Differences on the right

David Graham responds to Mark Oliver's report on public service broadcasting reform
David Graham
21 April 2010

Changing the Channel, commissioned by the Policy Exchange and written by Mark Oliver, presents the case for “radical” reform of Public Service Broadcasting in the UK. I heard Mark describe this as a “centre right” policy initiative. You can see or download the report via the link beside this page. (Among other objectives, Policy Exchange promotes “national self-confidence and an enterprise culture”.)

I know Mark and respect him, but in my view the project is flawed. Why? For a start, because it fails to address (1) the potential weakness of the BBC licence fee as a long-term funding source and (2) the scope for the expansion of competing niche Pay-TV services. The objective of reform, according to Changing the Channel, must be to put more emphasis on “quality”, less on “reach” (defined as the number of people who watch TV – or listen to the radio -- for more than a given time over a given period, like a week or month.)


The report doesn’t really acknowledge the reason the BBC must strive to reach every part of the population at least some of the time. Mark says this means putting reach before “quality/distinctiveness”. A key policy aim, for him, is to stem this trend, a trend that means the BBC pays stars like Jonathan Ross loads of money, competes for expensive sports that would play on “commercial” channels, and puts up £400k an episode for Heroes to target young people (who, as Oliver says, would actually be more comfortable on C4). All this content would indeed play well on commercial channels and the BBC probably is inflating prices. More important, Mark feels the “public value” of this content is limited. (I will come back to the issue of “public value” in a second post on this document). The chart on the left (using BARB audience data)shows why the BBC channel portfolio is already under severe pressure, drifting down by just under 1% a year. Would that decline not accelerate if the “reach” objective was abandoned? Mark suggests additionally that some of the licence fee be “bottom sliced” – that is allocated to “Public Service” content elsewhere. Won’t that confuse people even more, make them even more resistant to a fee that already only has minority support from public opinion? To handle this he proposes a Public Service Content Trust (PSC) which will monitor the BBC spend on Public Service Content. It will introduce tougher monitoring of “public value”, building in a degree of “contestability”. But how is it going to resist the drive to defend reach as BBC share declines and pressure on the licence fee grows? Why will it not share the same pressure? We’re missing an answer to that question. (OK, PSC has some new money from other sources like retransmission fees, but that hardly addresses the issue). In spite of this unanswered question, there are a lot of things here to be supported and discussed further. There is a lack of “contestability” in the way the BBC spends it money and in the so-called “public value” tests that are now applied. Single-body regulators do get captured (or “end up at loggerheads”) -- either way they tend to be ineffectual. The Market Impact tests are a mess. And Mark is surely right to argue that we must have an external body (a PSC?) not just to monitor how public money is spent on broadcasting (and avoid capture!) but also to secure access for public value content. (What that could have done for American public television!).

This article first appeared on David Graham's blog, Building an entertainment powerhouse


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