The Rise of the Business Entertainment Format on British Television

Changing Formats, Changing Times: The BBC and Business

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Changing Formats, Changing Times: The BBC and Business

There are two strands that run through the evolution of the business entertainment format and its relationship with the BBC. The first is the engagement of the corporation through the years with business and financial journalism and its relative absence from the core of the BBC’s journalistic remit until the appointment of Greg Dyke as Director General in 2000. The second centres around the evolution of factual television formats through the BBC’s documentary traditions, the development of the docu-soap in the 1990s and the evolution of this format into the ubquitous reality television format of the last decade (Boyle, 2008). In both strands the ways in which the BBC engaged with business and financial issues has been crucial in shaping the culture that has allowed particular international formats to be re-calibrated for a UK audience. In this process, it has also facilitated the BBC’s legitimation of these forms as examples of what the delivery of public service content should look like in the increasingly competitive digital world of multi-platform delivery. Initially let us examine the first of these strands; the BBC and its treatment of business and financial journalism.

The BBC, Money and its audience

In 1966 the BBC launched The Money Programme (1966 – present) which would go on to become one of the longest running programmes on British television. The BBC had been slow to appreciate that there might be any public appetite for investigations into the business world. According to its current editor Clive Edwards, the initial drive within the BBC to create a programme looking at the international world of business was less than enthusiastic. He notes how

The idea for The Money Programme, according to its first editor, Terry Hughes, was handed down in a grand memo from the BBC Secretary Harman Grisewood: “Now is the time we should be doing something about the economy for the people’. Behind the scenes, the suggestion was not welcomed. It was said that executives in the BBC felt “money was boring” (Edwards, 2006).
Even television producers at the Corporation were far from convinced that an audience existed for a programme looking at business and the world of money.
Perhaps if they had looked more closely at how financial print journalism had developed in the 1960s they might have sensed a changing perception and attitude to matters of finance among sections of the public. Porter (2003) has documented the long tradition of popular financial journalism that has existed in the newspaper industry, more or less from its inception as a mass medium. While Sandbrook (2006:15) argues that the long growth of the consumer society stretches back decades in British society well before the 1960s by which time newspapers such as the Daily Mail were devoting more and more space to personal finance issues.
The pace of social and economic change over the last few decades has been considerable and a number of key issues have helped shape the changing relationship between the media more generally and its engagement with business. As James Harding, then Business and City Editor,of The Times newspaper and now its editor argues:
Since the string of privatisations in the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s there has been a spread in share ownership and that means you have a volume of readers who have a stake in the business pages that you did not have a generation ago. While at the same time you have had an enormous growth in the types of financial products available. So while you have more people interested in stocks and shares, that is only a part of the story. You have to understand that institutional shareholders are just a fraction of your readership now (Interview with author, 15 March 2007).
These massive shifts in the economic structure of the British economy during the 1980s and 1990s saw the manufacturing sector being usurped by the services and financial sector, in turn facilitated by the opening up of the City to global indfluence. Sampson notes that:
Over forty years the media has devoted more space and broadcasting time to business news, but it was normally segregated in separate sections from political and foreign news, and judged by different yardsticks of success, based on profits and bottom lines, with little reference to the political and social implications. Business journalists were slow to investigate shady companies and exaggerated claims or to risk expansive libels (Sampson, 2005: 244)
Doyle (2006) has demonstrated the extent that financial journalism is often too close to those organizations it scrutinizes and often lacks the will to apply journalistic rigour to this aspect of economic life.
The print media have both reflected this economic shift, as well as legitimizing and endorsing the associated cultural changes in attitudes to business and finance. Labour correspondents on newspapers have all but disappeared to be replaced by consumer affairs journalists and there has been an explosion in the space devoted to personal finance in the print media. From housing to mortgages, to pensions and investment portfolios and Child Trust Funds, personal finance journalism has grown dramatically.
Jeff Randall has been a business journalist across both the print and broadcast media for over 25 years. Before becoming Editor-at Large of the Daily Telegraph, he was for five years the first Business Editor at the BBC (he would also be directly involved in recruiting Sir Alan Sugar for the BBC version of The Apprentice). He argues:
I think there has been a cultural shift in attitudes to business and in many ways television was slow to catch on to this shift. In the 1970s profit was a bad word. If you made a profit you exploited people. I think this was how the media classes wanted to see business. It changes in the 1980s when the Thatcherite revolution made business acceptable and desirable and business moved from the business pages to the front pages. I think newspapers were quicker to pick up on this than television. Growth in personal finance issues across the The Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph and the Sun has meant they have had a business editor for years. (Interview with author, 11 January 2007).
Shaped by, and in turn helping to reinforce a broad political consensus that business was a central part of the wealth creating process and benefiting consumers, home owners and pension fund holders, media coverage of business changed.
The 2007/8 global financial crisis, that originated in the sub prime mortgage markets of the US, has of course catapulted business and financial news up the mainstream news agenda. In the UK, Robert Peston, who succeeded Jeff Randall as the BBC’s Business Editor, has become one of the most high profile television journalists in the country, responsible for breaking a number of major stories for the Corporation around the banking crisis. Peston notes the emerging sea change at the BBC and its journalistic attitude to business:

When I arrived at the BBC I didn't think it gave enough weight to stories that were pretty important and it was harder to get stuff on air. This was the time the BBC thought it was ticking the business boxes with Dragons' Den and The Apprentice. But now the instinctive reaction of the BBC on a quiet news day is to turn to the business and economics department for a lead in a way that would have been unthinkable two or three years ago (The Guardian, 8 September, 2008).

The origins of the two iconic BBC programmes that Peston mentions lies in the evolution of the BBCs migration from documentary engagement with the world of business through to the construction of the business entertainment format.

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