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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 débâ­cle, 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.

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{ 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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