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Thursday, September 16, 2010 

Slow start to the death of the BBC.

Just last month the Director-General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, finally did what he and the corporation should have done a long time ago: they came out fighting. During his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh festival, Thompson defended the BBC's unique funding model, mocked James Murdoch and attacked Sky's increasing media dominance and failure to fund original British programming outside of sports and news, with the killer fact that despite now being the largest UK broadcaster by revenue, it spends the equivalent of ITV's entire programming budget on marketing while putting only £100m into new home-grown features, or about the same as Channel Five does despite Sky having fifteen times the turnover.

Less than three weeks later, what happens? The BBC Trust meekly submits to a zero-percent rise in the licence fee over the next two years, which even the hawkish culture secretary Jeremy Hunt finds to be thinking too far ahead, agreeing only to the first year, with a decision to be made about 2012/3 at a later date. Not that the BBC should suspect that this will change anything come the licence fee settlement to be secured in 2013: most predict that if anything, the licence fee faces being cut. The freeze is despite the last fee settlement, agreed and signed by Tessa Jowell for the last government, which pencilled in a 2% rise next year and between a 0% and 2% rise the year after.

Well, why not, some might ask. Every other publicly funded body is being asked to identify savings, ready for the cuts which are just around the corner. What's more, isn't it about time that the BBC spent the licence fee more wisely, cutting back on the highly paid executives and star talent, trimming the fat and getting into line with the current economic climate? That, it seems, is exactly the sort of argument which the BBC was anticipating and so has reacted to, avoiding any possibility of the government falling out with the corporation by not embracing the new spirit of the age. And it's true that some executives, especially on the radio side of things, have been receiving more than they probably would in the private sector, mainly thanks to how successful the BBC has long been and continues to be in that sector.

The problem is, as Mark Thompson outlined in his lecture, that the BBC has already been responding both to outside pressure and to an internal realisation that it's been spreading itself too thinly. Thousands of jobs have gone over the last six years, it's made many of its top stars take pay cuts or refused their exorbitant demands in order to stay (for which see Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley crossing over to ITV, although describing them as stars is perhaps pushing it), it's tackling its pensions deficit, triggering the planned strikes and it wants to go even further, as its own Putting Quality First document set out. Those cuts and changes already proposed a radically different BBC, one where it effectively emasculated itself in some areas, and also went against its very supposed principles of providing different unique content which the private sector either wouldn't or couldn't. While the BBC Trust saved 6 Music, at least for now, the Asian Network will be closed at the end of next year. Now the freeze in the licence fee effectively means the taking of a further £144m out of the corporation's current budgets. True, if the BBC was to close or privatise a couple of more worthy targets, such as either BBC3 or Radio 1, neither of which even come close to providing a unique service unavailable elsewhere, then that entire £144m could be reallocated. Sadly, those seem to be cuts which the corporation is too stubborn to even begin to consider.

If this sacrifice is intended to endear the corporation to the coalition come the next fee settlement, then it seems to be an incredibly short-sighted gesture. Mark Thompson made an argument against a cut in the fee which applies just as well to the freeze during his MacTaggart speech:

But do not believe anyone who claims that cutting the licence fee is a way of growing the creative economy or that the loss in programme investment which would follow a substantial reduction in the BBC's funding could be magically made up from somewhere else.

It just wouldn't happen. A pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of UK creative economy. Once gone, it will be gone for ever.

It also reckons without the influence which Murdoch is going to wield in two years time, let alone the deal already done which led to him switching support from Labour to Cameron's Conservatives. All signs point by then to News International having swallowed Sky whole, with Vince Cable apparently unlikely to intervene. Claire Enders, the respected independent media commentator has said that this will represent a "Berlusconi moment", referring to the control which the Italian prime minister has over his country's media through his ownership of vast swathes of it. This would be even more drastic if Ofcom had been abolished or had its powers slashed, as Cameron suggested should happen prior to the election, picking on it directly as one of the quangos which should be cut down to size. While little has been said since the election, it could well be one of the targets in the general spending review. If politicians were scared of taking on News International when it owned only 39% of Sky, as they claim to have been as an explanation as for why they did next to nothing about allegations of phone-hacking at the News of the World, then the potential full spectrum dominance it will have in just a couple of years' time makes it even less likely that such abuses of power would be followed up and investigated to the fullest.

The enraging thing about the BBC is that from a position of power, with mass public support as multiple polls attest, it almost always plays the weakest hand possible. For 39p a day (approximately what £145.50 breaks down to) it represents incredible value for money, regardless of whether it's television, radio or their online content which you prefer to use, and almost everyone in the country uses on or the other and would miss it incredibly were it to slowly fade away. That's what the management essentially seems to be agreeing to, the slow death of a public service broadcaster which is too weak and pathetic to fight its own corner effectively. Perhaps in that respect it almost deserves what's coming.

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I think it's the fact that it's mandatory is the main complaint. With so many signing up to Sky or Cable and watching them almost exclusively and paying directly for the privilege. Why should they in effect subsidise the BBC?

Perhaps the BBC should shift to Pay per View :-P

@FlipC In fact the BBC channels are the most watched of anything in the country. A satellite or cable subscription pays for providing the service to your home and any pay-TV channels, not for the BBC channels. And absolutely everyone watches BBC channels, whatever means they use to receive their television stations.

Show me a cable or satellite subscriber who never watches the BBC. I am not aware that there are any.

The real point here is that the BBC needs to develop a spine and stand up to attacks from commercial media moguls - and their friends in Parliament on both sides of the House - who have a lot to gain by successfully throttling the Corporation. The BBC is not a government department: the idea of cuts at the BBC is purely ideological and commercial competitor-inspired and has little or nothing to do with anything else. The BBC is still the best broadcasting organisation in the world and I'm more than happy to pay for it via the licence fee. Hands off the BBC!

I have to pull you up on this assumption made by a lot of people (who presumably do not listen to it) that Radio 1 is a "worthy target" for cuts as its output is duplicated elsewhere. Maybe London is different, but I live in Manchester - hardly a musical wasteland - and no commercial station here comes even remotely close to Radio 1, especially in the evenings. By the same logic you could say 6 Music is a worthy target because XFM exists. 99% of commercial radio (though again I can't speak for London) is utter shit - Britain's radio landscape would be a much bleaker place without any one of the BBC stations.

Fuck Moyles though.

Alex: I don't buy this argument that there's no one else that duplicates the brilliance which is either Zane Lowe or Annie Mac; Radio 1's glory days are long gone. Where there used to be either Mark and Lard or the Evening Session, as well as previously employing the likes of Chris Morris, there's now Greg James and the aforementioned. The best shows it ghettoises in the early hours of the morning, and even Mary Anne Hobbs has left now. Admittedly the slack mainly falls not on commercial but pirate radio, which can be incredibly hit or miss, yet Rinse FM for example has just got a licence and if you can put up with the the tuneless funky which makes up most of its daytime playlist it comes alive later at night. The creativity is out there, it just needs to be tapped.

I'm aware of Rinse FM, but it only broadcasts in London - same goes for 99% of decent pirate stations. On a national level there's still nothing that comes close to Radio 1. It's certainly not perfect, but it'll hardly be improved by marginalisation and funding cuts based on an incorrect assumption that other stations cater better for the same audience (one that even the BBC's staunchest defenders seem to make) - outside the capital they just don't.

Rinse streams over the net, admittedly in poor quality, as do most of the pirates now; I'm not in London myself. I can't see how privatising Radio 1 would affect its current output by any great margin; it's output during the day might not be quite as crap as Kiss FM's is, but they manage a reasonably decent schedule at night.

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