The BBC: A Matter of Distinction

Professor Bob Usherwood is a VLV Trustee and former Professor of Librarianship at the University of Sheffield. Here he argues why the BBC is distinctive in that it doesn’t show adverts and he raises the risks inherent in the increased commercialisation of content.   

At the time of the BBC Charter Renewal there was emphasis on the need for the BBC to be distinctive. In its White Paper the Government said that, “Ensuring the BBC is sufficiently distinctive – discernibly different in approach, quality and content to commercial providers – is a central objective of this Charter Review.”

Despite opposition, the idea became and remains a major topic of discussion. However, then as now, most people ignored what Basil Fawlty would have described as “the bleeding obvious” distinctive feature of BBC content. That is the absence of commercial advertisements. A recent visit to the United States, where adverts interrupt programmes to such an extent that some are unintelligible, reminded me what a blessing this is. They spoil the continuity or mood of a serious drama or documentary.

The issue with commercial content

Less obviously, they can have a destructive impact on creative content. In The Radio Times, Alison Steadman reported that when writing for commercial broadcasters, dramatists are “obliged to write up to the commercial break and give [the viewer] a little grab, a little hook so that they will come back.”

Similarly, Anthony Horowitz told the Hay Book Festival in 2014 that it "is absolutely terrible the way television is chopped into so many little bits...Your story is cut down into little wedges, so you have to be sure that each wedge, each section, satisfies the audience and they keep coming back from the commercial break.”

There is a long history of commercial interests interfering with media content. The American TV series Playhouse 90 had difficulty with a number of productions. The most notorious example was Judgment at Nuremberg, a 1969 drama based on the trial of Nazi leaders for war crimes. Amazingly, viewers heard no references to gas chambers because one of the sponsors, The American Gas Association, insisted on cutting the words “gas chamber” from the show because it feared it would create a negative image of its product.

This act of censorship was “swiftly cited in the press and by industry professionals as an example of the ways overwhelming commercial concerns could stifle quality television”, but it was far from the only one. Recently I heard a lecturer describe how the Nat King Cole TV Show suffered from a lack of advertisers. Davidson writes: “Cole and NBC just couldn't dispel the notion among big advertisers that viewers would object to seeing blacks and whites on an equal footing and that it would hurt the companies' sales.”

That kind of commercial interference is unlikely to happen today but medical research, social change and technological developments raise important ethical and social questions. In addition companies have become much more sophisticated in their approach.

The website of Thinkbox, the UK marketing body for commercial TV, says, “there are more ways than ever before for brands to get closer to TV content and its devoted viewers”. In 1965 evidence from the medical profession led to the end of cigarette advertising on British TV. Today few would argue for its return. However, the call by Cancer Research and others for a pre-9pm ban on HFSS advertising, following research linking junk food to obesity and cancer, has been criticised by commercial broadcasters. They argue that this will cost them millions and that advertisers will only move to other platforms to “hyper-target” children.

There is also concern about gambling adverts during sports events. To quote an editorial in The Guardian, “sports gambling is a massive business, [which] seems to be turning into a public health problem”.

Many would argue such ads prey on the weak and  should be regulated. Interestingly, the hyper-targeting of audiences is predicted to be the latest thing for commercial radio. A recent piece in Radio Times noted, “commercial radio…has traditionally sliced up its audience along age and gender because that’s what advertisers wanted. But as more radio goes online and listeners pull content to their devices according to their tastes we can expect ads to become spookily precise”.

Apart from the creepy possibility of listeners being hyper-targeted by advertisers, this slicing up of audiences takes away one of the joys of public service radio. That is the ability of a station like Radio Four to interest you in something that you did not know you were interested in.

There are also the very real dangers of the echo chamber effect but these must be left for another time. 

The view of VLV members

It would be interesting to hear VLV members’ views on these issues. For example, how should requests to restrict adverts to protect the health of children and vulnerable adults be balanced with the concerns of TV executives fearing financial loss?

Are you worried that organisations are finding it easier “to get closer to TV content and its devoted viewers”? Do you fear for democracy as technology and commerce combine to segregate citizens by age, gender, politics, and taste to target commercial and political messages more effectively?

You can let us know your opinion by emailing


Such matters raise particularly difficult issues for commercial public service broadcasters who are expected to serve both the public and their commercial interest.

Although we must remain vigilant, such questions are less relevant to the BBC. The absence of adverts on the BBC is a significant part of its unique provision. It is important for audiences, accuracy and artistic integrity. Moreover, when we consider broader issues such as democracy, society and citizenship it is obvious that the value and values of commercial-free broadcasting are not only distinctive but also essential.


Published by: VLV

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