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BBC: Too canny for its own good?

Posted by Richard D North in Media / Money / Politics on 8 March 2010

Why we posted this: The BBC is brilliant at defending its unique £3bn+ a year of licence fee, and its commercial income. It has just announced £600m-worth of budget changes which were cleverly allowed to be presented both as cuts (ie: here’s a slimmer BBC) and a shift to quality (ie: we’re going to be an even better public service broadcaster). Thing is, has the move really kept the BBC safe from criticism?

The original stories:
“No Surrender”
The corporation will become smaller, but no less potent
The Economist
6 March 2010

“The BBC’s retreat may yet turn into a rout”
Losing a few digital stations and web pages will not be enough to keep the licence fee off the political agenda
David Elstein
The Times
4 March 2010

Summary of the stories:
The Economist made the usual noises about the BBC being a remarkable broadcaster and admired by Britons who broadly accept the licence fee they have to pay a little nonsensically since it’s supposed to be premised on buying the right to watch TV, though many watch relatively little of the corporation’s output. The magazine pointed out that the BBC is a bigger success with older people and the middle classes than with the young and less well-off. In response, the BBC has over the years expanded into hep digital radio and TV stations, and into the web. It noted that the BBC’s new strategy seems to be to head-off criticism that it crowds into markets where it threatens burgeoning commercial competitors. Its says  future it will concentrate on its core, home-made, high quality material. 

David Elstein’s piece covered much the same ground as The Economist but with the significant difference that Mr Elstein thinks that the BBC’s strategy may “backfire”:

“Paradoxically, a more efficient BBC spending more on content may strike its competitors as even more of a threat than its current incarnation.”

livingissues comment:
For a free market and socially libertarian magazine, The Economist is surprisingly friendly toward the state’s involvement in the funding and behaviour of the BBC. David Elstein has a record of being much more sceptical (not least in a ground-breaking review he chaired for the Conservative Party). He was writing for The Times which is regarded as being anti-BBC not least because it is owned by Ruper Murdoch, whose Sky is one of the BBC’s most important competitors.

It’s useful to remember that the BBC needs both to be high quality and even elite in its material whilst also offering a wide range of mass market material. It needs to appeal to everyone or its political support will disappear. In current circusmtances, as Mr Edelstein catches better than the Economist, it can’t please anyone very easily. When competes better in the elite market, it makes it even harder for commercial stations to offer work in this non-commercial arena, and when it sticks to its populist guns, it is robbing the commercial sector of viewers which are all the more badly needed in a recession (which has seen advertising revenues fall).

In short, in bad times, the BBC looks even more like a spoiled and protected monolith than it does in good times. Of course, the BBC retains a large amount of political support, partly because the public  likes and more or less trusts it, and partly because it’s quite cheap, and partly because voters hang on nanny for fear of something worse. 

All the same, the funding system is unfair (it penalises the poor). Besides, bit by bit, a more radical argument gains traction: the state should stop controlling the broadcasters (there are more legal controls on broadcasting than any other media) as though they had a unique power to corrupt or defile us. This is especially true the more satellite and cable platforms give viewers access to a huge range of material from around the world. The more time one spends not “consuming” BBC shows, the less one is inclined to continue to pay for them.

[The editor of this site in 2007 wrote "Scrap the BBC!": Ten years to set broadcasters free]

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