Redefining Auntie 

6 October 2011 tbs.pm/1284

After what seemed like an eternity, the BBC’s lengthy “Delivering Quality First” consultation has more or less drawn to a close and the final verdict has been delivered pending Trust approval. Unsurprisingly many of the rumours turned out to be accurate, and just as predictably there’s no mention of a BBC Four closure either.

There are a few surprises in store, namely things that weren’t obviously hinted at before the final announcement but are obviously related to changes in a wider context, namely a refocused sense of purpose based on the realisation that the BBC cannot afford to pursue its earlier (and now outdated) multichannel strategy.

It’s wise at this point to bear in mind that all of this is subject to approval from the BBC Trust, though Lord Patten’s initial public reaction to the final report seems to concur strongly with this assessment therefore there’s unlikely to be much in the way of change before final implementation.

Aside from the obvious headlines (BBC Two HD, moving out of White City, BBC Three moving to Salford, further cutbacks affecting daytime BBC Two/local radio/Asian Network, etc.), there are other proposals that are perhaps just as far-reaching; for example, BBC One getting a third of BBC Three’s drama funding which is a real surprise in itself.

More to the point, this is a tacit admission that major drama series require significant investment; co-productions with US producers have seriously upped the ante in terms of production values (e.g. “Torchwood: Miracle Day”), and there’s no way that BBC Three’s standalone budget could ever hope to compete with even a fraction of this.

Perhaps of even greater significance is that BBC Three will be more closely aligned with BBC One as opposed to being that standalone “young person’s channel” – though inevitably it will maintain a younger profile at least in the short term – and could be a concerted attempt to drag down the average age of BBC One’s viewers.

(Think of BBC Three as being BBC One’s younger and poorer Northern cousin, in other words.)

Also of note is what appears to be a mission statement: “Drama and comedy for BBC One; and serious science, history, business, arts and natural history programmes for BBC Two and BBC Four”. Will the BBC contemplate the purchase of new foreign drama for BBC Four? And what about edgy comedy series that fall outside of BBC Three’s remit?

Then there’s the downgrading of the daytime BBC Two schedule; the most popular option by far when it comes to BBC cutbacks (at least according to a recent survey on the Guardian website), but should BBC Two take this idea a step further and not broadcast at all during the afternoon unless there’s a special event?

It’s also amusing to note that the concept of more repeats is still being given the well-worn positive spin of “using multiple showings on television and radio to offer more chances to view and listen to BBC programmes”…an excuse that sounds eerily familiar even to those who don’t read BBC press releases on a regular basis.

Having only two high definition television channels available for the foreseeable future has inevitably brought about the creation of BBC Two HD as a replacement for BBC HD; if anything the BBC HD channel was already a microcosm of the future of BBC Two, complete with restricted broadcasting hours and a wide(r) spectrum of content.

Indeed BBC HD has recently suffered from significant scheduling problems as anyone trying to record Dragons’ Den in HD recently will no doubt tell you (its showing has already been postponed twice in less than a week for reasons that seem relatively obscure), so hopefully these scheduling crises will soon be a thing of the past.

This also means that everything else will be condemned to a standard definition future, which is somewhat ironic given the significant expense and upheaval of moving most if not all children’s programming to state-of-the-art HD-equipped studios in Salford. (Some productions are still sourced from elsewhere.)

The BBC is unsurprisingly still committed to its News Channel at least for the next four years with a refocus on domestic breaking news, but various radio news bulletins in particular will end up being shared across networks.

And the same will apply to much of the programming found on BBC local radio, which will be a real shame for some existing stations that have a truly local voice; this comes at a time when much of the commercial sector has retreated from local radio with a few broadcasters like Absolute now even duplicating the same music across national stations.

I’m not pretending that all of BBC local radio is perfect or serves its purpose admirably, but good work will inevitably be lost and the BBC should be supporting local radio in regions that have recently become poorly supported by commercial stations (namely, many areas outside of major conurbations).

If much of this sounds relatively reasonable so far, bear in mind that these reforms are also on top of ongoing changes that may not have made their full impact felt as of yet, such as the downsizing of the BBC’s website along with other staff changes.

On top of this there are proposed cutbacks that still haven’t been finalised, and planned changes that will prove to be highly controversial, such as the “reform of redundancy entitlements to align better with industry practice” – so-called industry practice may not necessarily be the wisest path to follow in relation to what the BBC should do in the future.

The BBC should be setting examples as opposed to following them, and this applies as much to programme making as opposed to just the programmes themselves; you can’t have a truly distinctive array of first class programming if the respective programme makers are treated with the same disdain as the often cash-strapped commercial sector.

(This lack of distinction seems to be a theoretical handicap when it comes to sourcing programming from independent producers as opposed to in-house production.)

Public service broadcasting shouldn’t just be about box-ticking demographics and hitting ratings targets (if not blatantly chasing audiences); it should be about “doing the right thing” regardless of the ratings, and implicitly trusting professionals to deliver the goods.

Which of course brings up the highly controversial subject of the post-Sachsgate compliancy maze established as a sticking plaster to help restore ‘trust’, but if you remove some of the pressure to perform ratings-wise then those same professionals will be better minded to deliver higher quality product which can be trusted more.

Such a compliancy structure costs money, and it’s this along with lingering doubts about management performance despite promises to remove layers of management where appropriate. Shouldn’t management also be forced to reapply for their own jobs along with the radio producers?

There is also not much in the way of reassurance in relation to maintaining programme quality as a consequence of all of this, with no word of a Plan B if Plan A happens to fail spectacularly for whatever reason; very ironic when so much expense and effort had been formerly put into compliancy checks.

If we want a truly independent and dependable BBC, it will now have to publicly stand up for itself and become more valuable and accountable, and to that end the BBC needs to comprehensively prove to outsiders that it still fully understands its purpose in society, which requires far more than just mission statements.

Because failure to do so will render the BBC both impotent and untrustworthy as a consequence, and any TV licence fee opponents (still in the minority at time of writing) will have won the day.

If you wish to comment on any of the proposals before final implementation there’s an online public consultation form available here to give feedback to the Trust – after all, it’s your BBC.

You Say

1 response to this article

Louis Harding 27 October 2011 at 5:07 pm

the name of the report “Delivering Quality First” is the typical Ministry of Truth (of 1984 fame) style dishonesty that people have come to expect from the BBC and government officials.

The report is not about how to deliver quality first but how to make all the cuts made necessary as a result of 1) Jowell and Bliar reducing the income of the BBC as punishment for the Gilligan affair and 2) Cameron increasing the burden by adding External Services and S4C funding from the licence fee.

And people still mistakenly cling to the belief that the licence fee is such a wonderful idea because it makes the BBC independent of the government …

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