Two-way street 

23 June 2008 tbs.pm/915

BBC: ‘We’ll share expertise to save licence fee’

This could theoretically end up being the best solution to the lingering problem of how best to support broadcasters with public service remits when money is hard to come by and when confronted with unworkable alternatives, although it may be desirable for the likes of Channel 4 to also increase their public service credentials as a consequence.

Although Channel 4 isn’t specifically mentioned, such a proposal does seem to have been designed particularly with them in mind, especially after Channel 4 had previously accused the BBC of having “closed body language” when dealing with other broadcasters. (Which may be an unfounded accusation, but that’s beside the point.)

The BBC could also benefit in kind from closer cooperation with broadcasters like Channel 4, and the limited pooling of resources may also have beneficial side effects such as reducing the amount of duplication across channels. So everybody could potentially win from such a deal as long as the boundaries are tightly defined.

However, Channel 4 in particular may still have much more work to do on its side of the bargain in order to improve its public service credentials further, so in turn it will have to find another way of easing the commercial pressures that the broadcaster will face in the near future in order to continue to maintain its semblance of a public service remit.

And that will be far from easy for Channel 4, especially with the added burden of digital radio to contend with.

Another suggestion mentioned elsewhere is for the BBC to cross-promote Channel 4 programmes on BBC channels, which may seem a surreal concept but is something that would directly benefit Channel 4 with minimal cost to the BBC as a result (as opposed to having the BBC licence fee permanently top-sliced).

However there may still be an ideological problem. Although relatively painless for the BBC, assisting existing public service broadcasters may run counter to the philosophy of Ofcom’s original “public service publisher” proposal, namely the concept of having a new ‘digital age’ public service broadcaster that was totally independent of the BBC.

It all depends whether or not Ofcom’s Ed Richards (and politicians) feel that the issue of saving the public service credentials of existing broadcasters such as Channel 4 is more important than reinventing the wheel with yet another public service broadcaster that would end up consuming precious resources just for the sake of a bit of ‘plurality’.

Regardless of the outcome of any European Union anti-subsidy directives, the resources for another public service broadcaster cannot be obtained without something else suffering as a consequence, unless the currently unthinkable was to happen and the licence fee or general taxation was increased in order to pay for another broadcaster.

And that may not even be possible if classed as a cross-subsidy under EU legislation.

So it appears to be a relatively straight choice between ‘saving’ Channel 4 with the partial help of the BBC, or pulling money out of thin air to fund something of unknown worth whilst letting other public assets rot. The smart money’s on the former, even if the latter may be an ideologically closer fit to various politicians’ ulterior motives.