Thursday 21 October 2010

Strange Times for BBC

We live in strange times.

Yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a long speech about various austerity mesaures, cuts and savings that the government was making. In it, he announced that the Licence Fee would be frozen for six years. What a curious thing to do. Lumping in the cost of a TV Licence with this Spending Review is a serious category error and demonstrates how utterly muddled the thinking is in government about the BBC, government, broadcasting and what the whole thing is for.

Undoubtedly, the TV Licence is a weird anomaly that's a throwback to a past age - like MCC or John McCrirrick. But, unlike John McCrirrick, it is a nice anomaly that most people are prepared to live with.

Comedy writers have to pay close attention to the fortunes of BBC, sadly, since it spends more on comedy than all of the other channels combined. (I've just made this statistic up. I'm not a journalist so that's okay.) It's good to see that Sky are spending serious money on comedy, but when BBC sneezes, we all catch a cold, and then whine about it, although to be fair, we were probably whining already. So I merely mention all of this since it should be of interest to all of us.

Let us leave aside threats about paying for the free licences for the over 75s aside (the irony being that the over 75s are the greatest consumers of TV. And yet are least served by the BBC who, like all the media, are obsessed with the under 30s.)

It seems particularly odd that BBC is now expected to fund the World Service itself. All £340 million of it. No-one outside of Britain pays a licence fee. BBC has no contract with the people of Uganda or Java. There is no doubt that the World Service is a truly wonderful thing that that undoubtedly makes the world a better place. I regularly download their documentaries as podcasts. But BBC itself has no incentive to provide this service. If I were Mark Thompson, I would simply announce that on Jan 1st, The World Service Will End. He won't do this, of course. But he should.

In order to save that money, BBC will probably insist on making the same number of programmes for slightly less money. The good programmes and the bad ones. Already underpaid broadcast assistants and runners will get even less. Creativity will be curbed. Ambition for interesting television will be tempered. And anyone earning over £250,000 a year will no doubt take a long hard look at whether they should really collect their whole bonus this year.

The fact is that BBC could make some very easy cuts that no-one would miss - and do a deal with the private sector at the same time. BBC's daytime schedule, and some of the evening schedule that resemble daytime programmes, is almost totally pointless. A couple of days ago, BBC broadcast the following gems on one day: Cash in the Attic; Bargain Hunt; Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is; Flog it; Escape to the Country; Instant Restaurant; Cowboy Trap; Animal Park; Snog Marry Avoid; Don’t Tell the Bride; Traffic Cops; Homes Under the Hammer. This is six hours of television that do not education, inform or entertain. Why does BBC make them? Given that it's almost impossible to legally make an hour of broadcast television for less than £50k an hour, there's £300k right there spend on lousy TV that is cheerfully produced by the private sector on other channels. In one day. Over one year, that's approximately £109 million or 203JBs (JB = Jana Bennetts). And we've not even touched Doctors or the importing of Diagnosis Murder.

Would we really be so impoverished as a nation if we did not have all these cheaply-made, hopelessly contrived, idiotically conceived, falsely-jeopardied moving pictures? Especially given that they are available on commercial channels, and therefore being paid for by advertisers?

If you really can’t live without Homes Under the Hammer, why not just sit in a branch of Foxtons for half an hour at no expense to the licence fee or the taxpayer? The characters are much more amusingly grotesque, better looking and they might even give you a bottle of mineral water. You may be talked buying a three-bed semi in Deptford but that’s all part of the interactive element.

Instead of these programmes, BBC could broadcast the wonderfully educational, informative and entertaining programmes that it does make and systematically hides on BBC4. Or documentaries by David Attenborough. Or costume dramas. Or just dramas (remember them?). Six hours of decent TV from the millions of hours of archives stretching back decades

If repeat fees were too high, pages of Ceefax could be broadcast. Or BBC Online. Or a picture of Tess Daly. Or simply a succession of suggestions like 'Have you tried reading a book by PG Wodehouse? They're an easy read. Go on.' or 'Isn't it time you put up those shelves?' or 'Have you thought about watching Channel 4? It's where we got half our daytime formats anyway.'

Or they could leave the screens blank and broadcast the truly wonderful, rich and cost-effective BBC World Service. Made for us. And then shared with the world. Just a thought.


  1. Archive rebroadcasts are problematic as they cost a fair bit of money in rights and residuals as you pointed out.
    An example is when the Science department at the Beeb wanted to rebroadcast the excellent Lifestory to mark 50 years since the discovery of the structure of DNA.
    The cost of doing this was equivalent to making almost two new science programmes (a fifth of the cost was paying the Oscar-winning writer).
    Another story is that when they rebroadcast Elizabeth R in the early 90s it cost the same amount of money as it did to make the original series.

    What might happen is that the Beeb might allow BBC Worldwide, its unloved ginger-headed stepchild of a commercial arm, to commercialise more BBC stuff outside the UK. That might mean literally putting commercials on the World Service (as there are already on the BBC World TV service) and the non-UK version of the website. Also they could accelerate the implementation of the non-UK and pay version of the iPlayer

  2. Whilst the online and iplayer content of the BBC is very good, it presumably must come at a price. It's galling that almost everyone that I know without a TV Licence accesses it freely (both in terms of cash and guuilt as it's completely legal). Whilst I would protect the BBC website and podcast content, it seems manifestly unjust that anyone can access iplayer content in the UK without a TV Licence. The BBC must start charging for this with a discount for bona fide Licence Fee payers.

    Sadly Homes under the Hammer is cheap telly (in every sense) and will continue to get made for that reason. Now if you're talking about axing Loose Women....

  3. I agree Jon. I am such a mooch viewer and enjoy mooching off of you sad licence fee payers because you'r the ones that regrettably actually pay for the crap that is Homes under the Hammer... But I guess my iPlayer consumption, which is close to 3 programs a week at best, is outclassed by my consumption of free radio, about 5 pieces per week, I listen to, again by iPlayer, while I make our families meal every day. The model is outdated and while I agree that I should be paying something for iPlayer access... but until I don't have to I will not... because lets be honest, I rather enjoy not paying to watch Mad Men, or even the IT crowed on 4oD with ads...

  4. Is it bad that I find Don't Tell the Bride extremely entertaining?

    I totally agree with the previous commenter about iplayer. I don't have a TV licence at home (I do in Cambridge) but I watch all the TV I want to, completely legally, by watching it later on iPlayer. I really think that the BBC need to do something about that - I don't think it would be hard for them to require access by licence fee number and a password.

    I do love the suggestion of broadcasting ideas of things to do other than watch TV. Sort of 'Why Don't You...?' for grown ups.

  5. I'm happy to pay a licence fee for BBC News and BBC Local Radio as we genuinely do need these two entities, but nowadays, frankly, the rest can take its commercial chances.