A lack of ambition for the BBC?

BBC NewsWhy does it so often feel as if the party has a lack of ambition for the future of the BBC? It seems that the only time we comment on it is when we’re attacking the Government or their proposals. It’s hard to recall when we last put forward imaginative plans to “secure the BBC’s status as the envy of the world”.

Actually I should probably quote that statement in full: “We can only secure the BBC’s status as the envy of the world by introducing a single, independent regulator for all public service broadcasters.” – Don Foster, 15 March 2006

The problem is the statement makes no sense. It starts from an assumption that the BBC already HAS status as “the envy of the world” under the decades old model of internal regulation but goes on to suggest that such status can only be secured and developed by handing regulatory responsibility to an outside body.

I don’t understand the logic – it’s not even as if independent regulation of the commercial PSBs has a good record in serving the viewer.

Over the last decade regulators have allowed Channel Four (the second publicly owned broadcaster) to enter contracts which prevent anyone outside the Freeview catchment area watching their channels via Digital Satellite unless they pay Sky or the cable companies for the privilege.

Meanwhile ITV has been permitted to all but abandon regional diversity, weaken their commitment to news, banish religious programming from the schedules and plumb to new depths of ‘quality’.

The broadcaster famed for original dramas such as Upstairs, Downstairs, Minder, Morse and A Family at War has become the proud home of Celebrity Love Island, Make Your Play and The Mint. It’s reported that ITV1 is likely to reintroduce bought-in US drama to the main evening schedule.

While the independent regulators ignored and approved these changes the BBC’s internal regulation oversaw the virtual eradication of imported content in prime time, real opportunities for independent producers (witness the success of Kudos which produces hit dramas Spooks, Hustle and Life on Mars) and the successful rescue and revival of the Digital Terrestrial Television platform following the demise of ITV Digital.

I’m genuinely unclear which of these decisions LibDems believe would have been better made or executed under external regulation.

“ITV has been allowed to abandon virtually any attempt at producing original comedy or drama”

Whilst ITV has been allowed to abandon virtually any attempt at producing original comedy or drama (save the soaps which now dominate their weekday schedules) the BBC has heavily invested in hit comedies, for example the BAFTA winning The Smoking Room and The Office, and dramas. From the cerebral Judge John Deed to the crowd pleasing Doctor Who BBC produced and commissioned drama is winning plaudits, awards and audiences at home and abroad.

Which of these shows would we be likely to see if regulation of the BBC was handed to OFCOM? The state of ITV’s schedule suggests very few.

Now some of you might be thinking I’m a tad unfair on ITV and other commercial broadcasters.  After all, the BBC has the guaranteed income of the licence fee whilst commercial broadcasters have to make money from their output and can afford to take less risks.

I’d accept that rebuke if commercial broadcasters – and especially ITV – made any creative effort to make money outside of selling advertising. Note, I said ‘creative effort’ – sticking a couple of educationally challenged bimbos in front of a cardboard set whilst the public pay £1 a time to be told their answer is wrong doesn’t qualify as remotely creative!

No, it’s the BBC which has been taking the most creative risks and then merchandising them to hell.

According to figures in the latest BBC Worldwide annual report “more than half a million copies of the [Doctor Who] series one DVDs and more than 200,000 copies of Doctor Who books across nine titles were sold“.

ABC figures released this summer show the BBC Worldwide produced magazine Doctor Who Adventures shipping 77,000 copies a fortnight.

This represents a lot of cash handed over at the tills, even allowing for the fact that some of the money will go to the retailer that still suggests a healthy return for BBC Worldwide.

Of course it’s not only Doctor Who which the BBC merchandises with such vigour, Little Britain and a host of kids brands are equally well represented on the shelves of Britain’s high streets and every sale helps keep the licence fee down.

Madly there are those who think the activities of BBC Worldwide should be hived off to the private sector allowing companies who have played no part in the production of licence fee funded content to take the lion’s share of funds raised by commercial exploitation.

Despite this commercial activity the Licence Fee will remain the BBC’s most important income for some years yet – the rapid adoption of the Freeview service suggests a growing widespread public unwillingness to pay for subscription TV and the advertising market wouldn’t support the entry of the eight BBC channels.

This being the case why are we claiming the “licence fee level must be fixed for at least five years” (Don Foster, 4 October 2006) despite the corporation having secured a further 10 year Charter?

Given the meddlesome nature of this Government and the hostility towards the BBC shown by the Tories in the past surely at least one party should be arguing for long term funding agreements?

If we really believe the BBC is “the envy of the world” we need to act to free it 

If we really believe the BBC is “the envy of the world” we need to act to free it from short-term political opportunism and the pressures lazy commercial broadcasters can bring to bear on a disinterested and ineffectual regulator.

I believe the best way forward is to support an ongoing basic funding formula with the ability for the BBC to request time limited increases to fund specific projects. 

The time consuming process of periodic Charter renewal should be abandoned  – the last renewal process took three years to complete (http://www.bbc.co.uk/thefuture/charter/charter.shtml) – with a perpetual charter granted.

These important changes would bring the “financial transparency and stability” (http://libdems.org.uk/news/brown-must-end-roadblock-to-fair-bbc-licence-fee-foster.html) the party rightly claims is needed.

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28 Comments

  • Gary Finney 11th Oct '06 - 4:37pm

    I’ve always been a huge supporter of the BBC and the licence fee. Over the last couple of years ITV have dramatically reduced the programmes for children, given up producing comedy and filled their schedules with low quality productions, which are aimed merely at gaining ratings with little regard given to the programmes content or quality.

    I’m amazed that people moan about the licence fee, it offers remarkably good value for money. I dread to think what would happen if the BBC were forced to look into other ways of raising their revenue.

    I would like to think that the BBC is given the support it needs to continue not just to produce good television, but also some amazing good radio programmes too.

  • Martin Hoscik 11th Oct '06 - 4:42pm

    Hi Gary

    You’re right – I did manage to exlcude the radio output from my article. I’m not a huge radio listener so I had less experience of the whole sector so decided to focus on the part I knew best :)

  • hywelmorgan 11th Oct '06 - 5:15pm

    “Well Gary, the “licence fee” is techinically illegal. It is a barrier to media, and according to Human Rights legislation government-imposed barriers to media are forbidden.”

    Sorry that’s rubbish. Art 10 specifically allows licensing of “broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises”

  • Martin Hoscik 12th Oct '06 - 12:01am

    ‘can we really compare the licence fee with Sky subscription? Sky subscription cost something like £180 for something like 50 programmes where as you annual licence fee pays for 8 TV channels only.’

    Plus a host of radio channels, a huge website, digital rollout and much more.

  • Stephen Tall 12th Oct '06 - 12:06am

    Interesting article, Martin: many thanks.

    Don’t agree with all of it, and have posted why at http://oxfordliberal.blogspot.com/2006/10/good-telly-too-important-to-leave-to.html

  • Martin Hoscik 12th Oct '06 - 12:12am

    Cheers Stephen, I’ll have a deeper read of yours and let you have my thoughts :-)

  • Stephen Tall 12th Oct '06 - 10:42am

    “I have to pay my taxes regardless of whether I use public services – why is the licence fee any different?”

    Because you benefit, directly or indirectly, now or in the future, from key public services. You may not have kids – but your old age will be made more comfortable by medical carers who needed schooling.

    Telly isn’t in the same category.

  • Martin Hoscik 12th Oct '06 - 10:48am

    But Will could opt to pay privately for that care and by doing so would be directly paying for that training so his point remains valid.

  • Stephen Tall 12th Oct '06 - 10:53am

    True, Martin, but I’m not such a free marketeer that I don’t recognise that we need a decent level of state-funded provision for those who cannot afford private health-care!

    My main point was that decent telly and decent health-care are very different categories of need.

  • Martin Hoscik 12th Oct '06 - 11:07am

    But Stephen for many people decent telly is a part of their wider health-care.

    If you’re housebound your telly – or radio – might be the only company you have during the day while your family are at work. If you live alone it might be the only company you have for days.

    It’s also a great driver towards ‘culture’ – sales of Bleak House soared after the BBC’s recent adapation – and gives an important ‘free at the point of use’ window on the world to those who can’t read as well as you and I.

    By removing the LF the only options for funding are direct Government grant OR subscription.

    With the first we all continue to pay plus the BBC would be in hock to the likes of Blair who is in turn in grasp of Murdoch and with the second the poorer members of society will be forced to pay more for their TV. Plus, as not everywhere has cable this means a Sky monopoly in those areas.

    You say you’re against monooplies and against forcing people to pay for TV but I don’t see any hint of a suggestion from you how to avoid the above scenarios which are currently the only likely outcome of abolishing the LF.

  • Stephen Tall 12th Oct '06 - 3:50pm

    … or, indeed, a state publisher to ensure culturally worthy books find an outlet.

  • Martin Hoscik 12th Oct '06 - 3:58pm

    The state DOES provides subsidy to ensure culturally worthy outlets exist – opera, museums, galleries, libraries – where the commercial sector can’t or wont provide them.

  • Martin Hoscik 12th Oct '06 - 4:01pm

    Oops, I lost my last para. If it’s acceptable for them to do so in those arenas why is it less ok to fund the quality shortfall caused by a decade of non-investment by the commercial broadcasters?

  • Peter Bancroft 13th Oct '06 - 1:36pm

    Like the BBC or not, it’s surely not possible to imagine the licence fee as sustainable at a time with an exponential growth of alternate media providers (cable, satellite, freeview and now the Internet) and exponential decay of the amount of time that people are spending watching, listening to or reading BBC content.

    I’m actually a great fan of the BBC as a news and content provider, but don’t have the somewhat utopian view of the BBC that some people on here have. It’s not a great British state institution – it’s a great example of news and content creation and distribution which to keep going needs to have the political sphere update its funding and remit.

  • Martin Hoscik 13th Oct '06 - 1:49pm

    Sorry Peter but the decline in ITV and other commerically funded broadcasters (mostly full of cheap US imports) makes it EASIER to argue the case for the licence fee.

    If you favour changing the funding regime (an easy call to make) how would YOU fund it?

    BTW, cable, satellite, freeview and the internet aren’t “alternate media providers” they are distribution platforms and in the case of Freeview it wouldn’t even exist but for the BBC who:

    a) developed the entire theory of DTT
    b) rescued the DTT platform after ITV ballsed up with ITV Digital/OnDigital

    No-one wanted to offer a free digital platform until the BBC stepped in to take over the majority of the multiplexes with Crown Castle and then used the strength of the BBC brand to promote the platform.

    Despite criticisms and scepticism from the pro-Murdoch lobby the UK’s DTT platform is held globally as a credible alternative to cable and satellite distribution platforms and a number of countries have tapped into our expertise to deliver their own versions.

    Suddenly 7 million homes who either couldn’t afford to didn’t want to pay Sky and Cable for digital TV have an affordable and simple route into the next generation of telly services.

    The BBC’s channels are the single biggest driver for the rapid take-up.

    Equally satellite is a platform whose growth the BBC continues to support and drive by

    a) offering all channels free to air
    b) now offers FTA Hi-Def content to ensure that the public can access this latest TV development without having to pay a £50 a month Sky subscription for it.

  • Without the BBC much of the LibDem leadership campaign would be simply invisible to a large proportion of our membership.

    QT, PS etc set the standard for the level of debate which is continued over at places like LDV.
    Not that this gives the Beeb any automatic right to the voluntary tax that is the license fee – personally I’d be for the increasing commercial activities to help it move towards greater self-funding and a commensurate reduction in the license fee.

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