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Moving wallpaper threatens to engulf us;FE Focus

Laurence Alster tunes into the downmarket pressures on one of education's best resources - the BBC

IF YOU care about education, then you should care about television. As a means of formal and, more especially, informal further education, its influence and potential are massive.

Today, many households have more than one television. Youngsters generally have a set in their bedroom, some with their own video recorder. Satellite and cable services now offer dozens of channels, soon to be hundreds with digital television. So we get lots, and shortly we'll get more. But what of?

A recent report offered some clues. Jointly commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and several British media companies, the report condemned British television as too often "self-sufficient and insular", turning out programmes that, though popular at home, under-perform in the international market.

Immediately, Culture Secretary Chris Smith announced an inquiry into Britain's performance in the broadcasting market with a view to improving overseas sales in the next century. This sounds harmless enough until you learn which British programmes sell the most: Cracker, Teletubbies, Top of the Pops and, Lord help us, The Benny Hill Show. Across Europe, Australia's Home and Away is preferred viewing because of the characters' "sunshine lifestyle", while British soaps suffer from being set in an "old country" that "cannot portray itself as a fictional destination which audiences elsewhere can enjoy".

That's it, then. Not until global warming brings an antipodean glow to Weatherfield and Albert Square will foreigners tune in.

The soaps, though, are only symptoms of a bigger problem. For the BBC in particular, the heat is on both at home and abroad. Increased domestic competition means that the corporation must attract a substantial slice of the audience to justify the licence fee. And to defend its market share against populist trends abroad, the BBC will be tempted - compelled? - to compete on the same basis as the current sales leaders, the Americans.

Whichever way you look at it, the drift is downmarket. The signs are already there. The schedules are stuffed with chefs, be they fat, naked or half-pickled. The recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations was clearly made with an eye to the export market. Esther Rantzen's and Vanessa Feltz's cry 'n pry shows mimic the transatlantic tackiness of Rikki Lake and Montel Williams. Terrified of boring viewers, news programmes take on an increasingly tabloid hue.

It's not all bad, of course. Series like The Nazis - A Warning from History, Cold War and The Life of Birds show that the BBC can still come up with the goods. The point is that it must continue to do so. Students who happen across these programmes during a routine channel sweep talk with real feeling, and some surprise, about being drawn into them.

It's one in the eye for those who preach the redundancy of public service broadcasting. Just over a decade ago, BBC correspondent Kate Adie was asked her opinion of British television. "Worth talking about," she said. "Elsewhere it's crud - moving wallpaper for morons." True now as then, perhaps. But what would she say in 10 years' time?

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