Let’s not shatter the fragile ecology of British broadcasting

While the government's plans for the BBC are under scrutiny, the future of Britain's hugely successful system of public service broadcasting is at risk.

Fiona Chesterton
16 May 2016

Peter Salmon, who unexpectedly quit BBC Studios earlier this year. Credit: Dave Thompson / PA Images

Well the dust is settling after the launch of the government’s BBC White Paper.  Yet the headline language of victory and defeat is not particularly enlightening and fails to take the serious and subtle question of the future of public service broadcasting into account. As a former BBC producer and commissioning editor at both the BBC and Channel 4,  I am deeply committed to that future, and I have become convinced that we in Britain take our hugely successful broadcasting ecology for granted at our peril.

A fragile economy under attack

The whole tone of the narrative expressed in the government’s White Paper seems to be about ‘putting the BBC back in its box’: ensuring that it is not anti-competitive, increasing regulation and financial efficiency, while mouthing platitudes about how wonderful it is.  Meanwhile, the privatisation of Channel 4 remains on the agenda, which, in the words of its current Chief Executive David Abraham, is a ‘solution in search of a problem’.

Then there’s ITV, which now has much more limited public service obligations than in past years, and which may fall into the hands of a media company based outside the UK. Some of our most successful independent producers, who have a proud record of providing a wide range of high quality programming for public service broadcasters, may also become relentlessly more commercial in the hands of the global corporations and venture capitalists who now own them.

These are risky times for the whole system that has worked so well, not just for UK viewers but also throughout the world.

BBC Studios: in-house production under pressure

There are two major ideas in the White Paper that aren’t receiving enough attention.

One is the plan already accepted by the BBC to hive off its major production arm into a  commercial division called BBC Studios.  This has, in principle, ministerial support, subject to final OFCOM approval (note – to ensure that it is not anti-competitive).  What has changed in the White Paper is the proposal that there will be absolutely no in-house production guarantee, with the exception of news and what is called ‘news-related current affairs’.  (I am not sure what counts as non-news related current affairs: the recent Panorama on dog breeding farms perhaps, or maybe topical programmes like the One Show.) 

Whatever, this will make life tough for BBC Studios.  While it is stated that the turnover of the Studios will be about £400m at launch, it may well be set on a declining trajectory. Its long-running, high volume shows are now to be open to all-comers.  I am not convinced that the potential for other UK broadcasters to commission BBC produced shows is that great – the international market maybe offers more scope – but it may change their focus to more internationally workable formats, not necessarily the best option for the British audience. Maybe all the above is why the Studios have lost some of their top executives before it has even fully launched. 

One of those unprotected production departments will be Children’s TV. Clearly Whittingdale would like to see independent children’s producers taking more of the BBC kids’ cake.  However, as Jeanette Steemers discusses in depth, the problem that OFCOM identified in its PSB review of 2014 was not that the BBC was not open to indies in this area, but that the other public service broadcasters, like ITV and Channel 4, had reduced their spend on UK-produced originations for children and had largely stopped commissioning bespoke content in factual and educational areas.

The BBC Trust also identified in its 2013 report that while CBeebies was a great success story for toddlers, as children got older, particularly beyond about eight years old, BBC reach was more limited (See Who’s Looking after the Children? in The BBC Today: Future Uncertain). Channel 4 has long had more success with teenagers (See The Big Fat Teenage Challenge in What Price Channel 4? ) but has recently focussed on mainstream commissions for that audience.

Contestable funding: scraping the pot

So as well as further risking the delivery of that remit by contemplating privatising Channel 4, the DCMS seems to favour an even riskier new venture, the so-called Public Service Content Fund. This will go out to consultation later this year, but what is proposed in the White Paper looks far from convincing.

Firstly, this fund of some £20m a year is to be taken initially from an ‘underspend’ from previous BBC licence fee top-slicing for rural broadband. If it is to be sustained beyond the pilot project, that must surely come from future licence-fee top slicing.

While £20M a year sounds like a decent sum of money for a pilot (it’s about forty per cent of the annual budget of BBC Four) just look at what this fund has to cover as well as children’s programming:

A range of ‘underserved’ genres including: religion and ethics, arts and classical music and formal education, plus content for ‘under-served’ audiences including BAME, and the nations and regions for both mainstream and minority broadcast and online platforms.  I am sure that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon could use that £20m in Scotland alone! And then of course, there would be the inevitable overheads of even a modest organisation plus the ‘small panel of industry figures’ who would consider the applications. I do not doubt there would be very many applications and so a team of initial assessors might be needed. Something I imagine like the teams based around the UK who administer Lottery applications. Even with a well-honed organisation, that surely is going to take up to ten per cent of the available funds. So shall we guess that there is about ten per cent of what is left going to Children’s – so maybe £1.8m a year.

Will such a sum transform the fortunes of the ailing Children’s TV industry, let alone the viewing possibilities for the nation’s children – split between toddlers, primary and secondary age children?  I think not.

Maybe it would be simpler to encourage proper partnerships and funding by existing institutions: the BBC, Channel 4, and others to ensure that British children and teenagers are properly served?

Of course, this is about far more than the future of children’s services – important as that audience is.  Across the whole landscape, all those who value public service broadcasting must keep an eye on the detail and realise that the White Paper is the beginning and not the end of the struggle.

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