BBC One – The One To Go?

James Murdoch did what you need to do at the Edinburgh TV Festival – he made a big provocative speech that got everyone talking. What’s interesting, reading the commentary, is that generally people agreed with his two main themes – that the BBC is too big and that there’s too much regulation. However whether they completely agree with Mr M’s thoughts is probably up for debate.

But… how do you solve a problem like the BBC?

My view is that the BBC’s main problem is that a compulsory tax funding the majority of its very broad operations is, in the long term, completely unsustainable.

In an on-demand world it is unconceivable that people will continue to tolerate paying an ever increasing amount of money for a fixed bundle of channels and a broad online service.

My personal view is that if the BBC is to survive it needs to do 3 things:

  1. Ensure every programme has some public service value. It must be defendable. I’m not saying everything needs to be Blue Planet, indeed I think there’s value in Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum, but there are some questions over the PSB values of ‘Cash In The Attic’. If it can’t be defended, it shouldn’t be there.
  2. The BBC should be allowed to do anything it wants to, internationally with BBC Worldwide, to ensure that profits generated fund all of the BBC’s UK PSB activities.
  3. With the best will in the world, it’s going to be hard to break-even £3.5bn of spending a year – so there should be a massive cut in spending.

Now, cuts. What i’m not advocating is something that merely wounds the BBC. Instead i’m trying to suggest a significant shift in how (and what) it operates to make it a stronger organisation.
In the post-MacTaggart session, James Murdoch held up a card with all of the BBC’s activities and launched an attack saying that the BBC’s spread its tentacles into too many areas. I have a different view. By trying to provide value to every sector of the audience it’s created too many channels it has to fill with content. Of course, the majority of its output needs to be high-quality, so it ends up ‘filling’ these channels and spending more money.

At the same time, the concept of channels is becoming less and less important. In an on-demand, iPlayer world, having the expensive packaging of ‘channels’ will become less and less important.

My proposal would be to privatise BBC1. BBC PSB would remain a significant shareholder – say 25%, so would benefit from any success, but the remainder would sit in a commercial environment. The new owner would inherit the formats of existing , current shows on the channel and indeed be able to decide whether to continue with any of the programming. Anything it doesn’t want, BBC PSB gets first-refusal on broadcasting on its other channels – BBC2, 3, 4, News, CBBC, Cbeebies and Parliament. In addition BBC Productions would continue to make any shows that are currently produced in-house by the BBC.

The knock-on effect of doing this, would be to reduce the BBC’s outlay significantly especially the £1bn it currently spends on the channel. In addition it would provide an opportunity to radically restructure every BBC department and operation. Much of the edifice supports the operation of BBC 1, stripping away this totem would reduce much more of the structure. It would also turn a cost into an income-generator – taking profit from the BBC1 channel and an initial production income as well.

It would also leave the BBC with only two 24-hour channels to worry about, and fill, BBC 2 and the News Channel and free up more money to be spent on Three and Four which would become more important with the disappearance of BBC1.

In one fell-swoop the BBC could cut its licence fee by at least a third with viewers still getting the programmes they currently enjoy on BBC1 (or moved to other BBC channels). And it wouldn’t touch the BBC’s news provision, radio or online.

At the same time BBC Worldwide should be given the freedom to be more aggressive in non-UK territories. It currently generates less than £100m in profits, it needs to transition into a global media firm that can generate £2bn in profits to cover more of the BBC’s UK costs. Each year the licence fee should decrease in proportion to the money generated overseas.

None of this is designed to ‘cripple’ the BBC. It’s designed to make it an organisation that isn’t dependent on the government of the day, the views of national newspapers editors, or hiccups from BBC talent, it’s there to give it a secure future.

Now, i’m not saying there aren’t huge headaches created by these proposals – could the UK TV ad market support BBC1 entering the fray? Would there be enough output to retain support from the public? Do all the numbers add up? Would BBC Worldwide have enough to ‘sell’ if they lost BBC1 content?

But… if the BBC is to survive in the digital one haven’t we got to make some major decisions and changes, rather than just messing about at the edges?

Selling Off Radio 1. Again.

I think the Conservative Central Office press team must have a recurring press release set up. Every two years or so they, or an MP, argure that Radio 1 really should be sold off.

The main argument tends to be along the lines of “it’s not public service enough” and “it’s unfair to the commercial sector”.

Personally, I can think of nothing worse than making Radio 1 a commercial radio station. Simultaneously you’d kill off a massive amount of commercial revenue – as it transferred to Commercial Radio 1 – and you’d also make Radio 1 a more mainstream product as elements that are expensive or do not rate would gradually disappear. This is especially relevant as whoever bought it would be trying to pay back the money they borrowed to buy it. It would, in effect, be a leveraged acqusition – not something well known for producing well-funded creativity.

That’s not to say Radio 1 is perfect. Both it, and Radio 2, are formidable competitors. Quality aside, they have national FM frequencies (commercial radio has no national FM frequencies for pop music) and also national coverage on every UK digital platform. They have large programming budgets (over £25m each) and don’t have to run any of those annoying advertising messages. They also get the benefit of cross-promotion on some of the most popular television stations and websites in the UK. At no cost to the networks.

If you’re a radio station, that’s a pretty good deal.

The BBC, across all of its activities, has to strike a difficult balance. If it’s too popular it’s derided for being too mainstream, if it’s not popular it gets accused of not providing enough value to licence fee payers.

It’s a tough position to be in. But then it does receive over £3bn of our money. So, I don’t shed that many tears.

In the ‘old days’ it was much easier to defend a broad range of BBC output – it was one of few suppliers and could get away with much more. Case in point. Dallas. It was in primetime on BBC1. Nowadays, the idea of an American import in primetime on BBC1 would be unheard of. It’s not that the UK don’t like American serials – quite the opposite – it’s just become an accepted view that that type of programming shouldn’t be on primetime BBC1. The BBC’s role has merely moved on and developed.

I think the same thing needs to happen to the BBC’s populist radio networks.

It isn’t about being un-entertaining. Or worthy. It’s about providing high quality programmes that engage with large numbers of listeners that are not available elsewhere and perhaps would be signficantly reduced if they were to become commercial. What’s a good example? Well, something like Jeremy Vine on Radio 2. It’s a show that combines music, high quality guests and chat and generates significant numbers of listeners. It’s perfect output for the BBC.

I even think something like the Chris Moyles Show is a product that’s differentiated enough to pass my three tests above (high quality, unique and a question mark over being commercially maintainable). Whilst the talent could easily adapt to a new station, I don’t think the show’s format (a speech-intensive, young, breakfast show) would be maintainable. I think if it disappeared there would be some genuine public-service loss. Is it a show that there would be some arguments about whether it’s ‘public service’? Absolutely. But I think it’s worth that discussion.

Should this be independently managed, by Ofcom, or have money allocated like the Arts Council? No. Just like the Dallas example, collectively we should push the BBC to ensure all of its programmes follow a similar set of the suggested rules. Hopefully it would mean that progamming without real value would gradually disappear (yes, Alan Carr on Radio 2, I am talking about you) and programmes that are left work hard to be popular and distinctive.

Some may say that Radios 1 and 2 should be left alone. They’re popular stations that people love and it’s only commercial greed that’s causing all this discussions. And there is, of course, an element of truth in that.

However, what I would say, is that if you maintain the dominant position of Radios 1 and 2 you do so at a price. It is definitely not impossible, but it’s much harder for any innvoation to flourish if the BBC is allowed to continue unchecked. It is a sad thing, for listeners, if new stations (or services) don’t exist because of the budget, marketing and spectrum making them a dominant service – whether the output is quality or not.

There are a number of great initiatives like service licences and the like, but it’s on content that the BBC should be pushed harder. It’s a privilege to have the spectrum, cash and marketing to be able to deliver programmes. Unprompted, the BBC should ensure that every single piece of its output is distinctive.