Modern day television in the UK is growing ever more commercially oriented. ITV is shying from its public service commitments. Channel 4 is going down the same path, albeit to a lesser extent. The BBC has a thriving commercial arm and subcontracts to the commercial sector. Commercial digital TV companies rise and fall.
Back in the early fifties things were different. The BBC had the entire broadcast monopoly of both television and radio throughout the UK. In Europe similar state broadcasters also ranked highly and in eastern Europe such a monopoly lasted for many years, although controlled by the government and used as a tool for propaganda in many cases.
The idea of a state broadcaster alone is objectionable to many, let alone the concept of a single broadcaster carrying a complete monopoly. In the twenty-first century most people would laugh at the idea or say it is something that should be consigned to the history books, however the question I intend to ask is - could it still be possible?
I personally believe that state control has a very strong role in modern television but that also the commercial sector needs to exist too. We need a regulated form of independents to provide healthy competition, variety and diversity and so I don't really advocate the idea of a modern day monopoly - however wouldn't it be interesting to consider what it would be like? If you delve deeper than the radicalism of the idea you can look at the details and whether or not it could viably work.
What if we nationalised everything?
Let us for a moment imagine that every single UK-based television station, production company, radio broadcaster and content provider be compulsorily nationalised by act of parliament and their ownership and control handed to the BBC.
Return to the BBC the monopoly it once had over the air waves prior to 1955 and make every single existing television and radio service throughout the UK a department of the corporation.
There will be absolutely no commercial factors governing how television or radio is run, no shareholders to answer for but every single BBC department would be running for the same goal - to entertain, to educate, to inform, to innovate and to enrich. Could it work?
Of course, creating the biggest media corporation on earth would have to be implemented and planned very carefully, so how would it work in a 21st century multi channel world?
Everything will be ultimately controlled and regulated by the top level BBC management, but they won't be the BBC as we know them. These people will be the ITC, the Radio Authority, the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the BBC all rolled into one. The Mother, the Father, Uncle and Aunt of television and radio. Essentially a controlling council, although for impartiality reasons, not the government. They will make sure everybody is working to entertain, innovate, enrich, et cetera, much like the parent company of a commercial organisations is making enough money - and in a similar way intervene if it thinks this isn't happening and in worse cases have the power to reform. It would also need to make sure each service is a rich and diverse one across each aspect of the network but at the same time that a lot of the power be devolved to BBC departments and sub-organisations which will all have a deal of autonomy.
Departments will be run based on former commercial organisations and original BBC departments alike. There will be new departments created and old ones merged and split in a way to best suit the viewing, listening and reading public.
For example one such department would be Radio 1. Radio 1 could have its own management team and a complete control of how it is run and what it puts out and even the power to propose and request BBC management to give the go ahead for new services and as a department run a range of stations. The same department could run 1xtra, 1rock, 1gold - it would be like it was a separate company but all under the umbrella of the BBC. Like all departments it would have a remit handed from above but how it uses and builds upon this remit will be up to it. The question being, could such a company have the same amount of success in doing this as an entirely independent one would?
Another example would be Channel 4. Channel 4 would be under the BBC umbrella and in itself be responsible for a range of services. Channel 4 television, the Channel 4 website, E4 and so on. The service would have a remit that it would build on and subdivide over its sub-services. Its requirement to provide alternative and new entertainment and be a platform for experimentation in new comedy could be passed to E4. The equivalent part of its remit for films would be passed to FilmFour. Its remit will be detailed and come from the BBC based on the old ITC remit.
The BBC will use a range of funding methods already adopted. Licence fee, subscription, advertising and pay per view.
Which service is funded by which will depend on the nature of the service. There will be a handful of core services BBC-1, BBC-2, BBC-3, BBC-4, Channel 3, Channel 4 and a few more which will be a comprehensive mix of everything the BBC already makes without adverts and funded by the licence fee and some of the subscription money of other services. They will be free to air for all those who want just a basic package of television services and will contain large amounts of programming for minorities and groups that would not get much support from advertising revenue and subscriptions alone. Where money comes from would be more artificially allocated but there would be distribution of money throughout TV and that is the main selling point of a monopoly as far as I can see. If everything is run by the same people everything can be cross funded and cross supported. Ideas that couldn't exist alone in the commercial world can be heavily subsidised in this one.
Other services on digital TV and many of the former ILR and INR services may well be advert funded and on digital TV subscription funded.
All subscriptions would go straight to the top BBC management and collected in a big pot and handed back to each department in annual budgets so that highly profitable areas can cross subsidise less profitable areas to create fairness and equality across the network.
There will be no net profit. All revenue earned will be plowed back across the network.
An idea that might separate a modern day monopoly from an old fashioned one is branding - there is something to be said for different brands and images in the commercial sector. Brands like Sky could be retained and probably extended to areas like DTT and Cable so that Sky digital is the generic brand for any digital TV. Popular brands like Channel 4 could remain for the Channel 4 television department and if the BBC sees an old brand which could do with being dug up such as Thames or Central then Thames and Central will be reused by BBC departments.
Once the BBC inherits all commercial TV, there will be a lot of new BBC departments doing more or less the same thing. For example the BBC will have under its umbrella BBC News, ITN and Sky News. Under my scheme these will not be merged into one but more run as separate entities with different management teams. They will be given remits to produce different styles of output. BBC News more in depth analysis and debate, Sky News a clear modern, modern style of journalism, ITN somewhere between the two. Many departments will exist that produce the same thing in some areas. No two departments will produce the same thing but there will be overlaps. This will be deliberate. BBC departments will be required to compete with one another for the best programme quality, for the most satisfied viewers for the most informed and innovative services. But not for money, though good work will result in departments getting funded more. Of course there will be cases where some things are merged and others separated, where practical and beneficial to the public and the overall aims of television benefit in doing so
For example BBC News, Sky News and ITN will share film crews, computer facilities, foreign news rooms and correspondents but have different editors and directors and journalists so that both have their own unique styles and opinions and remain independent. Much like ITV and Channel 4 news are very separate at the moment yet are made by the same companies and share many of the same resources.
One Big Family
With everything nationalised and run by the same people there will be complete cross promotion of all services. There will be one archive and everybody will have rights to screen everything anybody else has made.
Foreign broadcasters will be let in. BBC Departments will pay foreign broadcasters for imports and sell our own exports. Foreign broadcasters will be able to set up channels over here in coalition with BBC departments, which will use the foreign brands.
MTV:UK, for example, might be a co-operation between Radio 1, or Capital (both independent BBC departments) and the US company MTV. The BBC will pay MTV for its content, for its name, for its rights, and for its personnel and staff. The BBC will run the broadcasting, collect the advertising or subscription revenue and co-operatively run the service as MTV:UK. The foreign companies will get a good deal out of this as they will get a set annual fee for their services and their brand name from the BBC and not have to rely on the chance of advertising or subscription luck. Foreign companies like MTV and Paramount and RTL will be more confident to offer services over here, via and through and in co-operation with the BBC. All part of one big family.
So in general what I'd hope to happen is that things won't change much, at least for the viewer. That the BBC departments work together like different companies do but with destructive competition and profiteering removed.
Who controls the purse strings and what the people in the companies aim at will hopefully be the only change and for the better. If nobody works for money but all work in the interests of good output, then perhaps we'll get better programmes.
In all, I think a monopoly of today couldn't be anything like what has been seen before. In order to successfully strip commercial bad points such as ranking the shareholder first, you would have to cling on to other points such as branding, keeping services separate, journalistic independence and try to simulate competition within the company. And there is always a danger it could go horribly wrong.
It is not a state I'd really like to see modern day television and radio be in but then again nor would I like to see television and radio entirely commercially run either with no public service output at all. If I had to choose between one and the other, then perhaps I'd choose this way but in reality I am glad things are as they are and would have them no other way.