The Novel Concept of TV Execs as Public Servants

  I tend bristle when I hear Americans say, very knowingly, easy Anglophilic things like, “Oh, the BBC is so much better than the news we have here,” even though sometimes I feel the same way. It seems a weird bourgeois attitude to assume that stuff is more sophisticated because it’s British, but the entire Signals catalogue is based on that conceit. Then again, many Americans are guilty of the opposite, assuming that everything under the stars and stripes is better than everything everywhere because, “We’re number one! USA, USA, USA!” Of course, the truth is always more nuanced. Well, except in the Olympics…where we are number one, but I digress.

  Anyway, back to the BBC. I have been fascinated to discover that the salaries and expense accounts of BBC executives, presenters (including news anchors), and even the stars of scripted dramas are subject to public scrutiny. The BBC is funded by our taxes, not advertising, and its employees are essentially considered public servants.  Newspapers list the salaries of top executives and stars at the BBC, and the BBC Trust - the governing body of the BBC — is often forced to defend the high salaries of top talent. What passes for a high salary might be anywhere between a six figure sum and a million or more pounds. A controversial late night talk show host and radio presenter, named Jonathan Ross, was making somewhere around ?6 million last year. Not even close to what one of his American counterparts, David Letterman, takes home in a year. Yet, Ross is paid by the British taxpayers and so his salary — and his antics — are debated in public with an intensity that doesn’t happen in the United States. Can you imagine feeling entitled to question Katie Couric’s $15 million salary? I mean, we question it anyway, but we don’t officially have a say in what she’s paid.

  I can’t even decide which system is better, but I tend to think that choice and variety are generally good and the American system lends itself to that.   For news though, I generally think the BBC is more serious and sober than a lot of our American networks. Mostly because they haven’t been sucked into the world of partisan talking heads and because they don’t have the budget to get lost in technological bells and whistles. No floating pie charts or holograms here, thank you. Also, they don’t have to worry about advertising dollars. On the other hand, the news in the UK isn’t consistently great (and it’s not all BBC) and good reporting happens in the US too.   The scripted shows are, in general, not any better than American ones and probably suffer from the lack of budget.   For example, I can’t imagine “Lost” being made by the BBC.

I’m sure if NPR or PBS were bigger cultural influencers — with much bigger budgets — we would be up in arms about executive salaries as well. As an American, the BBC approach is novel to me and I’m mostly just fascinated by the sense of ownership the public feels over their major networks because, well, the taxpayers (which now include me) do own the networks.