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Taking Popular Culture Seriously: Public Service Television and Popular Music Heritage July 26, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Abstracts, Music History.
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An abstract for a proposed article I have submitted to write with Paul Long

This article explores the ways in which the BBC has scheduled popular music programming on BBC4. Launched in March 2002, BBC4 was the Corporation’s first foray into the digital distribution of television programming. For the station’s originators the channel was a site for high-quality and distinctive programming, especially in music, offering a serious approach to its subjects in tandem with a commitment to myriad listening and viewing pleasures. Peter Maniura, the BBC’s Head of Classical Music charged with formulating the channel’s music policy, has said that his intention was to ‘broaden the mix and give more depth and volume’ and to give airtime to popular music genres not usually covered on ‘mainstream’ channels. Janice Hadlow, BBC4’s original controller, has said that the channel aimed to challenge viewers: its goals in music programming ‘allow people to enjoy what they know and love already, but also about introducing an intelligent and discerning audience to new and challenging music’.

The channel offers music-themed nights, or extended seasons of music programming, often acting as a testing ground for new approaches to music broadcasting by the BBC. Friday night has become the point in the week in which popular music programming, and music theming, is concentrated. An evening’s schedule will usually be built around a new BBC documentary production supported by rebroadcasts of material taken from the BBC’s extensive television music archive.

We ask: how have BBC4 programmers managed music commissioning and scheduling across broadcast, online forums and social media platforms? And in what ways is the material presented in the Friday night slot understood in relation to a wider set of practices around popular music heritage exemplified by magazine such as Mojo or Uncut and Simon Reynolds much-discussed Retromania thesis? We suggest that the ongoing ‘curation’ of pop’s heritage (which perforce involves a contribution to defining that heritage) and archival retrieval by the BBC of its own recordings, highlights a history of the treatment of popular music and ways of treating its forms seriously as behooves the public service remit.

The nature of this programming is exemplified by the Britannia documentary series and one-off films which concern the history of musical genres and related cultural activities in the UK. Beginning with Jazz Britannia in 2005, subsequent contributions include similar treatments of folk (2006), soul (2007), dance music (2007), pop (2008), prog rock (2009), synth (2009), blues (2009), heavy metal (2010) and lately punk (2011) (see: Long & Wall, 2010; Wall & Long, 2011). With notably high production values, extensive archival research and interview schedules, such programmes utilise an impressive wealth of media sources, as well as many original contributions from performers and critics. Original documentaries are screened alongside repeats from the BBC TV vaults such as complete episodes from Jazz 625 (1964–65) or compilations of available performances from series such as Monitor (1958– 65), Colour Me Pop (1968–69) or The Old grey Whistle Test (1971–87).

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