With fewer people watching TV on tradition sets and so paying the license fee, where will BBC money come from?
On October 8th 2013, the Director General of the BBC, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, gave a speech to an invited audience called “What Next?” The title might have been ironic – after the crises the BBC has been through lately “what next?” could have been said with hand wringing dread. But Tony Hall delivered it all dead straight, and with a touch of schmaltz too, about how he personally was ‘coming home.’ The speech was honed to gladden the heart of any BBC insider. The framing was clear -Tony was one of them, returning in triumph after his success at the Royal Opera House, to put the blunders of the past behind and to lead them on to a glorious future. Except that sadly quite a lot of them won’t be there to see it. This bright new BBC will need paying for, and there was no indication in the speech about how that was really going to happen without more job losses. The Beeb needs another £100million at least to fund technological developments. That could be over 1,000 more jobs to go. They are never going to make it by selling boxed sets online.
I was asked to appear on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show the day after the speech, to comment. Most people had taken it at face value. It was a pleasant speech full of upbeat promises and encouraging one-liners, and frankly, it’s hard to be critical of Tony Hall, who, on a personal level is an approachable man. He and I were both on the Edinburgh International Television Festival Committee years ago, and I liked him. And there is no doubt he has a massive task ahead and deserves our sympathy. So my comments on The Media Show came across as a little bit crabby, which is almost inevitable when you are put at odds with someone who is becoming a national treasure. I was given about two minutes to be grumpy. This was followed by a very long and smooth interview with James Purnell, BBC Director of Strategy and the man behind “What Next?” And that’s when I think the holes in the speech really started to show up.
I don’t think James Purnell really answered the points I made. These weren’t debating points or arguments about stance or even about policy. There were things I wanted to know – practical factual things which I wanted Tony Hall to tell me. Instead I had listened to a very well crafted piece of marketing which dwelt at great length on technological advances which, when I thought about them later, weren’t that dramatic at all. A souped up i-player could have been announced with a press release. More arts shows, a video strand of Radio One, personalised programme selection – was this really the most important thing Tony Hall could find to tell us? His assertion that it was going to be ‘my’ BBC from now on was, for me, completely contradicted by a series of video clips and comments about the viewing habits of young people (as if I don’t use i-player) and not about ‘me’ or anyone who looked remotely like me or any of the millions of middle aged Northern women who watch and listen to the BBC. There were a few middle aged men, of course. But I hated the whole marketing led ‘my BBC’ thing anyway. I kept expecting Tony to tell me it was because “you’re worth it”.
So, on to the shiny new things which were at the centre of the speech. With regards to i-player et al, the issue of technological advance is a difficult one for the BBC, because they still haven’t rationalised how to deal with allegations that they pervert market forces. If your pension or your salary comes via investments in ITV or Sky, or any other media organisation which isn’t subsidised by the licence fee, you have every right to be alarmed by the BBC using your licence fee money to undercut the commercial organisations which pay you. This was an issue which was supposed to be dealt with by the BBC Trust, and they did do some good work on formalising a Public Value Test, which tries to establish when the Beeb has a right to undertake commercial developments. But Lord Patten, the BBC Chairman, wrote a paper asking Ofcom to take on the thorny problem of deciding when the Beeb was treading on the toes of other broadcasters. Not surprisingly Ofcom ran a mile, pointing out that this was one of the things the BBC Trust was set up to do. Unless I’m wrong, the whole muddle surrounding the Trust wasn’t mentioned once in the “What Next?” speech. It should have been. We may have to live with it for now, but as ‘owners’ of the BBC we need to know how it will be run. That’s as much ‘what next’ as the newest button on the screen. The invited audience - and the general public for that matter – is well informed, and knows, and needs to know more, about BBC governance. The brilliant soap opera of the Public Accounts Committee (better than Eastenders in my view) has brought the BBC Trust into your living room (or your tablet on the bus or your i-phone in the pub) and pretending the issue isn’t there and that we can be distracted by a 30 day i-player was just a tad bread and circuses. In any case, hasn’t TiVo been letting you make your own schedule for years?
I may be being contrary, but I also felt frissons of concern when Lord Hall went to the other end of the spectrum (just to be on the safe side) and told us that the BBC would be giving us more big- ticket Olympic style national cultural and sporting events. I feel quite uncomfortable about one monolithic organisation interpreting my culture for me. Even Shakespeare. Especially Shakespeare, who is to be BBCised in 2016, after they’ve done the First World War for us. One of the nicest things about Downton Abbey is that it is on ITV (I think I actually heard Lord Hall taking the credit for Homeland – surely not?) and I love it that we can’t assume that all the obvious British hits are on the Beeb. So I’m nervous of joint ventures between the BBC and the Arts Council etc. OK, I accept that that’s a bit over-edgy, but I want Glastonbury to be Glastonbury and not BBC Glastonbury. The suspicious side of me wants the BBC to be the vehicle not the driver of our collective experience. I’m all for watching the Diamond Jubilee with my mates and a bottle of pop but I want Aunty to broadcast these things, not to create, interpret and digest them for me. I feel the same about the current format of BBC News at Ten (news was hardly mentioned in the speech). I hate the interviews between BBC newsreaders and BBC correspondents as if the BBC translates everything and passes it on to me, the dumb viewer. I want to hear interviews with the people who are in the news, not the people who talk to the people who are in the news. That makes me feel excluded, not ‘in the know’. Please back off, BBC. Culture has to be spontaneous, often subversive, frequently subtle, and something that evolves without you realising. The great British Bake Off is wonderful precisely because it is such a surprise success. But it would give me the creeps to think Sue Perkins knew me better than I knew myself. It was just a lucky hit, that’s all, which is triumph enough. It could have been on ITV or Channel 4. It was not owing to some uncanny BBC corporate perceptiveness of British cultural life.
But all of this is so much window dressing because the great big white elephant in the room was the subject of the licence fee. The BBC Charter comes up for renewal in 2016, less than three years away. Neither Hall, nor Purnell later, would touch on the subject of how the BBC would be funded in the future. Yet it must be gnawing at them, and this was the sort of practical thing I wanted to hear discussed, and hopefully sorted and solved. If the centrepiece of the speech was new technology and the availability of content online - with the BBC becoming a sort of Netflix letting you download stuff even before it’s broadcast – how are they going to make you pay? Will you have to pay online for stuff you’ve already paid for via the licence fee? The licence fee is a complicated payment method. You pay the licence fee if you have broadcast receiving equipment in your home even if you don’t use it – so you may use your old TV to put a plant on but you still have to pay. However if you use the BBC website on your phone for your news and put the i-player on a tablet for your entertainment, and you don’t own a ‘set’, you aren’t liable to pay the licence fee. More and more people are going to take this option. Many under-25s don’t own TVs and don’t intend to. Of course buying a TV often comes along in your thirties like having kids and learning how to work the washing machine – but it seems highly likely that there will be fewer licence fee payers in the future, even though one-person-homes have increased. So the money just isn’t going to be there. For a nano-second Lord Hall was Mr Nasty when he referred to “making sure those who should pay the licence fee do pay the licence fee” but the magistrates’ courts are already clogged with people who can’t or won’t. And there is something unsavoury about a broadcaster being involved in penalising the sort of people who are often dysfunctional and disorganised rather than evil content snafflers. So punishing the guilty isn’t going to bring in the funds - especially while your nice bright new technology (paid for by that elusive extra £100 million) allows people to stop paying the licence fee anyway. It is such an irony – more i-player scope must surely mean fewer licence fee payers? How long will it take before that £3.6billion pound pot starts going down? It won’t be because of government policy, or because of newspapers like the Times calling for a reduced licence fee. It will be because the demographic of older people with tellies isn’t there to pay it, or because those that do pay it, refuse to subsidise those that get their content off websites. It could be argued that this will be a slow process and that people are still buying and watching conventional television. But those who are do, are going to resent, increasingly, subsidising those who don’t. It won’t be the actual decline in live TV viewing that causes the crisis. It will be the perceived unfairness. Unfairness annoys people more than anything. They just will not want to pay the licence fee any more.
The other thing I wanted to know about was hinted at, and then we moved swiftly on. I want to know what the plan is for BBC management. It will be great from now on, apparently. How? Well, pan-BBC boards will be reduced. James Purnell said on The Media show that there were 60 of them. Yes, I kid you not. Sixty. Obviously management needs to be streamlined and made sensible, as Lord Hall said. But how? When? At the same time the BBC is going to be more interactive with you, listen to your views more, have forums and meetings and questionnaires and cookies to find out what YOU want. How can they do this without more staff? Aaargh. It’s a terrible bind that they are in.
Not to worry though because everything is going to be better – more creative, more risk taking, more local, more national, more exciting, more reliable, more personalised, more collective. We are all going to be so happy! I asked the man sitting next to me at the speech, what he thought. He said he was only really interested in the development of 3D TV which he thought the BBC didn’t do much of. I hadn’t even thought about that! Do Tony and James really understand the vast numbers of well-informed people with hugely differing demands out there? They are making big, big promises without any indication of how they will deliver to over 60 million individuals. I’m sorry, but it really was rather a 2D speech, and the worst of it was that the questions I’ve asked won’t go away. The speech was not so much Netflix as net curtain – a thin veil with holes in, stopping you from looking too closely. But I do want to look close up, with my nose right against the window. Can we have another speech soon, perhaps with a little light shone into the dark corners of future funding, management re-organisation, reformation of the Trust, relationships with commercial broadcasters? If it really is our BBC then we have a right to know the truth about the state that it is in. No more net curtains. If you really want us to feel like the owners, then let us see right inside the property. Cracks and all.
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