Recently, in the wake of the latest round of wrangling over the licence fee, Radio 4 comedy songwriter Mitch Benn composed a song owing a lot to both We Didn’t Start The Fire (in its construction) and Subterranean Homesick Blues (in is video presentation). This song is essentially a list of what the BBC has given us – chiefly, but not exclusively – radio and TV programmes.

Being a public-spirited chap, and generally well-disposed towards Mitch Benn (well, the song does namecheck Doctor Who three times), I popped the link on my Facebook page – as no doubt did many others. My curmudgeonly friend Ivan responded as follows.

Alas this just makes the point that the BBC is living on past glories. If I were a bit sadder I’d work out the average time since the shows mentioned were first on but at a guess I’d say 25 years?

Now, anyone who knows me at all will know that I took this as a challenge, firstly to defend Mitch Benn (and therefore the BBC)’s honour, and secondly because there’s very little which I am prepared to pass over on the basis that to do it would require me to be a bit sadder.

I thus compiled an Excel spreadsheet of all the shows mentioned in the song, and looked up all their dates. No, really. I did. You can download it here.

This creates some problems. Firstly, not all of the items in the song are shows, so this list ignores stations (“everything on BBC 4”), people (such as Michael Palin), other services (such as iPlayer), events which the BBC covers but which would take place anyway (such as Wimbledon). Where possible I have construed groups (such as Monty Python) as referring to the shows with which they are chiefly associated. I wasn’t able to do anything sensible with Last Night of the Proms. There were also one or two in the last sequence which I couldn’t hear clearly, but I doubt a few extra data points would change the overall picture.

Then we have to decide what is being referred to. Does Yes Minister include Yes Prime Minister? Does The Wombles include the nineties episodes as well as the seventies episodes? Do we take into account the revamp of Top Gear in 2001? How? My choices are revealed in the spreadsheet, but basically I tried to be as inclusive as possible, while recognising the difference between a successful revival which continues the story (Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads) and an obscure or unsuccessful revival which is a mere stub and can be ignored (the Dave episodes of Red Dwarf).

What do the numbers tell us?

Here are some raw statistics. Mitch Benn mentions 110 items which meet the criteria above (basically audibility, coherence and showhood). The earliest was first transmitted in 1946 (a tie between Letter from America and Woman’s Hour) and 44 were still transmitting in 2010 (only one or two of which have been officially cancelled). The longest-running is the aforementioned Woman’s Hour and only one, Sherlock, debuted in 2010.

So, what of Ivan’s guess? Well, give Mr Grumpy his due, it’s pretty bloody good. The average year of first transmission is in fact 1980, meaning an error of five years, arguably in Ivan’s favour. But let’s now proceed to ask if this number actually makes Ivan’s case and indeed whether it’s a fair measure to use.

The BBC has been broadcasting regular radio programmes since 1922 and regular television programmes since 1932 (or 1936 or 1946 depending on how you count). With 89 years of broadcasting to choose from, an average date of first transmission from just 30 years ago looks like a bias towards the recent, rather than a basis towards the ancient. This isn’t entirely fair, of course, since it isn’t really until the 1950s that the BBC got into its stride and almost no programmes from before that time survive, so how can we possibly judge them? But even if we assert that “proper” television began in 1950 (Quatermass, Panorama were both first broadcast in 1953), Mitch Benn’s song still lands right in the middle of that range. What could be fairer?

But why do we think that date of first transmission is the appropriate metric in the first place? As noted, getting on for half the programmes cited (44 out of 110) transmitted episodes in, or have not been cancelled as of, 2010 and so can be counted as current output. So this isn’t the BBC wallowing in nostalgia, this is a celebration of the BBC both past and present. Counting only start dates effectively penalises longer-running and therefore likely more successful ones. It’s easy to make the case that the BBC is no longer worth the licence fee money if you hold up its most successful programmes as its biggest failures!

Let me now attempt to anticipate Ivan’s next rejoinder. If the schedules are clogged up with ancient programmes first devised in the 1990s, 1980s or even 1970s (as well as repeats of programmes cancelled decades earlier) then that at least suggests that the BBC is failing to innovate. Where are the programmes which Mitch Benn’s children will be including in their song in thirty years time?

Well, it’s reasonable I think to allow a song such as this to include the very best of the BBC. Not every programme will be successful, and we want a public service broadcaster to experiment and so to have the right to fail and not to have its failures permanently haunt them (provided there’s still a steady stream of successes, that is). So it’s not surprising that the average time span of programmes in Mitch Benn’s list is 16 years (this doesn’t necessarily mean 16 series – Fawlty Towers, for example, consists of two series, one broadcast in 1975 and one broadcast in 1979, so on these figures it counts as a five year span). This doesn’t mean that the list excludes wonderful one-offs like Tinker Tailor Solider Spy or Edge of Darkness, but it does mean that it – quite naturally and fairly – favours shows which have proven that they have some staying power.

But the list of shows which has run for, say, five years or more and which debuted in 2010 is very short!! We don’t yet know whether or not new shows like Him and Her, Songwriters Circle, Whites, Lip Service, Single FatherThe Science of the Young Ones and countless others will prove to be long-lasting, fondly-remembered and hugely successful. To criticise Mitch Benn for leaving them out is unfair. To criticise the BBC for not having launched this year any shows which have already run for five years is absurd.

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