Own worst enemy
18 Sep 2010 1 comment. tbs.pm/2251
It has taken a year after the infamous (and highly predictable, especially in retrospect) James Murdoch speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival for the official “right to reply” from Mark Thompson, but was this year’s Sky-attacking speech actually worth the effort or just too little, too late to ‘save’ the BBC from its enemies?
To sum up, Thompson’s speech was the least that needed to be said in order to prevent certain government ministers and anti-BBC elements within the media industry from declaring open warfare on the Corporation, although the BBC’s position as a public service broadcaster is still relatively secure for the time being (at least until 2012).
All of this comes at a time when BBC management are under intense ideological pressure to either cut back what the corporation does – regardless of whether such cuts are actually necessary – or to fully justify its existing position and funding mechanism.
If you believe in having a public service broadcaster (as the majority of the British public still appear to do), then the TV licence fee still seems to be the “least worst” means of funding the BBC despite its disadvantages; recent government cutbacks have highlighted the vulnerability of anything funded via general taxation as an alternative. (Just ask S4C)
For the BBC to survive in its current form and to justify being funded from a licence fee, it has to produce a very wide range of high quality media content (TV, radio, online) as well as being broadly accountable to its ‘stakeholders’ (licence fee payers) at the same time.
Television broadcasting is still a very expensive business, and the BBC can only manage to produce what it does in terms of both quality and quantity by having such a concentrated form of funding; commercial rivals may be jealous of this funding but it has always been the case that “you’re either part of it or not”.
The BBC has to be wildly diverse in order to continue justifying its unique position as a broadcaster to as many people as possible, although any increased diversity shouldn’t be at the expense of quality.
It’s this issue of quality that has dogged the corporation in recent months courtesy of some high profile scandals (Sachsgate, etc), although some of this bad press simply happened as a consequence of bad luck combined with over-eager tabloid newspapers intent on making mountains out of molehills.
Avoiding direct conflicts with commercial rivals has recently become a whole lot harder for the BBC, especially when News Corp-owned newspapers are still currently moving towards a paywall strategy for their websites, but everyone needs to remember that the internet is so much larger than all of these media websites combined.
This brings up the subject of BSkyB’s relative dominance in the UK media market; something achieved though a combination of deep pockets and marketing. If you want a good choice of sports, movies and an ever-widening catalogue of (mainly foreign) TV programming in high definition then your only realistic choice is a Sky subscription.
Also bear in mind that many television channels such as Sky Arts HD only exist within the Sky portfolio to drive subscriptions; they aren’t there to be charitable or exist purely for public service purposes in the traditional sense, regardless of what James Murdoch may like us to think.
Some media observers have bemoaned the existence of having two very dominant broadcasting entities (BBC and BSkyB), but the reality is that the UK just doesn’t have the population size to sustain a greater ‘plurality’ of major broadcasting sources unlike America with its major commercial networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox).
Therefore if we accept such a limitation, it’s up to both the BBC and BSkyB to be publicly accountable in some form; at least the BBC has accountability via its ‘stakeholders’ (licence fee payers) and the much-maligned BBC Trust, whereas BSkyB is a purely commercial entity which essentially does what it likes barring the odd ruling from OfCom.
Problem is, BBC management have collectively now created what is arguably the biggest weakness that’s currently affecting the BBC, and even worse they themselves outwardly appear not to be aware of either what has happened or the potential consequences of what they have done.
Indeed it relates to a sequence of events that dates back to (at least) the sacking of Arlene Phillips, and recently culminating in the rejection of the 6 Music radio station closure proposal; something that’s wrecked the credibility of BBC management to a much greater extent than Mark Thompson seems to realise.
It’s this incalculable loss of management credence that leaves the BBC in a dangerously vulnerable position at such a crucial juncture. Only the influence of the Liberal Democrats will prevent the BBC from being torn to pieces, and even the corporation’s staunchest supporters will face a tough task from now onwards.
Mark Thompson’s speech has done absolutely nothing to address this perceived credibility gap, and any so-called “reassuring noises” in relation to reducing management pay will at this point be viewed with a great deal of cynicism from all sides unless backed up with appropriate actions.
Realistically, the one thing that Thompson now desperately needs to do is to either fully justify or further overhaul the BBC’s management structure, because many people both inside and outside of the corporation still perceive it to be too top-heavy as a result of John Birt’s earlier changes.
It may be true that television in particular is a very different beast in the 21st century compared to the 1970s when the BBC’s management structure was much smaller, but some of those changes also relate to a greater modern-day reliance on independent production companies and the need to ensure that they stick to the rules (cf. Sachsgate).
Mark Thompson certainly needs to turn round to his critics and fully justify that management structure from top to bottom as a high priority, otherwise politicians will be queuing up to do the resizing for him.
If that management structure remains unjustified, the most likely scenario is that the licence fee will be cut further and almost anything else may end up getting trimmed further as a kneejerk reaction, causing even more problems and still not addressing the perception gap that exists between BBC management and politicians.
Then of course there’s the very complex and highly subjective issue of quality; programmes such as “Snog, Marry, Avoid” may serve a legitimate public service purpose but are still looked down upon as being cheap and somewhat derivative by some people in comparison to, say, anything presented by David Attenborough.
Indeed it’s the very presence of poor quality programming on other channels that allowed some of the supposedly ‘poorer’ examples of BBC programming to currently exist without being unduly challenged, and has permitted certain critics to single out individual programmes and channels (eg BBC Three) as legitimate targets, regardless of their merit.
(To its credit, BBC Three has also won the non-terrestrial channel of the year award at the same Edinburgh festival, so it must be doing a lot of things right.)
Of course another contention relates to so-called ‘derivative’ programming, namely BBC television programmes and formats that are perceived to be duplicated on commercial channels; there will always be unavoidable disagreements in relation to this issue (EastEnders versus Coronation Street, Strictly Come Dancing/Dancing On Ice, etc.).
Perhaps the quality conundrum should also be addressed by further examining the very nature of modern programme production and how corners are occasionally cut through time and money constraints; Sachsgate being a prime example of what can go wrong when there’s intense pressure to deliver ‘product’.
And although compliance procedures have been tightened further in the Sachsgate aftermath, television producers are now either being less ambitious or are too scared to push the boundaries; nowadays there’s no time to comprehensively check anything that could be regarded as ‘risky’ so it’s cheaper and quicker to be excessively cautious.
The BBC really ought to set an industry-wide example in respect with handling producers and outside suppliers, encouraging creativity and quality as opposed to slavishly sticking to excessively tight deadlines and budgets. (Ignore the commercial sector’s whinging on this issue because their production objectives are frequently too compromised.)
Here’s a suggestion that would now be regarded as radical. How about scrapping the “Window of Creative Competition” (WOCC) – which currently ensures a percentage of TV commissioning gets farmed out to external producers – and replacing it with a new, smaller quota system designed to encourage and promote upcoming producers?
Large indie producers, such as Endemol, Shine and TalkbackThames, are now more than big enough to look after themselves, especially as they hold intellectual property rights for certain popular formats (eg Total Wipeout), therefore they no longer need to be ‘handheld’ to the same extent that was perceived to be the case ten years ago.
Increasing in-house production would also help to address quality issues as well as saving money; smaller indie producers in particular may be more than capable of producing high quality programming, but there are still occasional lapses in production quality (microphone booms in shot, etc) evident where corners have been cut.
Greater use of in-house production would also help to further raise standards throughout the media industry, thereby enhancing the UK’s reputation even further in the world of media as well as reinforcing the TV licence fee’s value as a by product.
The BBC should represent the “gold standard” in programme quality as opposed to occasionally borrowing the same ideas and producers that would have otherwise been employed by the commercial sector, because the best broadcaster in the world now has to occasionally lower its sights just to fulfil an independent production quota.
Certain recent changes made to the BBC’s structure may have been made for ideological purposes, but the world has now moved on and quality (as opposed to quantity) is the new watchword – Mark Thompson’s upcoming task is to resolve this year’s problem before it turns into next year’s headache.