Beating the retreat 

2 March 2010

BBC to cut £100m from overhead costs and axe digital stations

BBC Strategy Review document (PDF file)

When proposing something as major as the closure of public services like radio station(s) and/or the major downscaling of certain services, there has to be a balanced justification of the rationale used for those action(s) in the context of the BBC’s entire portfolio of services.

Unfortunately this document doesn’t tell us the whole story – which makes it frustrating in several respects – and one major problem relates to a lack of balance when considering the BBC’s output as a whole.

For example, take the BBC digital radio station 1Xtra. A fair amount has been said here and elsewhere in relation to the closure of 6 Music, but there’s hardly anything whatsoever in this document relating to whether or not 1Xtra still represents good value for money.

Indeed all we get on the subject of 1Xtra within this important document is a brief comment on Page 12: “Over the next 18 months, the BBC will strengthen further the editorial links between 1Xtra and Radio 1”, which presumably is a euphemism for further cutbacks based on the merging of both stations’ editorial operations.

Considering that 1Xtra has an almost identical audience share and budget to 6 Music, it seems exceptionally unfair that no justification whatsoever is given within this crucial document for the retention of 1Xtra as opposed to 6 Music; even just one sentence outlining why 1Xtra is a most valued asset would have been much better than nothing.

Indeed there are only five mentions of 1Xtra in the entire document compared to nearly four times as many mentions for 6 Music or BBC Three.

By comparison, BBC Three has a whole paragraph to itself on Page 10 outlining its achievements (along with other supporting references elsewhere within the document), although this in itself won’t do anything to defuse critics who persistently claim that the channel is still a waste of precious resources.

Some critics have said that BBC management may have wanted to close the Asian Network and 1Xtra (as opposed to 6 Music) radio stations, but choosing these two stations for closure could have triggered accusations of racism from some quarters, therefore management went for the “soft option” of choosing 6 Music instead of 1Xtra.

Whether any truth lies in this assertion may never be known – and there’s probably a degree of truth to this – but retaining 1Xtra could also tie in with what seems like a perceived counterbalance to the closure of the Switch and Blast! youth services that are also part of this proposal.

However there is a somewhat uncomfortable overlap between Radio 1’s specialist output and 1Xtra, which will only increase as further cutbacks are made in this regard, so expect further criticism of the BBC’s decision to keep 1Xtra in the months to come, especially if the proposed closure of 6 Music does actually come to fruition.

There’s also the possibility that 1Xtra may be closed down if the BBC Trust vetoes the 6 Music closure proposal under growing public pressure (which the Trust has said it will consider doing depending on the public’s response); it will be interesting to see what the reaction of BBC management will be if this does actually happen.

Then of course there’s the closure of the Asian Network, but compared to the rationale dished out for 6 Music there’s a sense that this particular closure has been properly thought through. Put simply, a “one size fits all” Asian Network no longer works well, especially with the wide availability of internet-based radio stations.

By comparison, closing BBC Three (or Four) could make much more money available for the support of other services, and BBC Three’s achievements (Being Human, Blood Sweat and Takeaways, etc.) are outnumbered by repeats of Doctor Who and cheaply-produced derivative programming that may be better off elsewhere.

Again I’m not openly suggesting that BBC Three (or BBC Four for that matter) should be closed down – my personal opinion is that BBC Three should continue but with a modified remit – but openly championing a channel which is expensive to run and has relatively little original content may be an unwise strategy to adopt.

When faced with having to make cutbacks, it is very tempting to trim back on the amount of money spent on imported programming, but showing such imported programming free-to-air ought to be regarded as a valuable public service in its own right, especially as such programming may end up being acquired by subscription-only channels instead.

Of course the media industry has moved on significantly since the three channel era of the 1970s, but pay-TV services shouldn’t automatically have the free run of US imports in particular if other public service and commercial free-to-air channels (Channel 4, Five, etc.) decide not to acquire them for reasons only known to themselves.

One of the key reasons for the continuing support of the TV licence fee-funding model by the majority of viewers in the UK is the very fact that programmes are shown without interruptions for commercial breaks, therefore even the showing of imported programmes without commercial breaks is still part of the so-called “licence fee advantage”.

Of course the BBC shouldn’t be excessively involved in so-called “bidding wars” for (especially) US-originated programming, but there again there are more broadcasters and channels nowadays competing for the rights to show such content therefore the cost of acquiring such content can often be greater than what it used to be.

Then there’s the subject of demographics. The closure of 6 Music will make adhering to pre-imposed age targets for Radio 1 (15-29) and Radio 2 (50+) more difficult, especially as Page 43 of the report says that “The BBC will also review how some of 6 Music’s most distinctive programmes can be successfully transferred to other BBC radio stations”.

There’s also flawed and contradictory logic at work in this document. For 6 Music, we’re told the following:

“And whilst 6 Music does not have a target demographic audience, its average listener age of 37 means that it competes head-on for a commercially valuable audience. Boosting its reach so that it achieved appropriate value for money would significantly increase its market impact.”

Meanwhile, a comment on Page 20 of the very same document is openly boasting about BBC Three’s increasing reach:

“BBC Three reaches 11.3 million people a week and now attracts 36% more 16-34 year-olds in digital homes than it did three years ago”.

Therefore can we conclude that attracting 36% more 16-34 year-olds – of which we’ve been told in the past is perhaps the most lucrative market for advertisers – is a ‘good‘ thing, whilst if 6 Music were to grow similarly (average listener age 37) it would however increase its “market impact”; something that’s a supposedly ‘bad‘ thing to happen.

Now I’m not claiming for one minute that the BBC shouldn’t create content and services that actively strive to increase in popularity (far from it), but it’s very dangerous to suggest that it’s OK to trumpet one digital service (BBC Three) as being a “success story” whilst at the same time using the threat of growth as an excuse to close another (6 Music).

An excuse being made to try and justify such a disjointed position lies in Section 7.1 “Serving different audiences” on Page 55: “However, this does not mean that the BBC’s aim should be to attempt to maximise its share of audience consumption equally on every platform across all audience groups, regardless of the implications”.

That may be a legitimate claim to make, but such a generic policy shouldn’t be used under any circumstances to either disguise or advocate disparities in public service broadcasting output that are caused by inconsistencies, because by using such logic it’s ultimately possible to justify the closure of any BBC service that you can think of.

Therefore given the huge external pressures that are currently being exerted on the corporation, that’s the very last stance the BBC ought to be adopting at this point in time.