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Making consultation work: the BBC Strategy Review survey

The BBC Strategy Review survey: a walk-through
Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
2 April 2010

The BBC has launched a "consultation process" to accompany the announcement of its Strategy Review. We have published Director General Mark Thompson's Strategy Review introduction and summary here in The Public Service Broadcasting Forum in an effort to give it wider circulation.

The Forum wants to act as a force multiplier in the consultation process. We'd like to encourage as many people as can find the time to fill out the BBC Trust's online survey. But one of its drawbacks is that the BBC is not publishing public responses to the survey. We are happy to provide this service; if you want to send us the key points and responses you have sent the BBC we will publish them. All you need to do is click the option to save a pdf document of your survey, and email it to us. As an encouragement, I've been through the survey and offer you this short preview of what to expect.

Page 1. The BBC's strategic principles

BBC consultation 1

Individually, the principles put forward here are framed in ways that often are impossible to disagree with. For example, "making the licence fee work harder", or getting more bang for your buck, seems acceptable all round. Likewise, "putting quality first", a proposal for the BBC Trust to "always push the BBC to do better", is hardly the stuff of which controversy is made; indeed, you might worry that these are only proposed principles and not currently in force.

The difficulty is of course balancing the different proposals. Would investing in the production of BBC dramas to the degree of a typical HBO series ("putting quality first") conflict with improving efficiency, which crudely put means increasing the ratio of output to pound spent, ("making the licence fee work harder")? A survey divided into separate questions on separate pages gives little space to make such points.

Page 2. Putting quality first

BBC consultation 2

Another problematic question. Everything the BBC produces could be of higher quality, conceivably. The real question is "what needs to be higher quality?". And then there is a further question: "what is quality when it comes to broadcasting?" Does BBC programming need to be higher budget or better filmed, or does quality imply more in-depth, better researched, and intellectually challenging programming?

Page 3. Offering you something special

BBC consultation 3

This is a more interesting question. Some have argued that public service broadcasting should meet a market failure test, ie public service broadcasting should provide what the market cannot. Following that argument, the answer to this question would be "everything"; the entire output of the BBC should be distinctive from other broadcasters and media.

You might have noticed by this stage the slightly disturbing "big brother" tone in places, such as "The Trust knows that you think the BBC could do more to be original in some areas"; "The Trust knows that your expectations of the BBC are that it should offer something special".

Page 4. Editorial priorities

BBC consultation 4

The proposed editorial priorities of the BBC seem vague in places. What, for example, does Mark Thompson mean by "ambitious" drama? What makes for "outstanding" children's programming? Aspiring to the "best journalism in the world" is of course welcome, but such confidence in being able to produce "the best" smacks of the institutional mythology of the BBC referred to by Richard Collins and the misplaced faith in Britain having the "best television in the world". Is there a danger that, in striving to be the best, the BBC will neglect the output of other media organisations, even when that output is, in fact, better?

Page 5. Doing fewer things

BBC consultation 5

So, higher quality, we are told, "may mean doing less overall", implying that improving the quality of programmes requires more money to be spent per minute of output. This, as I mentioned earlier, depends on how you define quality, but it is the only reason given here for why the BBC is proposing to cut some areas of activity. There are of course many more reasons why the BBC might cut its activities; to support the broader media industry, to save tax payers' money, because they have poor take-up, etc. There is a large amount of literature to refer to when considering the axeing of 6 Music and the Asian Network, less so for the BBC's teen services.

It's difficult to think up areas of the BBC to cut, those you wouldn't miss if they were gone, because, chances are, you aren't presently aware of them. This is particularly the case with the BBC's sprawling website. For example, were you aware that the BBC has taken the time to compile a quiz on the Mormon Church?

Page 6. Guaranteeing access

BBC consultation 6

On first sight, another no-brainer. If you pay for services, you should at least have access to them. But this is a genuine issue, particularly with the shift to digital. The House of Lord's communications committee highlighted the danger that, with the end of FM radio broadcasting in 2015, an ill-informed public could lose access to a large part of the BBC's output.

The inverse is also increasingly relevant; should you only have access if you pay for the service? At present, I am a BBC freeloader; I don't have a television so I don't pay a licence fee but I listen to a lot of BBC radio and watch the occasional catch-up programme on the iPlayer. There are more and more of us, particularly among the younger generation who are less likely to watch or own a television than their parents.

Here, access means the ability to consume BBC product. With more channels and stations, the hours of broadcasting produced per day increases. So, while you might be in a position to access all BBC output, you definitely aren't in a position to watch/hear it all; there simply aren't enough hours in a day. It's worth bearing in mind this broader question; how much material do you want the BBC to produce in excess of your capacity to view/listen? ie how much choice do you want, given that you'll be paying for what you don't choose as well?

Page 7. The BBC archive

BBC consultation 7

Access to the BBC's archive is an interesting issue, one which we hope to cover here and which has been left out of the BBC Strategy Review. At the moment, there are dedicated channels and stations for the airing of archive material; BBC Four, and Radio 7. There is an obvious case for making the entire archive publicly available; its production was paid for by public money and not having access deprives people of  significant artifacts of our cultural history that only live on in memory - a strange return to a prehistorical age, almost. Opening up the archive would, however, deprive the BBC of an important source of income.

Page 8. Making the licence fee work harder

BBC consultation 8

The issue of efficiency has already been discussed. I imagine salary-bashing will be a popular response to this question. Of further concern may be the misuses of funds recently highlighted by the Commons' select committee for culture, media and sport, such as the alleged £9.1million write-off that was "Project Kangaroo".

What isn't mentioned here is where and how you think the BBC should get its money, which wasn't a question the Strategy Review addressed but which will always loom large when discussing how the licence fee should be spent.

Page 9. Setting new boundaries

BBC consultation 9

This is the question likely to arouse the most controversy, and the one which the PSBF will be looking at more than any other. Commercial rivals of the BBC have accused it of crowding out the market place, and this proposal is at least a nod in the direction of these complaints. To what degree can the BBC justify the output most inimical to public service? Should it pay to broadcast sporting events that could be profitably marketed by its rivals? Should the BBC be commissioning foreign content, and thereby depriving the UK broadcasting industry of revenue? Just three of the many questions to consider when answering this difficult question.

 

The survey continues with a host of personal questions, which I haven't reproduced here.

And that's it. The BBC Trust is not going to publish responses to these questions, but they do promise to look at them when formulating their response to the Strategy Review this Summer.

If you want to make your feelings on the BBC Strategy Review heard, we are happy to publish them. All you need to do is click the option to save a pdf document of your survey on the final page, send it to us by email, and we will publish it here.

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