the best teacher we never had. However, the truth is, in a ratings-obsessed industry, eyeballs matter.

The BBC says BBC4’s share remains less than 1% of viewers. This makes it hard to argue that this is effective spend of the ever-penny-pinched licence fee. But might these programmes fare better if boldly transmitted in the mainstream?

BBC4 emerged as a potential casualty of the DQF cuts. The cacophony of voices in a subsequent petition surged towards one inimitable truth: “Surely BBC4 is exactly what the BBC is for.” Well, yes. But why is this slate of programming not in the primetime heartland of BBC2 and BBC1?

I do believe that we want to be challenged. The best TV holds a mirror up to the world and asks if we like what we see. Social impact should be at the forefront of broadcasters’ ambitions.

In the words of Lord Reith, first Director-General of the BBC: “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the audience wants, is often creating a fictitious demand for low standards, which he will then satisfy.”

Sarah Tierney, Head of Content at

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