The BBC, funding, and why it’s worth fighting for

After the publication of a government green paper on its future, there are very real fears about the shape of the BBC in years to come...

People in television: picture this.

Imagine going into the offices of a television commissioner in, say, the early 2000s. Imagine suggesting that the key to Saturday night viewing on a major television channel involved a show about ballroom dancing, hosted by a man in his late 70s.

Take the context of the last ten or 12 years out of it, and just think for a minute what the reaction would be. Could you imagine a single American network touching it? Can you imagine a commercial broadcaster in the UK giving it a whirl?

Yet in 2003, this is just the proposal that producer Richard Hopkins put together. He took it into the BBC, and, to be fair, got knocked back. A little while later, the BBC’s own Fenia Vardanis had a not dissimilar idea. The corporation thus put Hopkins and Vardanis together, and Strictly Come Dancing – sold as Dancing With The Stars in the US – was born. It got a prime time slot. Bruce Forsyth was hired to host. It was a hit from day one. A bold, risky, broad gamble that worked.

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Strictly Come Dancing has consequently emerged as a huge ratings hit, regularly trouncing ITV’s more commercially-focused The X-Factor in the ratings. As Michael Grade may have once said, surely that’s champagne all round.

The Perils Of Being Popular

Yet it seems the popularity of the BBC – certainly in the current political climate – may yet be its Kryptonite. There appears to be a growing feeling amongst the current government that the BBC should be using its substantive receipts from the licence fee to fund more niche programming, rather than chasing ratings. In the last month, we’ve learned that over £600m from the BBC’s coffers is set to fund the licence fee for over 75s, at a time when job cuts at the corporation are already being announced. Yet that’s just the beginning of what most concede to be times of real change for the organisation.

Ultimately, on the surface at least, it’s the high ratings that continue to paint a target on the BBC’s back. The argument runs that the BBC should use the bulk of its money – as it actually does, but let’s go with it for a second – on more niche programming. Why spend the money on shows like Doctor Who and EastEnders, when there’s no commercial organisation that wouldn’t? (overlooking, of course, the fact that the BBC took a gamble on both to start with. And that through its most popular show, EastEnders, it’s given a voice to issues that struggle otherwise to get an airing).

It’s not tricky to see the road ahead with the argument here, and it doesn’t point to a happy future for the corporation. Let’s say the BBC stops mixing in populist output amongst its content. It would be fair to assume that its ratings would drop. When said ratings drop, in comes the next argument: why should everyone have to pay a licence fee, when the programmes just aren’t as popular any more?

Not for nothing are there very real fears for the shape of a future BBC right now.

But still: let’s pause for a minute and consider just what’s happening.

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The Green Paper

Last week, the British government published a green paper on the future of the BBC, with culture secretary John Whittingdale telling MPs that he’s looking for the corporation to “thrive”. The green paper kickstarts a public consultation to review the BBC’s charter. The consultation itself runs until October 8th 2015, with the current charter expiring at the end of 2016.

In his introduction to the green paper, Whittingdale writes that he feels “the BBC is at the very heart of Britain”, adding that “it is one of this nation’s most treasured institutions”. He then adds that “I want to hear from people all over the UK, so I can understand what this country wants from and for the BBC”. It is understood that Whittingdale is a genuine advocate of the BBC, although whether that view is shared by many of his colleagues remains to be seen.

Whittingdale then admits that we need to ask “some hard questions”. Specifically, “what should the BBC be trying to achieve in an age where consumer choice is now far more extensive than it has been before? What should its scale and scope be in the light of those aims and how far it affects others in television, radio and online? And what are the right structures of governance and regulation?”

Whittingdale has been quick to debunk the accusation that he’s declaring war on the most populist segments of the BBC – the likes of Strictly, Radios One and Two, Sherlock, EastEnders, Doctor Who and such like – but does argue that it “must continue to evolve”.

Which, on paper, doesn’t really sound that unreasonable. But what lies beneath the language?

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The Defence

The last week or so has seen a collection of people – famous and otherwise – leaping to the BBC’s defence. A Twitter hashtag – #BackTheBBC – has been adopted, and articles have sprung up online, sensing that the corporation is facing choppy waters.

It’s always a little awkward reading defences from people whose daily income is beholden to the BBC in truth, as it’s hard to see it as an impartial argument when that’s the case. Mind you, The Express running an article about how Express owner Richard Desmond could make the BBC better couldn’t help but make me chuckle. We’ll come back to that point shortly, though.

Let’s get to the nub of it. Underneath the friendly, warm and calming language of the green paper, there’s a feeling that the subtext here is for the government to radically overhaul the BBC, and its funding. It gets a chance to do this every ten years, when the BBC’s charter comes up for renewal, but unluckily for the Beeb, this time, we’ve got a majority government in the early stages of its term.

Furthermore, you don’t have to look far to find complaints from Conservative politicians about the alleged left-wing bias of the BBC (a regular accusation put to the corporation by the British newspaper press in particular). There’s a strong feeling among some that many within the current government want to give the BBC a bloody nose at best, or inflict substantive changes at worst.

The problem, as I see it, is that when these issues tend to get talked about in public, the same arguments come up. The BBC’s handling of controversies has hardly been exemplary (although ironically, it’s subsequently reported on its own failings better than any other news organisation), whilst spending big bucks on bringing X-Factor rival The Voice to the UK seems averse to the culture that brought the aforementioned Strictly Come Dancing to fruition. When it pays millions in salaries to people – although a lesser feature than it once was – that too inevitably is a magnet for criticism.

And yet every day of every week, the BBC is broadcasting programming that nobody else would touch. Shouldn’t someone in high office, or with a popular platform, be pointing this out?

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Across its television channels, across local TV, across its multitude of radio platforms, online, and on the World Service, it invests in material that would be – most of the time – tricky to sustain under a commercial broadcasting funding model. Not all of it works, but that’s part of the point.

Removed from the need – at least in theory – to attract tens of millions of people to every piece of content, the BBC is in a position to take gambles. You want a modern take on Sherlock Holmes, steeped in the writing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? A documentary about steam railways? Broad coverage of the women’s football World Cup? A radio documentary about a new percussion instrument? This is the kind of material that the BBC is constantly supporting.

Because it’s so big, and because it makes so many programmes you’re just as likely to loathe as like, the BBC is thus a target. We’ve all got things we don’t like about the corporation, and rightly so. But conversely, you never fully appreciate what you’ve lost until its gone, either completely or in spirit.

Danger

That’s the danger here. To see the likes of The Times running a front page story questioning the future of the BBC, neglecting to point out in an equal-sized font that its proprietor is arguably its key competitor, simply doesn’t help the debate. Worse, it makes it an uneven one.

Then there’s the Daily Mail. Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if you’re tired of Daily Mail criticisms, but I do think it’s worth throwing this into the discussion.

If you’re looking for a prime example of a media organisation whose focus is purely on chasing numbers, where pursuit of the pound usurps outright humanity, then go and have a look at the Daily Mail’s front page. Worse, its poisonous website (and arguably its key feature, ‘the sidebar of shame’) which reportedly attracts 100 million readers a day.

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It’s the opposite of public service broadcasting, and its content reflects that. The BBC is clearly a competitor to the Mail, online at least, and thus story after story on Mail Online has been launching salvos in the corporation’s direction. Say what you like about the BBC, but it is bound by statute to offer balance, to give oxygen to both sides of the argument. Newspapers in this country are not. It is not hard to see how that affects content.

The Threat

The truth is that something feels different this time. That there’s a genuine threat to the BBC, from a government – whether you side with it or not – that has a window of opportunity, and a Parliamentary majority – where it can affect the changes it wants. The problem is, it’s not clear yet just what changes it ultimately has up its sleeve, and how ceremonial the consultation process is.

BBC Director General, Tony Hall, seems to fear the worst. He’s adamant that the BBC has a duty to “inform, educate and entertain”, each of those three words being of real importance. “I believe the BBC should continue to make programmes for everyone. A BBC that doesn’t inform, educate and entertain is not the BBC the public know and love. The great majority are happy to pay the licence fee. The BBC belongs to this country. The public are our shareholders”, he said. The BBC will publish its own proposals for its future in September.

The BBC isn’t a perfect beast, nor will it ever be. It’s interesting that, outside of the UK, the threat to the BBC’s funding has been met with genuine surprise, that such an establishment in global broadcasting could and should be meddled with. Inside the UK? There’s a feeling that it’s been coming, and that the next year or two is going to be pivotal to the BBC’s future.

Yet it’s worth bearing things in mind. For every Jeremy Clarkson furore, there’s a small news story on Radio Lincolnshire that highlights the achievement of a charity, or a school, or an individual in the area. For every The Voice, there’s a Kermode & Mayo Film Review Show (find us one better). And for every episode of Bake Off (and heck, we love a bit of Bake Off), there’s a season such as BBC Three’s wonderful Defying The Label line-up.

The BBC costs less per day than any national newspaper, or subscription TV network in the UK, and that’s because of the unusual way it’s funded. And while it’s right and proper for it to be interrogated, and held to account (not least questioning the fairness of the licence fee for those who genuinely can’t afford it), once the guts are ripped out of it, it’s not coming back.

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At the moment, there’s a spreadsheet somewhere in government that’s playing with financing models for the BBC, and how much or little it needs to go forward in whatever guise is chosen for it.

But you know the problem with spreadsheets? They can tell you the cost of anything you like. Yet they can’t tell you the value of a single thing…