Frozen in time 

16 September 2010 tbs.pm/1209

Perhaps a very predictable thing to happen to the TV licence fee given recent events, but the decision to freeze the fee until at least 2013 further highlights ongoing weaknesses within BBC management as it currently stands; a problem that threatens to turn into a major crisis if left unchecked for too much longer.

Of course if the BBC’s enemies had all their own way, that freeze would have easily been turned into a cut – not just a minor reduction allowing for inflation – as a precursor to something much more drastic such as the breakup of the BBC as it stands today.

Then there’s all the recent instances where BBC management credibility has been passed through the shredder, which inevitably means that nobody really believes in what Mark Thompson has to say anymore.

Throw into the mix a regulatory trust that’s still fighting for its own survival, and you naturally lead to a debate surrounding the corporation’s future which is becoming very one-sided to say the least.

Therefore it was inevitable that the BBC Trust would obligingly roll over when confronted with a political will for the BBC to further cut its budget, because the Trust knew that there was nobody out there (including the BBC) that would openly stick up for them, and Michael Lyons’ resignation as BBC Trust chairman just serves to underline this untenable position.

Unfortunately BBC management are now much more likely to point the finger at their inability to cut services such as the laughably-proposed 6 Music closure plan than their own incompetence, with deep cuts being made in perhaps everything except, say, a high profile closure such as BBC Three (which is what politicians would love to see happen).

And that’s the crux of the problem, namely that politicians want a big cutback on management headcount and salaries – which still isn’t forthcoming from the Thompson regime – or, failing that, a big sacrificial lamb on a plate such as the aforementioned (and often hated by misunderstanding politicians and public alike) BBC Three.

There’s such a deep division currently between what BBC management perceives is correct and what right-leaning politicians want to happen, that no amount of meaningful debate will bring the two sides closer together at least while Mark Thompson is still in charge.

However given a forced choice of either cutting management positions and salaries further or that aforementioned sacrifice of axing BBC Three, my guess is that Thompson is likely to opt for the latter if pushed hard enough, especially based on management’s previous track record of singling out services such as 6 Music for closure.

Only the general public’s fondness for the BBC along with Liberal Democrat influence in the coalition government may prevent anything worse externally from happening, but if the BBC decides on a programme of deeper cutbacks then sympathy for the corporation from all sides will start to wear even thinner than it is at the moment.

Already we have a situation where BBC television programme commissioning more closely resembles that of ITV fifteen years ago, notably a visible public service element to the schedules but programming is now getting the axe solely on the basis of ratings alone as opposed to being given the chance to develop and grow on its own terms.

Examples of this ratings-driven philosophy can be seen in terms of comedy commissioning on BBC Two, where any new series scheduled after 9pm that attracts less than 1 million viewers runs a strong risk of being axed regardless of future potential; this happened to Bellamy’s People and could also happen to Grandma’s House as well.

If such snap commissioning judgments had been applied to Dad’s Army – which had a poor critical reception for its pilot episode – a comedy legend would most likely have never been produced.

What the BBC really needs now is some fresh and innovative new television series to be produced (of course much easier said than done), backed up with a “Perfect Day”-style PR campaign that informs the public of all the good things that the BBC still does throughout its television, radio and online services.

Obviously the BBC’s critics would complain that money spent on a glossy promo is supposedly being taken away from the core purpose of programme-making, but good PR is something that the BBC really needs even more than ever before at this point in time. And critics would complain about something else anyway if this never happened.

Oh, and Mark Thompson stepping down from his position would be a massive help as well, but that won’t happen unless there is another major scandal along the lines of ‘Sachsgate’.