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?

6 thoughts on “BBC One – The One To Go?”

  1. I understand what you are saying, but surely it wouldnt continue to be called ‘BBC 1’ in which point it just because another channel in the plethora of the tv spectrum..

    Also do the public fully understand what PSB is all about, and is that what they want from the BBC? Surely the BBC showing shows such as ‘Cash in the… Bargain… etc’ is just catering for the masses, would it not be better for them to sell off products and shows once they have a following,.

    I do agree about the BBC world, with the amount of products that the bbc produce in all different formats they should try and commercialise as much as possible out side of the UK, and maybe even within the UK, with dealings with other channels.

  2. Hi Matt, I disagree that ‘people generally agreed with his two main themes.’ Peter Fincham ITV director of Television said it was possible to agree violently with half of it and disagree with the other half. Will Hutton says James Murdoch’s economics ‘are out of date’. Robert Peston had a blazing row with Murdoch Jr. That is hardly consensus. The BBC proves that public ownership can provide better public services than the private sector. And credit to it. Daddy Murdoch is just peeved that with the BBC providing free news online, his plans to charge for online news content are doomed. All that privatising parts of the BBC will do is saddle the private sector with more debt, divide limited advertising revenues further and result in cheaper, poorer quality programming. The solution is a smaller commercial sector, with increased advertising revenues which can spend more on programming and gain more audience. We need more regulation NOT less.

  3. What you’re suggesting would inevitably lead to the end of the licence fee itself – not that I’m against that, though.

    BBC1 is by far the most-watched BBC TV channel, so if that were removed from the BBC’s viewing figures the percentage of people who watch BBC TV would fall dramatically, which would make it impossible to defend the licence fee from its critics – because the defence for having the licence fee tax (it is now classified as a tax) has always been that a very high percentage of people do actually watch BBC TV, but that would no longer be the case.

  4. Lucio – with regards to ‘agreeing’ – I was referring to the idea of the BBC being too big and regulation being too high, not the news remarks. I think the idea that any broadcast platform will get ‘more’ regulation is unlikley to ever happen. The internet’s development as an unregulated content distributor means that broadcast will only see further de-regulation – that genie is out of that bottle.

    All – the BBC One suggestion is to protect the BBC. If it carries on with an increasing licence fee I believe the chance for it to be broken up by a regulator/government increases that’s unless they do some serious work to change its model itself.

  5. I don’t buy this internet argument, bandwidth is about to run out, so we need to start asking how will we ration it in the future? With regards to regulation, the competition scams and ‘sachgate’ led to more regulation, so why not regulate for quality in the future. Whether digital or analogue, ‘we the people’ own the broadcast means, exercised through our elected representatives in Westminster, (illegal pronography is still illegal online), so why not regulate for quality. If you look at wildlife programmes alone, BBC 1 provides (in association with Discovery) the best in the world. Your argument’s 2 blogs back against privatising Radio 1 apply more so to BBC 1.

  6. Bandwidth will not run out. Sachsgate did not create anymore regulation – just some self-regulation. We do indeed own the public spectrum and when it was the only way to broadcast the govt could prescribe PSB that licensee’s had to provide. Nowdays there are enough ways to broadcast that do not use scarce spectrum hence no way to force PSB.

    With these proposals the BBC could continue to provide any of the shows that you suggest.

    Shutting down Radio 1 would save £40m – that’s not an amount that’s going to ‘save’ the BBC. I’d like the BBC to continue in roughly the same form as it does now. However I think the best way to ensure this is by the Beeb taking the bull by the horns and redesigning itself so it has to rely on other people (specifically government and the licence fee)much less. It should save itself by self-funding, quickly. Removing BBC1 would be the quickest way it could do this.

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