Why does BBC censor new music from TV?

Why does BBC censor new music from TV?


norman lebrecht

August 08, 2014

The Scottish composer John McLeod, 80 this year and widely feted, was thrilled to learn that his work, The Sun Dances, was to receive a London premiere at the BBC Proms.

john Mcleod

photo (c) Wojtek Kutyla


The performance, by the BBC Scottish SO and Donald Runnicles, was all a composer could have wished for. The broadcast on BBC Radio 3 enabled the work to be heard in every home in the land and worldwide on the internet.

The cherry on the composer’s cake was a delayed broadcast of the concert on BBC4 television.

So imagine John’s dismay when he turned on the telly and found his work had been cut out of the BBC SSO concert. No time factors were involved. ‘There were 15 minutes left at the end before the next programme,’ John tells us, ‘and it was filled up with some nature documentary.’

Other composers have had the same experience. They get a work played at the Proms, but dropped off TV. John McLeod calls this ‘contemporary classical composer discrimination.’ He’s right. Last year they did the same to James MacMillan’s violin concerto.

The BBC are entirely wrong to censor contemporary music from the supposedly specialist TV channel. It is not just philistinism at work in TV. It’s a blatant waste of public money. We – through the BBC – paid for this premiere. By shutting it off TV, the BBC are not giving – or getting full value. What’s the excuse?

(Share this post on social media if you agree with its premise. Let’s save some poor composer’s work next year.)


  • Cross-Eyed Pianist says:

    I have increasingly felt that the BBC, concert promoters and those who run mainstream concert halls have decided that “modern” music (i.e. contemporary music) is far too scary for us, the listening public. These people have decided it is not for us, because either we won’t like it, or we won’t be able to understand it.

    But by not broadcasting/performing it, how can we make a judgement about this music?

    When I was a kid going to the Proms with my parents the words “world premiere” or “special commission” in the programme filled me with dread, but I’ve come to value the exposure I had to new music. The Proms used to be a place where new music was celebrated and performed. If it’s being cut from tv broadcasts, what hope is there for a new audience to explore and experience it?

  • Catherine Rose says:

    They did it to Jonathan Dove’s new piece, Gaia, as well. We missed the radio broadcast so turned on for the TV repeat on 1st August, only to “find it gorn”. Really disgusted by this.

  • John Babb says:

    I missed the live radio broadcast but had read some positive reviews of the Mcleod work and looked forward to seeing on the TV transmission. I note that ‘live’ TV transmissions are mostly avoided these days and this TV transmission slot is branded as ‘Proms Masterworks’ , as though that label will increase viewers. We are grown up and are prepared and indeed welcome the chance to hear new works. All part of the dumbing-down of radio 3 and classical music on the Beeb. Have to blame Roger Wright, the plans and programming will have been sorted before he left and it is he who has made so many poor changes to the Radio 3 schedules. Time is always found to include unnecessary lengthy intros and celebrity interviews whenever possible.

  • Dennis Marks says:

    Don’t blame Roger Wright. He has no control over TV Proms (and nor does his acting successor Edward Blakeman). The responsibility lies with the Executive Producer for the TV Proms but she is probably acting under the fiat of her boss Jan Younghusband. Or Even the Controller of BBC4. If you are disturbed by the lack of contemporary music on BBCTV – a fraction of what it was fifteen or twenty years ago – then you’d be best off complaining to Tony Hall, who claims to be committed to huge growth in the arts on TV.

  • 2nd violinist says:

    What is the official BBC explanation for this omission? It would be fascinating if you could dig deeper. Do the BBC feel we are not intelligent enough to listen to contemporary music, even if by watching the programme in the first place one can probably assume we have at least some interest in orchestral music.

    • SVM says:

      Marketing hacks think contemporary classical music puts off audiences.

      Marketing hacks discourage promoters from programming contemporary classical music, because it renders concerts ‘less accessible’.

      Marketing hacks convince BBC controllers that broadcasting contemporary classical music on TV would render the Proms ‘less accessible’.

      Marketing hacks convince promoters to keep what little contemporary classical music makes it in to the concert programme low-profile, slipped between some ‘accessible’ works from the safe, established canon.

      Marketing hacks convince promoters and most audience-members that anything that is not immediately and manifestly ‘accessible’ is a bad thing.

      Marketing hacks’ prejudices against contemporary classical music are contagious, and quickly spread to promoters, performers, and audiences, before a single note has actually been played.

      Consequently, most audience-members do not get to hear much contemporary classical music, and, when they do, it tends to be as a side-effect.

      Many audience-members have been indoctrinated to think that music is merely entertainment, and should therefore not be surprising, challenging, or disturbing.

      We must fight this dialectic every step of the way; otherwise, marketing hacks’ prejudices become self-fulfilling prophecies (see, for example,



  • Today it’s possible to measure not only how many people watch a program but also when they arrive and leave. It wouldn’t surprise me at all that they have a stack of ratings charts showing people switching the channel the moment a modern piece comes up much in the same way the public will avoid buying tickets to a performance with such music.

    • SVM says:

      First, where is the evidence for this? And secondly, have you considered *why* people switch? Could it be because the marketing of new music, as opposed to the music itself, has reinforced people’s *prejudice* before a single note had been heard (a prejudice which includes the widely held but unsubstantiated *assumption* that new music puts off audiences)? Or because new music is broadcast at a time of day when fewer people would be watching television? Finally, why should the BBC capitulate to this silly ratings game — it is not a commercial broadcaster…

  • I am sure most viewers would choose a public execution over a philosophical debate. It’s not for the BBC to market itself, but to provide a service. I don’t live in the UK – I live in Greece and our public broadcaster has come off the air on this basis of not making the numbers.

    Big, big mistake, I assure you. Extreme right wing up to 16% from 7% within a year of watching American B movies and UFC cage fighting instead of ‘arts and letters’ documentaries.

    • Philip Arlington says:

      The political situation is nothing to do with economic collapse then? And the people to blame are foreigners, you say! Doesn’t the latter contention sound rather, um, extreme right-wing?

  • Jon Jacob says:

    The BBC doesn’t censor new music Norman. McLeod’s brilliant The Sun Dances and Gove’s Gaia are available via BBC iPlayer. https://twitter.com/thoroughlygood/status/498133205325971456

  • Jon Jacob says:

    Here’s the link to the TV coverage of BBC Proms new music.


  • Jonathan Dore says:

    The point, Jon, is that it was specifcally cut from the *broadcast*, not that it isn’t available.

  • Jon Jacob says:

    In an increasingly on-demand world, it not appearing in a broadcast isn’t evidence of censoring. It not being made available at all might be.

    • SVM says:

      The BBC is broadcasting concerts that include a new work in the programme, but routinely cutting the new work from the broadcast. That is a form a censorship, and does not behove an organisation with the august aims of the BBC. It is shameful that the corporation has determined modern music to be unfit for the television screen, so it is right and proper that viewers (who have to pay a licence fee, remember) express their indignation.

  • Philip Arlington says:

    This is a misuse of language. The BBC made an editorial decision not to show some footage which was available for broadcast, which is something it does all the time in every field of programming. Whether the editorial decision was right or wrong, it was nothing to do with censorship.

  • Tim Benjamin says:

    Might it be that the rights were cleared for live performance but not for broadcast? Maybe the BBC thought that the extra cost wasn’t worth it (I have no idea what the extra cost would be or even if this could possibly be the case). Maybe, even, the BBC or the publisher screwed up the contracts and realised belatedly that broadcast rights weren’t included! And would these new pieces be covered by the BBC’s blanket music license? probably not, so they would need special negotiation.

    Incompetence is usually a much more likely explanation than conspiracy…

    • SVM says:

      But if it were a rights issue, why was the rest of the concert broadcast? Moreover, some of the repertoire that is included on TV broadcasts *is* still in copyright (R. Strauss does not enter PD until 2020). I was under the impression that, in contrast to GEMA, PRS tariffs are usually based on audience size/box office sales (I know that the radio tariffs are based on how many listeners a station has), not the repertoire being performed (except insofar as whether or not it is in copyright, obviously). Or is the issue that TV broadcasting involved ‘grand rights’, and were thus beyond the scope of PRS? I would be very interested to hear from someone who knows about all this…

      • Dave K says:

        Broadcast rights are much greater if TV put it out “on air” – so by cutting it from the BBC4 broadcast and making it available only via iPlayer, with rights paid on a “per view” basis, BBC TV are cutting their costs. Probably pennies to them…

  • Derek Williams says:

    My guess? It boils down to the personal taste of the producer and the imperious assumption that the entire population shares it.

  • David Barton says:

    I did make a fruitless grumble to the BBC about this, and the exclusion of other works from the BBC 4 broadcasts. Amidst the usual BBC jargon about aiming to offer a wide range of classical music programmes which appeal to differing tastes and diversities, no specific reason is given for the exclusion of the McLeod work; however, they say that works are occasionally ‘adjusted’ to ‘accommodate surrounding programming’ or due to ‘rights restrictions’.

  • Paul Ingram says:

    Inform, educate and entertain.

    With the Proms premieres footage already in the can, not so hard – you’d think.