Olive branch 

11 December 2008 tbs.pm/993

BBC outlines £120m partnership plans with other public service broadcasters

After a couple of months where the BBC superficially seemed to be upsetting everyone from readers of the Daily Mail to the newspaper industry, it now needs to quickly start making friends as opposed to enemies, whilst at the same time avoiding accusations that it has caved in to external pressures.

This is tricky to do at the best of times, but the other major broadcasters with a public service remit have a recession to contend with because their funding (unlike the BBC’s licence fee, within limits) is not guaranteed. ITV plc still has the commercial clout to weather the recession, but Channel 4 in particular is in danger of losing its distinctiveness.

Some might say that Channel 4 lost its true distinctiveness ten years ago, but it still has the most public service content outside of the BBC, even if programmes such as Dispatches can now be occasionally criticised for their sensationalist approach.

And if government ministers are convinced of the need for so-called “public service plurality”, then Channel 4’s remaining distinctiveness will have to be protected by some means, even if special legislation is required in conjunction with extreme measures such as privatisation. (A last resort, but one that has now returned to the agenda.)

With these proposals, the BBC has suggested perhaps all of what it can manage to do itself without having to directly intervene with sharing the licence fee (highly contentious), but all of this combined is nowhere enough to support Channel 4 unaided; £120m is too small an amount even if all of it was redirected to Channel 4 alone.

It’s easy to dismiss the BBC’s proposals as being just a token effort, but that is perhaps the real issue at the heart of all of this; it illustrates how little the BBC itself has to offer by comparison to the help that established broadcasters like Channel 4 really need to have in the real world.

Plus the other PSB’s have already established their own video on demand services, with ITV having just now relaunched its rebranded ITV Player service – will ITV plc be truly happy with sharing iPlayer branding with the BBC and Channel 4? And how will all of this impact the other Channel 3 franchises: STV, UTV, Channel…even GMTV?

A net effect of at least some of these BBC proposals could end up partly ‘converging’ public service content, which will no doubt annoy certain commercial broadcasters such as BSkyB and Discovery Networks, along with the independent producers who definitely have their hands full at this moment.

Therefore some of the concerns that have plagued Project Kangaroo will inevitably affect these BBC proposals as well, despite some of the core issues (content availability, market dominance, etc.) being fundamentally different. Some aspects could also frustrate Ofcom’s attempts to encourage and preserve so-called “public service plurality”,

But at least the BBC can now say with some conviction that it has tried to help, which under the current circumstances is a lot better than nothing.