The BBC needs to show some humility to maintain the high ground.

I’m 22 years old . There’s a BBC press conference. The room is full of fag-ash hacks, men in suits and stroppy photographers. I’m not even a boy by comparison. I’m a baby.

And there’s the BBC brass, at a table up front, proudly announcing the signing of a new contract with Terry Wogan.

Terry wanders in as his name is called. He beams. Cameras flash, microphones are thrust, questions are shouted.

When it’s all calmed down, I put my hand up. I’m an easy mark: hippy-ish clothes, long hair, too young to be serious. So, yes, let’s have a question from Music Week’s young radio correspondent.

“How much is this contract costing?”

Chins drop. Pins drop – and are heard. Fleet Street faces turn to see – who is this cheeky fucker?

A cough, a sheepish look down, and the BBC spokesman says, “Er, we don’t discuss that kind of thing.”

“But I’m a licence payer. Everyone in this room is a licence payer. That’s our money you’re spending.”

We’ll draw a veil over the rest of it. Wogan, to his credit, was vastly amused. We bumped into each other on the street afterwards. We’d both got out of there as quickly as we could, while the rest slurped and supped at licence payer expense. “Ah,” he said. “The young whelp who asked the awkward question.” He obviously didn’t give me the answer I wanted, but he was clearly impressed I’d asked what no-one from Fleet Street had dared.

In that little vignette I think we see the genesis of the BBC ‘problem’.

‘We’re competing in a commercial market’, they say, ‘and we can’t let our competitors know our terms’.

Except, of course, that’s not what the BBC is for.

First off, let me say – I love the BBC and I completely support the licence fee as a form of finance. But its (the licence fee’s) days are numbered, with or without political interference.

The British without the British Broadcasting Corporation would be vastly poorer culturally. That’s my opinion. I’m open to rational arguments to the contrary, but I’ve never heard one.

However, the BBC is its own worst enemy. When your budget, taken from the public purse, is approaching £4bn annually even the rational among us must begin to ask questions.

Here’s what I think.

  • As a public service broadcaster, there’s no need for more than two television channels (and hold your horses, because I have other options).
  • I also cannot see the point of Radio 1, except as a hook to get young people into the BBC habit. Well, that’s not happening. Young people have a different agenda today, and public service broadcasting (which Radio 1 is not) is not on their horizon.
  • There’s no public service requirement for 6 Music. Oh, I know we all love it (well, some of us). But it’s not doing anything that can’t be done commercially.
  • There’s no public service requirement for Radio 4Xtra.
  • I would also get rid of mono-cultural stations. We’re supposed to be building a cohesive society here. Broadcasting to social ghettos is not helpful.
  • Jeremy Vine’s show on Radio 2 – what’s that all about? It’s like a news version of the Jeremy Kyle show. I’ve got my doubts about Radio 2 having any genuine public service value.
  • In the era of apps for traffic and weather, and with your local news available on whatever device is closest to hand, there is no longer a rationale for the local radio network.
  • Finally, the BBC website is a monopolistic disgrace, and absolutely illustrative of the Corporation’s overweening ambition; what I call corporate ego. It should be reduced to news headlines and links to programmes. It is a massive drain on programme budgets and generally speaking a vanity project of the most narcissistic kind. It is also inexcusably anti-competitive.

That’s the bad news. Now some good.

The World Service should be restored to its former glory, properly financed and no argument.

Radios Three and Four should have their budgets increased, maybe even doubled. They cost pennies by comparison with the big tv budgets. Radio 4 is the most important entry point for comedy and drama, and massively important to the ‘national conversation’.

BBC4 is what BBC2 used to be – great documentaries, un-dumbed down cultural interviews and fantastically entertaining and educational programmes about a vast range of music.

It also used to make great original dramas, but that budget was slashed, and the output stopped. Today, the vast majority of BBC4 is repeats.

So closing down BBC4 and scheduling its new output on BBC2 would scarcely be revolutionary. In the digital age, when the majority of viewers can access iPlayer, there’s no excuse for BBC2 running repeats of The Rockford Files, QI (on almost constant rerun elsewhere), Yes Minister and ‘Allo ‘Allo. We also don’t need cookery programmes from BBC2 (again, hold your horses; solution coming up).

So, two TV stations, Radios 3&4, The World Service, and a cut-down website. That might represent £1bn cut from its cost. It would put a huge dent in the argument which is forcefully, continuously and self-righteously conducted in the pages of many national newspapers – the Mail, the Times group (Murdoch-owned, of course) and others; not to mention increasing numbers of UK residents.

A stripped down BBC could see the licence fee back under the £100 mark. The argument for turning it commercial would lose its edge.

That would give the BBC room to breathe, time to figure out its role in a world where television becomes less and less about destination viewing. The recent primetime Sunday night drama, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, didn’t even make BBC1’s own top 10.

That’s not a reason for not making it. It’s just indicative of a new reality. We have no idea how our grandchildren will be viewing, but somehow we have to get ready for it.

So, in its new incarnation, let’s give the Corporation a third channel (BBC3, say) to develop a subscription model.

If people want programmes like The Great British Bake-Off, The Voice or Strictly Come Dancing, they will surely pay £6.95 a month to subscribe to a BBC version of Netflix.

But the beauty of a model like this is that the BBC could continue to develop great drama (as HBO has done, with Netflix now following in its wake).

And while we’re at it, let them have a fourth channel (BBC4, say; see how this is working?). It would be On Demand, where people pay for the programme they want, when they want, like, I dunno, Virgin and Sky. £0.99 for half an hour (to watch all those great old sitcoms); £1.99 for anything an hour or more – drama series and nature programmes. I know you’ll say, “We’ve already paid for them”, and so we have. But future generations haven’t.

There will – no doubt in my mind about this – come a time when the licence fee is socially (and therefore politically) unsustainable. In 10 years, the BBC could have developed a whole new finance model that would surprise them.

It would still be public service, still trading on its (and our) heritage. It could become a commercially sustainable version of itself without ever having to be dependent on advertising.

As for threats to its very existence on the basis of its political bias, that’s a whole other story. Almost every Prime Minister since Winston Churchill has sailed in that ship. On behalf of Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell bullied the BBC daily, publicly and shamelessly for 10 years. But it’s still here.

If it can stop being a preening, bullying monolith, it will still be here when we’re long gone.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Paul, just a couple of points to be going on with,
    1 everyone who owns a tv has to pay the licence fee so shouldn’t they all be offered programmes and networks that provide content they’re interested in, ad free, not driven by commercial consider ions and in many other ways editorially sound?

    2 I’ve heard the argument that the networks that provide what commercial networks ‘could’ do should be abolished many times, it’s a flawed and spurious argument. If they could and it was profitable, they’d be doing it already. They’re not and they wouldn’t. But it’s spurious becUse why isn’t music radio public service? Apart from the cultural benefits that a diverse music policy endows on its listeners, you of all people should know the economic importance of the music industry. Do you think that money making machine would still exist if only commercial music radio existed? Stars are not made on commercial radio.

    3. Strictly et al…. The BBC shouldn’t be making populist, popular, high quality entertainment shows. Again with this old chestnut. Why not? Apart from anything they bring in MILLIONS Back to the BBC in format rights. I can’t remember how much strictly brings in – I’ll find it for you.

    If you make the BBC serve a small, probably dwindling section of the population it will not survive. It can only survive if enough people still think it’s worth the £2.50 a week it costs them, to pay their licence fee. And for that to continue the BBC needs to provide quality programming for as many people as possible. If you want to see what radio and tv would look like in this country if the BBC didn’t exist, don’t look at the states which has a ginormous economy which can support the networks it does but STILL struggles to provide anything resembling the BBC , look at the rest of Europe. Not sure if you’ve seen or heard what’s on offer in France, Spain or Italy, but it sucks.

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    • Thing is, though, Alison, that this isn’t about chestnuts and terrible French telly. It’s about survival. The BBC spends £5bn a year, nearly £4bn of it from the licence fee. That’s completely unsustainable – 1. Because it’s a developing and growing political nightmare (the size of the budget) ; and 2. Because the Corporation will start to get tremendous drop off in licence fee collection when it tries collecting it from my grandchildren in 20 years time.

      Ways of viewing are changing and the BBC has to change with them. I don’t want to see ads on the BBC, and I do want to see the BBC still here, strong and upholding the quality in 30 years time (yes, I still expect to be here!).

      The arguments from within the BBC are always the same (‘chestnuts’ you might call them). I’ve been hearing them for nearly 50 years (as a radio correspondent, as editor of a weekly television trade magazine, as publisher of various cable/satellite&video magazines). I don’t think the BBC should have a participatory voice in the debate at all. After all, it gets to remind us (as it has done in the past few weeks, very very forcefully) what it does, on air, at will, across its tremendous network. So it’s already making its voice heard.

      Which services stay, or which go, is a matter of debate, for sure. But it is beyond debate that £4bn a year as a tax on the public for public service broadcasting is unsustainable. As I said in the post, the BBC is its own worst enemy and its overweening and inappropriate ambition has gone too far in the digital age.

      Its website and its promotion of DAB are just two of the anti-competitive projects with which it shoots itself in the foot on a regular basis. Someone will take the gun away if the BBC doesn’t willingly surrender it for a healthy and sustainable future.

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  2. I agree with nearly all the points you have suggested. However extra points arise.
    1. Not many people know that vital tech research goes on within the BBC. The BBC invented TV in the 30s, and digital radio and TV in the 90s. You could say that this is the government’s job. Will they pay? Will they heck.
    2. The tech training is 2nd to none in the world. However should apprentices be able to leave for better paid jobs worldwide without giving some time back? Or will the government suggest that ‘apprentices-students’ pay c. £9000 to be an apprentice in the future?
    3. The BBC helps to pay for the Official Chart, and has done so since 1969, lending an air of authority to the music industry. When Top Of The Pops was around, this made sense. Now, it stays connected for a few Radio 1 progs per week?
    4. BBC Worldwide is the commercial export arm that earns a huge extra amount for the BBC each year for programmes like, ahem, Top Gear.

    As an ex-employee, I can say there are good and bad points. IT-stuff is right on the mark, as you would expect. However in my humble opinion, there is a surfeit of overpaid senior and middle management who could not organise the proverbial.

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    • Interesting insights, James, I think we need to know more about BBC tech training and what it brings to the digital world. As for digital radio, whether or not the BBC realised it at the time, DAB was a bad avenue, incurring as it does for competitors mammoth (largely unaffordable) expense for the annual licence fee and maintenance of equipment. This really keeps the market down. As for the Official Chart, nothing screams ‘money down the drain’ like an institution that has outlived its usefulness. Music Week, which owns the chart, is more driven by its statistics department these days, and the chart is part of that. There is no possible justification for the BBC continuing to hang on to it.

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