Image: Flickr/ Amro
Let's not beat around the bush here, this is war. Despite standing as one of the cornerstones of British society, the relentless march of technology combined with ideologically driven attacks on the very nature of the BBC have put the corporation in its most tenuous position since it was founded. We stand in a world where the Culture Secretary believes that the public service broadcaster should no longer cater to the tastes of everyone who funds it. Something for everyone is apparently a bad thing.
It is into this challenging environment that the current Director General of the BBC Tony Hall must step, join battle and fight the good fight to maintain the BBC as the premier public service broadcaster. He has started on the back foot. Forced to accept the cost of providing free TV licenses to over 75s, an effective cut in annual revenue of £600 million and rising, before the official review process had even begun (and already under additional financial burdens from previous government interventions) the language of the conversation has already turned to loss of services and narrowing appeal. The BBC is making the argument for its existence and it is getting it spectacularly wrong.
Narrowing focus and reducing the volume of new content produced just provides more ammunition to those who wish to see the end of the BBC in its current form. And make no mistake the anti-Auntie brigade are licking their lips at the prospect, not for this renewal, but many feel that 2026 should be engraved on the BBC's tombstone: “Here lies state owned broadcasting, we shall not see its like again.”
We, and I do mean all of us, must set ourselves against this, and argue that the BBC must continue to be all things to all people. In fact it must go beyond that, unlike commercial broadcasters who give the people what they want, the BBC must give the people the high quality content they don't even know they want. Instead of contracting, the remit must expand, a broad horizon bringing the absolute best content from the whole planet onto British screens and using those new streams of content to drive creativity here, a catalyst for the damascene conversion of the British media industry.
Now that may sound like an exaggeration but the world of audio-visual entertainment is standing at a technological crossroads, the viewing public now have more ways to consume content than ever before, and while the majority of high quality content is still produced by conventional broadcasters, unless a way can be found to seamlessly integrate all methods of content consumption into a single experience, the standard broadcast television model risks being left in the dust. While this is not a challenge faced only by the BBC, the corporation is the only one that needs to justify its own existence every ten years.
This week we've seen Tony Hall fire his first salvo in the battle for the BBC and it was yet another sign of retreat. Yes it contained broad stroke ideas of an open BBC moving with technological advancements but labelled expansionism as bad and of course once more spoke of the need to cut what the BBC offers instead of offering alternative ways to replace the lost funding. Despite holding numerous public consultations the BBC don't seem to want to listen and if we are going to save our Beeb we need a plan of action. Here are some initial suggestions:
1. Get up off your knees Tony Hall, John Whittingdale may be anti BBC, but the people of this country are not and there are always votes being fought for. Your position is strong.
2. End this talk of closing down channels or moving them online, it isn't going to work. The change to BBC 3 is going to make BBC 4 look very silly as it remains on broadcast television and the only reason to move BBC 3 online (to free up transponder space for a BBC 1 +1) was vetoed by the Trust. Reverse the decision now.
3. Move forward with standardising Freetime seven day catch-up service directly from the TV guide and make that interface the primary point of contact for online iPlayer catch-up use. Continuity across platforms is everything and a standardised interface will help not only the BBC but the entire UK broadcast industry.
4. Utilise the archive to increase value for money. Start by putting online all long running shows which it would be financially restrictive for people to purchase, available through an iPlayer which requires a license number to log in (you can allow numerous player instances per account, it works for Sky) and to avoid any accusations that you are trying to put commercial content providers out of business. Offer the content to all streaming providers at no additional cost if they will make having a TV license part of their terms and conditions.
5. Cut back on duplication. There is no excuse to have BBC News 24 showing on BBC 1 since the completion of the digital switchover. Show instead a compendium of local news and current affairs, combined with subtitled news stories from the international foreign language news services. A combination of signed and knowledge programmes should form the overnight for BBC 2.
6. Bring back Moviedrome and create similar programmes for foreign, documentary and classic film. A Sunday night movie double bill can be both a schedule highlight and a way to expose viewers to unorthodox content which otherwise might never find an audience.
7. Revive other fondly remembered names and use them to drive multiplatform content. An Old Grey Whistle Test revival can provide content not only for television, but for radio, a revived Tomorrow's World might deliver more in depth examination of a subject for the BBC website. Top Gear and Dr Who became major corporation cash cows when revived, all other dormant properties should be considered for their potential.
8. Tap into unexploited content streams. International Television extends well beyond America and the Nordic states, and doesn't only consist of live action. Television anime serials and television from Asia in general is wholly under represented on UK television, as is a great deal of the content from the rest of the world. This market should be tapped into.
9. Show international versions of BBC shows. Some of the corporation's highest rated show formats have been licensed all over the world and yet none of these versions are shown in the UK, not even those in the English language. This should change. The broadcast rights to any licensed version of a BBC format should be included as part of the licensing deal.
10. Open Script submissions for television and radio. The BBC should be at the heart of driving creativity in the UK media and to that end they should exploit the untapped market of struggling writers. Small-scale attempts at this have yielded some results, on Dr Who for instance, but full-scale speculative script submission should be encouraged and talent should be identified and encouraged.The same goes for open content submissions. The rapid advances in technology are enabling fully independent content creation, time should be set aside in the schedules of BBC 3 and BBC 4 for this content, be it music videos for unsigned bands or full scale documentaries and their should be an open, fair and well advertised remuneration system for this content. I'm not saying the BBC should take everything, but bringing the cream of the content to a wide audience should be the goal and it will also lead to the discovery of the next generation of creative talent.
So that's it, a ten point plan for the future of the BBC, a BBC free of the restraints which stop it competing on a global scale, a BBC which brings the absolute best content to license fee payers, content which commercial broadcasters ignore, a BBC at the bleeding edge of technology providing the same experience across every platform, a BBC so deeply set in the heart of population that it becomes immune to ideological warfare and political interference. A BBC we can be proud of.
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