No time for tinkering 

19 March 2009 tbs.pm/1033

BBC must cut £400m from budget – Mark Thompson

Back in December, the BBC’s projected shortfall for the next five years was going to be in the region of £140m. At that time, BBC Three’s programming budget was scheduled to be cut further from £80m (previously £96m), but when now faced with a deficit that’s nearly three times larger, something very drastic is now required in order to save that much money.

Something has obviously happened in the interim to grossly inflate that original estimate, but the reason(s) behind the change are practically speaking somewhat irrelevant even if incompetence is ultimately to blame for the differential. (Will anyone get the sack as a result of such an accounting error? Perhaps not.)

So far the BBC has resisted the temptation to close any of its main services, but the reality now is that what’s left of the BBC has already been cut back to its bare minimum in most respects, and further cutbacks would just pose a grave threat to the integrity of anything that’s left over. If it hasn’t done so already.

Much if not all of the BBC’s programming has already been hit with cutbacks, with even flagship shows such as Top Gear not being immune from them. Only an idiot would now recommend another round of piecemeal cutbacks without at the same time axing a primary service and/or group of managers when faced with such a large deficit.

There’s also the previously mooted option of cutting back on broadcasting hours for BBC One and BBC Two; is maintaining the traditional 24 hour broadcasting pattern for these channels really necessary or viable in cash-strapped times when the iPlayer and other similar services now provide a very wide range of content to view at any time?

The BBC’s future direction should arguably be focused on online content plus two or three high definition TV channels (with ‘standard’ definition duplicates) as well as one or two additional channels such as CBeebies and/or BBC Parliament. Having lots of channels will no longer be required or relevant for a video-on-demand content-based future.

That sort of thing is best left for the commercial competition with money to lose (in ITV’s case) or to burn in the case of BSkyB, since these broadcasters still believe in old media models either from a protectionist standpoint (all those Sky subscriptions) or because they aren’t yet ready to move onwards in the case of ITV.

There is really no point in sustaining ten or so television channels and radio stations with programmes that are poorly-funded and underproduced to the extent that errors end up being made on a semi-regular basis (“Crowngate”, “Sachsgate”, etc.); basic incompetency should be left in the domain of parts of the commercial sector.

Now is the time to make the necessary bold decisions required in order to protect the long-term future and reputation of the BBC. Will Mark Thompson really be up to the task?