I visited the BBC today for class.
I write that sentence like it was no big deal, but I was extremely excited beforehand. I love BBC shows (at least what they export to the US): Doctor Who, Monty Python, Call the Midwife, Sherlock, BBC News, etc. They’re responsible for getting me interested in Britain, which, of course, led me here.
The BBC trip was in conjunction with my British Television Studies class, in which we look at all aspects of British TV from the broadcasters to the programing itself. We’re focusing mainly on the BBC because it’s such a big name, and it’s struggling, in some ways, to adapt to the modern age. You see, the BBC is not paid for by advertising or subscriptions; instead it’s paid for by a licensing fee. Every time someone buys a TV for the first time in the UK, they have to pay the BBC an annual licensing fee. It doesn’t matter if they don’t watch the BBC; they still have to pay the fee. To get around it, people are now choosing simply not to buy a TV and watch everything online. Its a bit complicated and antiquated. Overall, not the best system in an age where people can still watch TV without a TV.
Anyway, whatever you think of the BBC, their London headquarters is pretty cool to see. Their new building (opened in 2012 next to their old one) is large and curved, the glass sides swooping towards you as you walk in. Inside, the walls are plastered with pictures of their numerous successful shows, and in the guest lobby, you’ll find a life-sized TARDIS and Dalek standing guard. There’s a small café and shop, too, ready to take tourists’ money.
On the right side of the guest lobby, a bank of windows stands, with signs declaring, “No Photography Allowed.” Our tour started here because below these windows is the newsroom. Arena sized and filled with dozens and dozens of desks, the room is the beating heart of the BBC local and international news. Everything on their websites, radio stations, and TV shows eventually makes its way through there. And off to the side is the international news desk, meaning that when you watch BBC World, the screens and people behind the anchor are from a real newsroom and are not a projection.
The tour continued with a visit to The One Show studio (a celebrity evening talk show) and on to Old Broadcasting House. Constructed in the 1930s, the building was the original headquarters of the BBC and hosted a variety of celebrities throughout the twentieth century. Even though their new headquarters (dubbed New Broadcasting House) opened three years ago, the older building is still in use (though to a much smaller extent).
Once inside, they showed us the original lobby and the theater. Broadcasting history saturated the walls. At least the tour guides made it seem that way. Many of the celebrity names they mentioned were quite literally foreign to us. They then led us through the building, eventually making our way to the interactive studios where people from our group had a chance to pretend to report the news and make a radio play. It was all kind of hokey, but fun nonetheless.
Looking back, it was all pretty underwhelming. Enjoyable at the time, but I longed to see more. Then again, I guess there’s only so much that they can show the general public. Trade secrets and all. (Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)
Plus as I’m learning in my class, the BBC is not the end all be all of great British TV. In America, we tend to put BBC programming up on a pedestal and label it with words like “craft” and “quality.” But as my professor says, sometimes you need to put on your “bull-shit glasses” and block out the PR campaigns.
Regardless, the BBC will always have a specially place in my heart, and I’m glad I got to see part of where it all comes from.