Submission to BBC Charter Renewal consultation 2004


For those of you not familiar with the way the British Broadcasting Corporation operates, it has a charter from the UK parliament which is renewed every ten years with the first one starting in 1927. The current charter finishes in December 2027 and continues to run through critical times in the world's broadcasting, especially television. We have moved from analogue transmission to digital and continuing technical, cultural and political changes have a significant impact on media. This time it's not transmissions that have become digitised, it's the audience experience with a move further away from a box in the corner to a multi-platform experience including social media.

The rest of this web page is the paper paper submitted by Andy Finney (erstwhile director of ATSF, past chair of the British Interactive Media Association and one of the first people in the BBC to research and develop interactive media) as part of the open discussion on the BBC organised by the UK Department of Culture Media and Sport (as it was called at the time). The questions are those suggested by the consultation call. Note also that Oftel is now Ofcom, with a broader remit and now even some regulatory oversight of the BBC. The BBC Board of Governors was replaced by a BBC Trust and then with a BBC Board.

General Points

The BBC has always been attacked by the usual suspects. Whenever an opportunity has presented itself, the commercial sector has (almost without fail it seems), argued that the BBC should not be allowed to expand its interests. Newspapers strongly resisted the idea of the BBC presenting anything more than a tightly-controlled close-down bulletin when radio started in 1922. Television, FM radio, local radio and the Internet have been opportunities for the BBC to expand its outlets while still basically fulfilling a requirement to provide as good a quality of programming to as many people as possible by all the appropriate means at its disposal. I paraphrase of course but as time goes on we consumers of media (or technology 'on our behalf') expand our methods of consuming and the BBC expands its methods of disseminating to keep pace with us.

That is not to say that the 'usual suspects' shouldn't query this process. It is only right and proper that some analysis is done to determine whether the BBC should have its bite at the media cherries. The risk on the one hand is that, by default or by design, an organisation with the muscle of the BBC will bite too much off the cherry. That's the down side.

The up side is the basic question of whether, in the long run, the BBC will stimulate these new media in a way that is good for the UK and also for UK business ... in which I include commercial media. In the past it has. Conventional broadcasting in the UK is as diverse and as good as it is because the BBC has been in the vanguard and has been a yardstick.

The reverse is important too. The BBC changes because of competition and its involvement in any medium should be as part of a competitive environment. It's the 'two ice-cream sellers on the beach' model in which the BBC and the whole of the commercial sector are the two sellers. This is a stable model (or so I'm told).

I don't see multichannel as being too different. For market stability the BBC should be allowed, even encouraged, to diversify. If the 'rest' have more channels with tighter specialisation then the BBC should follow suit. Of course it can't, and shouldn't, be a 50:50 model. It may be reasonable for the BBC to have a 24 hour news channel, a sports channel, a children's channel and a music channel but I suspect the model, and the argument, quickly breaks down as the focus gets too narrow. But where do you draw the line? I can't answer that (although it'd be a good discussion to have). Suffice to say that I have no problem at all with the range of BBC channels on Freeview. To me it seems a proper response from a responsible broadcaster to the multichannel environment.

But the BBC is paid for by public money. It is to the British government's credit (many governments and many credits over many years) that the BBC retains impartiality. The temptation has been there to change this, starting with Churchill and the General Strike. And because the BBC is like this, there is no pressure on the rest of UK media. If pressure falls, it will always tend to fall, for better or worse, on the BBC.

I have heard the licence fee likened to democracy in that it's not perfect but it's the best option available. Of course there is always benign despotism. But I digress. Whether or not the BBC is funded from a licence to operate a receiver or by taxation or whatever is an important question. Surely the mechanism for funding the BBC it can be considered separately from the future of the BBC itself. Of all the issues to be discussed in what I have read of the submissions to this review, the licence fee is the one that has stood out for me. 'Make the BBC get its funding from advertising or from subscription' or 'the licence fee is an outmoded concept not appropriate in the multichannel 21st century' or 'I don't watch to the BBC so why should I pay for it'. The last argument seems easiest to refute since the BBC does not actually operate in a vacuum and its influence on the rest of media all around the world continues to be significant. You may not watch the BBC but what you do watch has been and will continue to be influenced by the BBC. Is a licence fee an outmoded concept? Personally I think the jury is out on that but while they are out we should keep the status quo. If the BBC becomes a subscription- or advertising-based service I believe it would be reduced in its status and its capabilities. It might even fail as a result of downward inertia, in much the same way that the advent of commercial radio affected BBC local radio: it took time for the broadcasters to settle down into their appropriate niches. Is that something the UK wants to risk? That would be an example of entropy in that once such a change has been made, it will be impossible to go back.

I am worried by this kind of entropy. If the BBC is 'reduced' in some way then it will be unlikely to recover should circumstances change. Change itself can be a one-way process, like carving a statue out of marble. This makes risk assessment an asymmetrical process because the risk of doing too much is much greater than the risk of not doing enough.

I am worried by the intersection between creativity and business. Once upon a time the BBC was a broadcaster. Now I feel it is more of a business whose business just happens to be broadcasting. These are not equivalent and the trick is to make the former as businesslike and efficient as possible.

I am worried that public service broadcasting (PSB) is mistaken for marginalisation. The true public service broadcasters should be able to work in isolation. By this I mean that the test of public service broadcasting is that you can ignore all the other broadcasters and a PSB will still be reasonably complete unto itself. I think we can be proud that the BBC and ITV could each pass this test. ITV + Channel 4 is an even better match for the BBC these days, but ITV1 by itself is pretty good too. If you adhere to this principle then it is essential for the BBC to include 'popular' programming in its output. 'Eastenders' is as important as 'Horizon' ... but only as long as you do them both and continue to do them both.

Unfortunately this is not so true in Radio. Apart from news and music ... and phone-ins, the BBC stands alone with much of the programming it provides. If you want to make an experimental radio documentary there is nowhere else to go. This is not the BBC's fault but it suggests that there are radio species on the endangered list, which makes a nurturing of the BBC's radio diversity even more crucial.

Is the BBC 'dumbing down'? Personally I don't believe it is and there is danger that dumbing down is actually a veiled insult to audiences rather than an accusation made against the broadcaster. If it is a stylistic accusation - saying that current programming is cut too violently or that the audience's attention span is getting too short - then this has to be seen in a context of ever-developing audio-visual techniques. The grammar of (especially) video editing changes over time and this is not just happening in television. Is the content of programming dumbing down? I think it is true that fad programming is very noticeable now. Where once we had a single 'do-it-yourself' programme a week (presented by a nice gentleman in a cardigan) we now have several, all presented in a 'hey kids lets do the show right here' style. This isn't dumbing down, it's a response to a changing media landscape. I would suggest that 24-hour locked-off camera coverage of people in their natural or unnatural habitats would be dumbing down, but the BBC hasn't done that. There will always be odd examples of bad programming, but they are examples that test the rule. I refer the reader back to my earlier point on public service broadcasting.

What do you value most about the BBC?

It is a delicate balance in broadcasting between providing services that exactly match the audience's expectation while at the same time challenge them (gently perhaps) and broaden their knowledge and experience. The ultimate narrow-cast, commercial model will usually give an audience their top ten of stimuli ... only the Premier League in sport for example, or music radio that only plays 30 records in rotation. That's never been what the BBC did.

Once upon a time, when the BBC was the only broadcaster in town, being broad-based was a given; even if it was a somewhat po-faced 'nanny knows best' version of 'broad' at times. It is difficult to reconcile the BBC that brought us the Goons, with the BBC that drove a nation's youth to listen to pirate radio, but there is a serendipity that comes from a single broad-based channel. In the right hands (and programmers like David Attenborough and Michael Grade come to mind here) this works perfectly. You only know what you miss when its gone. I believe that in the increasingly multi-channel PVR-driven world, where there are just too many channels to keep track of, we will eventually buy software agents who will be our own Attenboroughs and Grades. Until that time (and I trust even afterwards) I continue to value the BBC's diversity.

I value the BBC's reputation. I was one of those BBC employees who had to explain to Americans that 'Upstairs Downstairs' was not made by the BBC. A reputation is not made by always being right. It's not really made by always knowing whether you are right or wrong. Reputations are all about perception and, in the medium to long term, not letting people down.

How should the BBC adapt to cope with changes in technology and culture?

The BBC does adapt to changes in culture but it takes time and it happens as we ourselves change inside the culture. In my lifetime I have seen the BBC move from being representative of my parents generation to being representative of a generation much younger than me. That's not to say that all programming is for the wrong generation. However it must be considered that the BBC's workforce will never include many representatives of its youngest and oldest consumers. The trick is to make sure that the demographic curve commissioning and producing the programming has a clear remit on its attitude to the rest of the population. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is not easy, especially since you produce programmes best when you are enthusiastic about the content. The BBC should be encouraged in listening to its potential audience in a way that can take account of any inherent bias within the BBC itself. This, of course, doesn't just apply to age but whereas you can actively encourage programme makers of a particular ethnic group you can't take the same approach to pre-school children. (This makes the skills of people like the Teletubbies production company extremely valuable.)

The commissioning of programmes from independent companies and even individuals helps the broadcasters to follow cultural trends more quickly. There should be a continual easing of bureaucracy in submissions by independent producers. This places an ever-increasing importance on the skills of programme commissioners.

The BBC has generally been very good in dealing with changes in technology. Unfortunately technology is changing much faster now than it ever did but this is countered by a bigger and more responsive commercial sector producing equipment that can be used by the BBC. This was reflected in the closure of the BBC Designs Department. Also, technology is now increasingly software-based. So whereas broadcast research used to look into things like better camera design it now looks at algorithms and codecs. BBC Research continues to push the envelopes on broadcasting techniques and technologies and should be encouraged. There should be especial emphasis on pre-competitive research into interactive broadcasting techniques as this area is currently stalled by the 'poor' capabilities of current digital receivers when it comes to running interactive programming.

One possibility is the development of BBC Research as a UK (or European) centre-of-excellence in broadcasting research on behalf of all broadcasters (and with financial contributions from and some accountability to them). I am not convinced that market forces are the most appropriate way forwards with the development of interactive techniques in broadcasting. In this specific area I believe a pre-competitive seeding is in the UK's best interest.

The BBC's response to the increased opportunity provided by digital terrestrial television (DTT) has been to increase the range of services without appearing to shave effort from the mainstream. It has taken the opportunity to mine the archives and, in my view, should do this more. The BBC rose to the challenge of DTT once the initial subscription model failed and drew the commercial sector with it. There should be a clear lead taken by the BBC in how programming opportunities should respond to analogue switch-over and the increase in terrestrial channels that will become available. Sky has done a magnificent job with its output on Astra and its EPG but this kind of single-company hold over DTT would be unacceptable. For its part the government must not hive off too much spectrum in a short-term desire to generate revenue. Analogue switch-off must provide a significant increase in available channels and the majority of these channels should be freely available at the point of use.

Should the BBC run commercial services?

I believe it is appropriate for the BBC to leverage its existing assets, and those assets generated as part of its core business activity, in such as way as to generate funds to add to the licence-fee income. The question is whether it should do so directly or by licensing its intellectual property.

There perhaps should be a line drawn to define core and non-core commercial activity. Some things are clear: I don't see any problem with the BBC selling its own programming into different broadcasting markets. Conversely the BBC should never sell washing powder. The rest needs more analysis. Starting from the BBC's core business as being the production of programmes it is a small move to include production and sales of tapes and discs of complete programmes, and distribution of programmes on-demand using any appropriate and available technology.

In merchandising we are actually dealing with a very intangible asset: an idea or a character rather than any particular manifestation of it. The BBC has operated as an agent for merchandising rights for many years and has done so for both its own and other people's intellectual property. I see little difficulty with the BBC protecting its own broadcast brands by controlling, and reaping the benefits of, merchandising on programming it broadcasts or produces. It is less clear why it should then operate as a third party agent for similar intellectual property. You can argue that anything that strengthens its ability to wheel and deal is, in turn, strengthening its capabilities with its own material. So in drawing a line to include merchandising you must also draw a line inside merchandising. And this is true of many other areas.

Should the BBC operate a record label when it is (for the moment) the traditional and established role of record companies to do this. Should the BBC then license appropriate recordings to record companies? I believe it should be encouraged to do so and the record industry should be encouraged to think of the BBC as an appropriate source of such material. It is perfectly proper for the BBC and a record label to jointly produce recordings. A longer-term question is whether the BBC should operate a commercial music-download service based on its archive. How this fits into the commercial spectrum will depend on how this form of music distribution develops and what stance the record industry eventually takes on it. However, the nature of online linking between web sites means that the BBC may have a legitimate role to play in acting as a portal to other music download sites in much the same way Radio 1 acts as a portal to record shops (and to downloads of course).

Finally, what about books and magazines. A long time ago, when it was difficult to persuade publishers to cover broadcasting or even list programmes, the only solution was for the BBC to produce its own listings magazine; although we didn't think of it in those terms. That is no longer the case, and arguably the advent of online communication and the EPG completely changes the game where listings are concerned. If I apply the same logic to books and magazines as I did to record companies then I come to the conclusion that paper publication is outside the remit.

Would it be appropriate now for the BBC to brand an equivalent of the BBC Micro? This is really a merchandising question, although the relationship between the BBC Micro and the broadcast programmes it linked to was much closer than other merchandising. The BBC Micro was also a response to a government initiative. On the whole, this was either one-of-a-kind or, if not, so specialised that it needed to be considered on its merits. For this reason alone, any guidelines on commercialisation must have some accountable room for manoeuvre.

Is the BBC organised in the most effective and efficient way?

Hutton notwithstanding, the key strength of the BBC (at least when I was more closely involved) was in the delegation of responsibility downwards to producer level. Pick your producers carefully, train them well, encourage them, support them, allow them to fail (occasionally), learn from mistakes and learn from successes. This must be encouraged if not mandated.

How should the BBC be governed and regulated? How do we ensure that the BBC is properly accountable to the public and Parliament?

The board of governors of the BBC has to represent the people to the BBC as well as represent the BBC to the people. Can a single group be asked to do both tasks? It is difficult and I don't claim to have an answer but I have a couple of points to make in this context.

Research into the structure of teams, especially creative teams or teams of highly intelligent people, sets out a number of roles that should be taken by the team members. There doesn't need to be a one-to-one correlation between roles and people since one person can take more than one role. But there are roles to be filled. The board of governors is a team and its structure has to operate as such.

We rely on the professional detachment of barristers to enable the law courts to function. Many can operate on either side of the process and it is their professional training and experience that helps them do this and, more importantly, helps us be confident in their ability to represent either side as appropriate. Is there a lesson here for the governors in that some training is a requirement in order to best fulfill their two-faceted role?

Do the governors have to be homogeneous? The structure could be such that some members have a responsibility to look outwards towards Parliament and the public and some inwards towards programming and production. In any event, the role of the BBC Governors as 'great and good amateurs' (amateur when it comes to broadcasting of course) may not be appropriate any more. I believe that the board as a whole should have expertise in broadcasting, new and emerging media, technology, journalism, politics etc. The board must be able to monitor and set the BBC's agendas from a position of strength. Decisions are not always the right ones in hindsight and it is far more important to make the decision in the right way by the most diligent process since that is the only thing you authoritatively know at the time. As I have mentioned before, the ability, if not permission, to fail occasionally is very important.

I find the involvement of Oftel a more difficult issue. I do not believe that Oftel can take on the role of the BBC Governors any more than Oftel would want to run Channel 4. The relationship between the BBC and Oftel is dependent on the relationship between the BBC Governors and the BBC itself. If the BBC Governors are either the Board of the BBC or, more reasonably, the Non-Executive directors of 'BBC plc' then the role of Oftel is clearer in that it has the same relationship with the BBC as it does with any company. But then DCMS and the Secretary-of-State also have a say. Perhaps the most reasonable approach is not to look at the relationship between the BBC and Oftel but to look at the whole relationship between the BBC and its governors and Oftel, the DTI, DCMS and Parliament. I perceive that this discussion has so far been too narrow and should focus on the wider political and regulatory arena.

Andy Finney
March 31st 2004

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