It’s been a lively few months for the BBC: the scandal known as “Crowngate” has claimed its first senior management scalp (the ex-controller of BBC1, Peter Fincham); the BBC’s reputation for integrity has been hit by phone-in deceptions involving iconic programmes such as Blue Peter, Children In Need and Comic Relief; and the corporation has been very publicly washing its dirty linen, as it adjusts its expenditure following a licence fee settlement that was lower than asked for.
But there has been a good deal of regulatory and competitive turbulence in the commercial sector too. GMTV lost its managing director over the phone-in scandal on TV, while takeover, merger and trading issues have surrounded ITV, BSkyB, Virgin Media, SMG and EMAP. To cap it all, The Sun has dropped its cover price to 20p.
For some of us in the commercial sector, the BBC’s “problems” may seem exaggerated. Quite how a media organisation with a guaranteed income of £3bn a year for seven years (plus whatever an expanding BBC Worldwide commercial operation can throw into the pot) contrives a funding “crisis” out of such privilege is hard to comprehend.
The BBC – for once, like every other media organisation – is being asked to call some priorities. It’s finding this hard, but it does have the BBC Trust to help. Here are two key questions the Trust should ask its management to help clarify the way ahead.
First, does the BBC have an obligation to provide all its services universally in today’s multiplatform, fragmented world? The BBC has a tendency to confuse the universality of the license fee tax with an obligation to provide every household with every service on every platform. Wrong. Household value should be about an impactful core public service offering for all, not about competing with the commercial sector in every genre on every platform.
Second, how closely should the BBC compete with other broadcasters and content providers? As the BBC considers its priorities, it might reflect on the balance between the provision of its core public service programming and its pursuit of talent and content already well provided by the commercial media sector.
Take three examples from the past month alone. The BBC distorts the market for talent by over paying. The BBC could deploy 18 Natasha Kaplinskys, to read and report on the news, for the cost of Jonathan Ross’s £18m, three-year contract to provide once-weekly TV chat, film and radio shows. Should it be informing or entertaining?
The BBC feels it has to be in charge, in every medium, from production through to distribution. Why does it have to develop and spend lavish sums on its own iPlayer when off-the-shelf products from dedicated technology companies already exist? Check out Sky Plus, Joost or the RadioCentrePlayer (www.radiocentre.org/player). Is the BBC a public-service content provider or digital technology company, and should it spend public money on being the latter?
Finally, the BBC is shamelessly seeking out commercial sponsorship for its output (for more information, go to www.bbceventsponsorship.com). Should the BBC’s ambitions really be funded by commercial profits as well as licence fees?
The priorities issue was brought into sharp relief last week by activity from the astonishingly inappropriate BBC commercial arm BBC Worldwide. Why has it bought a 75% stake in Lonely Planet, the travel guide group? If EMAP can’t make sense of being a magazine publisher and radio/TV content provider, why is the BBC nationalising a commercial travel guide?
If it needs help on some more appropriate ways to set priorities, here are a few ideas. Stop competing aggressively for exclusive sports rights, which effectively transfer money from the licence fee directly to sports rights holders. The compelling sports coverage on ITV and TalkSPORT of the Rugby World Cup or the conclusion to the Formula One season (before we even discuss Sky, Setanta and the depth of football or golf coverage) shows that this sector is already well-served by commercial players.
Reduce the ludicrous over spending on national pop music radio services, like Radio One and Two, so that commercial radio can increase its own audience and develop content on its 320 stations.
Stop offering home-produced (such as EastEnders) or purchased soap operas when the commercial sector provides natural homes for the genre.
Stop the glut of imitative, reality and pop-contest shows. Why do we pay a poll tax for Maria to compete with Joseph or Fame Academy to compete with X-Factor?
If there is a funding crisis at the BBC, it will best provide household value by concentrating its generous resources on delivering fewer services. The content it does best, and for which it is universally respected, are world-class news, drama, current affairs, children’s programming and documentaries – the kind of output that commercial stations can only dream of. Let the commercial sector secure those audiences, favoured by advertisers, who love sport, soaps, music and celebrity.
Andrew Harrison is chief executive of the RadioCentre. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org