Is the BBC too big?
Posted October 12, 2009on:
We have just had a Media School debate on the topic of “is the BBC too big?”, [Debate on Is the BBC Too Big] with a full house of staff and students – and a lot of discussion. Here’s my contribution to the debate:
When I lived in Australia from 2003 to end of 2006, I was often asked what I most missed from the UK. My instinctive answer was definitely not the weather but definitely BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. For me it is the best news programme on radio or television or online in the world. It is newsy’; it’s agenda-setting; it has improved its business coverage a lot and it gets all the big names. You start the day fully informed.
For me, that is the real strength of the BBC – news-gathering and communication on a national and world-wide scale. It demonstrates that public broadcasting can be challenging to authority, it can be confident in its presentation and it can be immediate.
But that’s not my view of the whole of the BBC. Before I give my proposal on what the shape of the Beeb could be, I’d like to look at other examples of public broadcasting and consider their strengths and weaknesses.
In the US, they have National Public Radio – NPR – which is intelligent, liberal in outlook and perennially ailing as it relies on charitable funds and personal donations to survive. Its magazine programme, All Things Considered, is a gem that I recommend to you. On television, the Public Broadcast Service – PBS – has the nightly News Hour with Jim Lehrer which has the highest trust ratings amongst audiences. NPR and PBS also have other highly rated programmes but they trail far behind the various commercial terrestrial, satellite and cable production houses on their ability to consistently produce programming that is equivalent to the BBC’s output. NPR also relies heavily on BBC news for its international coverage.
Australia has the Australian Broadcasting Commission – ABC – which is funded by the taxpayer and has radio, TV and online programmes. Its style of news reporting and presentation is close to BBC in being straight-forward and objective, although with a liberal tone. ABC has a wide range of its own programming but, compared with the BBC, it is less well resourced and probably under greater political pressure. The ABC TV broadcasts in a very competitive environment in all national and regional markets with three terrestrial competitors and Sky on satellite. In any state capital, there will be up to a dozen competitors battling over audience share. The ABC will have its national Radio 4-equivalent of Radio National, its local Radio 2-equivalent in the state capital, a national rolling news and parliament station, its Radio 3 equivalent called Classic FM. It rarely tops the audience ratings and Radio National usual scores around 4-5%.
So what’s my view of the BBC – It does news really well, some drama and comedy well, sport is still OK but has declined, and radio is a mixed bag with Radio 4 often excellent and local/regional radio dire. Channel 4 does investigative journalism and current affairs with greater acuity and timeliness, which is a good argument that alternative public broadcasting can deliver some beneficial results.
My view is that the BBC should be reviewed with my outcome being the equivalent of Waitrose’s Essentials range – a limited range of well-priced and good quality essential that are aimed much more tightly at the audience with less puffery and packaging.
To address some key questions set to us by our chair, Jon Wardle
1. Is the scale and scope of the BBC chilling? (As stated by James Murdoch): In radio, it is anti-competitive and, by creating at least seven national networks, BBC World Service and all of its awful regional radio, has reduced both creativity and competition to such as extent that commercial radio is a financial basket case. On television, I don’t see how BBC 3 and News 24 would survive in any other scenario. Why not run BBC World rolling news instead of News 24? They do the same job.
2. Mark Thompson has announced a review of all services…would you cut anything away…and if so what? I would cut BBC 3, News 24, reduce the bloated BBC Online services and at least two or three radio networks. I closely follow motor racing but don’t see why the BBC paid £100m or more for Formula 1. There are sports and national events with much greater importance than F1. I’d also get rid of the BBC Trust which is both cheer leader and supposed ethical watchdog and does neither very well.
3. Should the licence fee be top sliced to support C4? Yes, for news and current affairs, because C4 News/ITN, Dispatches and Cutting Edge are way better than Panorama and less pompous than Snooze Night.
4. What are the Tories likely to do if they get in? Do some of the above, but probably less than we think they will. I think their policies will be aimed at cutting BBC bureaucracy and overheads rather than giving Murdoch a platform. He’s doing OK by himself.
5. Is BBC Worldwide a good idea…should the BBC own the Lonely Planet for example? BBC Worldwide should be floated as an enterprise with a large minority shareholding being held by the BBC as a support to its income stream. The Lonely Planet deal was morally wrong and an abuse of the BBC brand and reputation
6. To what extent is the BBC meeting the remit set by Lord Reith to educate, inform and entertain? In many areas, it meets the Reithian remit but is using our money to knock out competitors. Less could be more!
In conclusion, I consider that the BBC is the best public service broadcaster in the world but it is too large and anti-competitive in its corporate behaviour.