The BBC is the UK’s most important national entertainment asset, our biggest global media brand, with a great sense of purpose and formidable scale.
But here’s the thing: you and billions of others will soon be able to get a quality TV signal from anywhere on the planet.
Doesn’t this pose a question for the BBC? You can either remain a purely national institution, with a global news service and some channels around the world. Or you can go further and stream BBC content across the globe?
According to BBC research there are over 5m Britons living abroad, many others with British ancestry, and many, many others who admire British TV and its values. (OK there those channels outside the UK already, but this would be a different sort of presence, like listening to Five Live in America on my TuneIn Radio app).
How would they pay? Pay-TV is now television’s fastest growing revenue stream.
If the BBC is to reach those Brits abroad, they cannot be License payers – they will have to be subscribers. (Yes, I know, a lot of content is licensed by territory. That’s one of many legacy problems that needs to be addressed.)
Subscription has to be the right choice, doesn't it?.
The BBC currently faces charges from other UK companies that it is too big, too dominant, that it has a “chilling” effect on all other endeavours. The BBC itself has acknowledged that it should focus more on excellent content. Many want to go further, freeze or take part of the license fee, detach BBC Worldwide, etc. These arguments have weight because the BBC is largely paid for by what amounts to a public subsidy.
Isn't the right solution for the BBC to start to consider a switch to voluntary subscription, at home and abroad?
Voluntary payment would open the BBC up to the world and offer new opportunities. In Europe we are part of a market of over of 400m people who are used to English language programmes in prime time, dubbed or subtitled. Millions more around the world speak or want to speak English. Would trying harder to reach these markets and offering the chance to watch the same content as we see in Britain mean short-changing the British public?
I can't see any evidence for that. The English content that plays in non-Anglophone territories is, invariably, the best of its kind. And the biggest audience will surely remain the home audience. They will always come first.
Of course there will be arguments about other welfare issues. Many of them I probably support. I am confident that they can be dealt with, like free access to basic services.
And of course there will be arguments about Public Service Television. In your heart of hearts you must know that many of those arguments are hot air. True public service TV – that which a market cannot provide, that which is so important to social welfare that it must be widely available -- is a very small proportion of all that the BBC offers.
And you must also be aware that the License fee is, for many, both unjust and unfair. (And how is it going to be enforced when the country has univeral broadband?)
I am looking forward to hearing you speak at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August. I hope you will inspire us with an ambitious future for the BBC.
With best wishes, David.
Friday, 14 May 2010
Friday, 7 May 2010
Next week I will offer some final thoughts, then write a paper on the future of the BBC for one of our leading think tanks – sorry, policy institutes – to be published in the summer. (Please let me know via Comments if you want to be alerted on publication).
What I will say next week flies in the face of current wisdom. So this week I review a growing consensus about the BBC. It’s a consensus I disagree with. It goes like this.
The BBC is too “commercial”. It thinks it must be watched – regularly – by nearly everyone in the UK. Otherwise people would resist paying their License fees.
As part of the same objective, it aims to be “free” on a growing number of platforms – not just on cable and satellite but on the Internet and wherever else people can receive it. In other words, to remain highly accessible.
Most of this “free” content is entertainment. Because the BBC is so well-funded – via an exclusive subsidy, the License fee – it has a crippling effect on commercial competitors, for whom times are hard.
The BBC must therefore scale back, concentrate on “distinctive” and “quality” content, share some of its License fee with others. A parallel argument about platforms still rages – with the so-called Canvas proposal under review. (Canvas would bring Internet content to a domestic TV set).
However, no political party has spelled out how it would deal with the growing resistance to the License fee which would be likely to follow if the BBC becomes more “niche”. (Conservatives have simply said they would freeze it).
There is a second set of opinions, firmly held but less visible, which explains why we have seen no movement on a funding system that has many flaws. This mindset also explains the grip of the concept of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB). It can be summarised like this: consumers don’t know what is good for them. They choose fast food and cheap entertainment. If it was not for PSB (and its associated subsidy system) there would be no drama and smart comedy. Moreover, if there was not a mechanism that subsidised UK production, our schedules would be swamped by imports.
Not only are there many unexamined assumptions here – I am tempted top say “prejudices” – but PSB sets objectives that are virtually impossible to meet. The BBC has to meet a whole range of them. Its “public purposes” include “sustaining citizenship and civil society”, “stimulating creativity and cultural excellence”, “bringing the world to the UK and UK to the world”. This is heavyweight stuff. These are key social policy objectives. The BBC may be tasked to “inform, educate and entertain”. But is the BBC really up to all this?
In fact, there is relatively little confidence in the bodies that have currently been given the job of monitoring this “public value”, as it is called . Some of the thinking is highly questionable anyway. What evidence is there that we would be swamped by imports? Experience suggests the opposite: people hugely prefer home-made fare. As for concern about our “culture” (a word with far too many meanings to different people),”culture” in the broadest sense simply happens. We have an instinct for making it, and it explains why one country’s culture remains resolutely different from the others. Do we really need protection? And isn't this whole body of thought looking, well, just too crude a basis for public policy?
The BBC is one of the UK’s most important institutions and national flag carriers. It – and its masters in Government – need to decide what it is there for. It can no longer, credibly, be part of the welfare state and part of the entertainment industry at the same time.
In next Friday’s post I will try to explain why and what could be done about it.