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Time to start work to save the BBC

by Richard Elen on 2 Mar, 2010

in Broadcasting, Politics, Science & Technology

BBC Logo and tower

The British Broadcasting Corporation is in my view the best broadcaster in the world, and today it’s under attack from commercial rivals and politicians (primarily in the Conservative Party) backed by those same rivals (notably members of the Murdoch family). The BBC, in response, is proposing its own cutbacks in services. It’s the thin end of the wedge.

Unfortunately, the current Director General, Mark Thompson, who got the job in the wake of the Gilligan debacle, and his colleagues at the top of the Corporation, have historically seemed to lack a backbone as far as standing up to critics of the Corporation is concerned. Instead of fighting back, in fact, the BBC and the BBC Trust seem to be taking the view that when threatened, you should throw in the towel and do what the opposition demands, however contradictory, ill-advised or short-sighted. The likely result, it seems to me, is the emasculation of the Corporation and the degrading of a magnificent institution, the envy of the world.

In addition, offering to make cuts is the thin end of the wedge. Just as the skimming off of the licence fee to fund digital switchover provided a precedent for skimming for other purposes, so a decision to make voluntary (or involuntary) cuts provides a precedent for more cuts. We already know the Tories want to dismember the BBC, and this is just starting their dirty work for them.

The Murdoch family, conscious that the world of newspapers is changing dramatically, want to try and halt the tide of change rather than going with it and seeing what new innovations they can come up with. It’s rather like the record companies trying to hold back change by making their customer the enemy. Both will fail. However, the Murdochs may cause extensive collateral damage before they realise this, and nowhere is this of more concern to me than in the case of the BBC.

Thus it is that today the BBC Trust has published a Strategy Review for public consultation. It recommends closing BBC Radio 6 Music and the BBC Asian Network, reducing the content of the BBC Web Site – one of the most popular in the world – by 25%, and other measures. You can find the actual review itself here. You can also read the commentary of the BBC Chairman, Michael Lyons, on the review.

We licence payers have the ability to comment on the proposals, and I recommend that you do so. This can be done via an online survey which asks a series of questions based on the proposals.

If you are concerned as I am about the proposals, I also urge you to sign the petition at avaaz.org. Petitions have swayed the BBC in the past. There is also a petition at 38 Degrees.

I thought I would include here my answers to the questions posed in the Online Consultation questionnaire. I hope you find them of interest. I’ve also written some additional comments on the situation in the Transdiffusion MediaBlog.

BBC Strategy Review: My Response

The BBC’s strategic principles

Do you think these are the right principles?

The only thing I am concerned about is “Doing fewer things”. Why do fewer things? In particular the web site is a marvellous resource and worth every penny. The BBC should be doing unique things that nobody else can be bothered to do, and the web site is one such. Radio 6 Music is another.

The BBC needs to offer quality and originality, and the web site, Radio 6 Music and the Asian Network deliver these.

Should the BBC have any other strategic principles?

The fundamental Reithian principles of “Inform, Educate and Entertain” still work well in today’s environment. The BBC has a duty to deliver these to the public that pays for it. That means adopting new technologies and new delivery methods, and giving them the funding they need to do the job well.

The BBC is in a lose/lose situation in that if it produces popular programming, commercial rivals will moan that it stifles competition. If it produces high-quality and original programming that attracts relatively few viewers and listeners, people will say it’s wasting money.

Thus the BBC needs to unequivocally commit itself to quality and originality and make it clear that by making the programmes the commercial competitors will not make, it is bound to lose viewers and listeners, and that this is an inevitable consequence of such a strategy. Thus criticism of the size of viewing and listening audiences must be ruled as irrelevant and this must be made perfectly clear.

Proposed principle: Putting Quality First

Which BBC output do you think could be higher quality?

There are broad areas where a channel or station could offer “higher quality”, but primarily by dropping programming of a lowest common denominator nature. One could argue that general entertainment programming with very expensive celebrities, for example, or reality shows (were the BBC to consider doing them in the future), can be left to the commercial stations. That doesn’t mean that the output of the BBC in these areas is not of “high quality”, but that the types of programming themselves are not original or of high quality.

Offering you something special

Which areas should the BBC make more distinctive from other broadcasters and media?

Celebrity chat shows and reality TV are not distinctive. Anyone can do them.

Factual programming is a particular area where the BBC already is distinctive, and this can be improved by taking advantage of the fact, for example, that there are no commercial breaks, and thus no perceived need for incessant recaps. The audience can be treated as intelligent and given a well-paced story, without having to be reminded of past points all the time or taking three steps forward and two back on each subtopic.

The BBC Web site and its range of services is distinctive and unlike any other offering, with its broad spectrum of news, comment, information and blogs. This needs to be developed further and take full advantage of new technology.

Stations like Radio 6 music, Radio 3 and Radio 4 offer distinctive programming and music that cannot be heard elsewhere. Radio 3 is nothing like Classic FM, for example. There should be more specialist programming not less.

In general, the BBC is not being distinctive when it produces programming similar to that found on commercial stations and channels. The BBC’s strengths include factual and documentary programming, high quality modern and period drama, linking into new technology such as the web site and iPlayer, and music radio that escapes from the mainstream.

The Five Editorial Priorities

Do these priorities fit with your expectations of BBC TV, radio and online services?

Yes, they do.

Proposed principle: Doing fewer things and doing them better

We welcome your views on these areas.

Closing Radio 6 Music and the Asian Network are in direct conflict with the goal of “Offering something special”. While one might argue that ultimately there should be no need for an “Asian Network” as a separate entity, we are not there yet.

However in particular when considering Radio 6 Music, this kind of service – a service that a commercial broadcaster would not consider offering – is exactly the kind of thing the BBC should be doing and closing it runs contrary to previously-stated criteria.

In addition, radio is cheap – you could close BBC 3 and save a dozen specialist radio stations.

The BBC Web site is also fine as it is. I enjoy the breadth and depth of coverage, which is unmatched by other operators, not because the competition is stifled but because the competition simply cannot be bothered to do it this well.

I do not regard limiting the scope of the BBC web site as being in line with principles of excellence, originality or public service. We pay for the BBC and we have a right to the best possible service from it.

Arguably, nobody could do a web site better – it is one of the most popular in the entire world. Restricting its scope comes across as a knee-jerk response to criticism and not in line with stated strategic goals.

I would like to see BBC local radio remain locally generated as far as possible. There are plenty of people who would volunteer to produce and present locally-based programming outside drive time given access to BBC resources, for example.

I do not have particular views on other areas mentioned in this section.

Proposed principle: Guaranteeing access to BBC services

If you have particular views on how you expect BBC services to be available to you, please let us know.

I do not have any particular views on this section at present.

The BBC archive

Please tell us if you have views on this area.

The BBC is the greatest broadcaster in the world and it has a history of programming stretching back to the 1920s. In the past dreadful sacrifices have been made in the name of cost-effectiveness that have resulted in priceless coverage of international events, unique drama and other programming being irretrievably lost. Much of BBC coverage of the Apollo XI mission was taped over for example.

Maintaining a comprehensive BBC Archive is vital going forward and the mistakes of the past, resulting in irretrievable loss of our cultural heritage, must not be repeated in the future. We need to save the unique programming and output for ourselves and for future generations.

In addition to being archived, programming should be available to the public online and/or via viewing/listening environments like those offered by the BFI.

Proposed principle: Making the licence fee work harder

If you are concerned about the BBC’s value for money, please tell us why.

I have no specific views on this beyond suggesting that as far as salaries, expenses and similar areas of expenditure are concerned, I expect the Corporation always to be aware of cost and to negotiate the best possible deal. I expect contracts and expenses, for example, to be at levels generally regarded as standard in the industry.

Proposed principle: Setting new boundaries for the BBC

Do you think that the BBC should limit its activities in these areas?

No.

Just because your commercial competitors say you should or shouldn’t be doing something doesn’t mean that you should listen to them or that they are talking sense.

Closing 6 Music reduces the output of unique original programming and runs counter to other strategic goals. It also saves only a tiny bit of money in real terms.

Reducing purchases of overseas dramas is not a valid decision if you are intent on offering audiences the best. There are some areas of drama where no UK production can match the quality of programming made overseas, notably in the USA. Denying BBC viewers high quality content simply because it wasn’t made here is absurd.

Equally, there are areas where the BBC is second to none, and I am sure the Corporation does its best to sell these shows overseas and thus facilitate additional services without requiring an increase in the licence fee.

Reducing the scope of the BBC website makes no sense at all in terms of quality of service criteria. The web site as it stands offers a unique service that is unparalleled, not because competition is stifled but because nobody can be bothered to try. It is a unique service, just like, say, the Guardian’s online offerings. In different ways, I am happy to pay for both.

The BBC sets the standards here and in many other areas. Because the BBC had an original, brilliant idea doesn’t mean to say that they have to give it up because the commercial boys didn’t think of it themselves or see how they could make money from it.

I see no reason why the BBC should restrict or reduce its local offerings. Nobody else is going to do it, whatever they say. There is little or no money to be made there but there is a service that can be provided. Public service is part of the BBC’s remit. I do not have views on other proposals in this section.

Should any other areas be on this list?

I would seriously consider whether BBC 3 meets criteria for quality and originality. The few original programmes would be entirely appropriate on BBC 2 or perhaps BBC 4 for example.

My fundamental view is that there are no areas of service that the BBC provides that I am not happy to pay for. However if you are intent on making cuts, then closing BBC3 would save quite a number of radio stations.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jack March 10, 2010 at 18:14

This BBC-o-gram helps to visualise the BBC budget, and graphically shows how miniscule the 6 music budget is.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/mar/01/information-beautiful-bbc-o-gram-spending

Jack March 13, 2010 at 23:00

The Archive, 6 Music and the website have a nexus in the John Peel sessions. The John Peel sessions were part of my musical heritage, and I think they are part of the ethos of 6 Music. Originally brodcast for free, they now stand out as a mighty cultural treasure. But all that is available are 30sec clips OR maybe get 6 Music’s Marc Riley to play a session.
The webpage showcasing the sessions (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/johnpeel/sessions/) has a banner informing us that the page hasn’t been updated since 2005, and it has been kept for reference. The implication being that as soon as some exec decides that the relevance has gone, so will the page. Originality is being dismissed in favour of mass appeal. Who is going to be able to stumble upon the likes of Ivor Cutler in this bland future? I despair.

Ivana March 14, 2010 at 00:54

Proposed principle: Guaranteeing access to BBC services

If you have particular views on how you expect BBC services to be available to you, please let us know.

You say- I do not have any particular views on this section at present.

But what about Iplayer only giving 7 days to see/hear a show. Imagine I hear a NEW show, One I never found before, It is great and want to listen to an earlier prog I probably can’t because it is a weekly show. Iplayer is 7 days, why not longer? 3 weeks?

Richard Elen March 14, 2010 at 10:45

Ivana has a fair point. It would be interesting to know why the limit is only seven days. Obviously seven days is a lot of data storage, especially in HD. But storage is inexpensive these days. And I would hope that rights negotiations include an indefinite period and not one limited to a week.

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