Friday 30 September 2016

What does the public want from Public Service Broadcasting?

Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30

'Gogglebox' star Leon Bernicoff is usually quite happy with terrestrial TV, not always mind...
'Gogglebox' star Leon Bernicoff is usually quite happy with terrestrial TV, not always mind...

On Thursday the British government told the BBC where to go. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport produced a green paper that laid out how the British Broadcasting Corporation may need to change in size, scope and funding. It's all part of the review of the Royal Charter under which the BBC operates and which expires at the end of next year.

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Conservative politicians have been queuing up to get the boot in. John Whittingdale, the UK's culture secretary has referred to the corporation as "bloated", and chancellor George Osborne said that the BBC was "imperial in its ambitions".

So when the green paper arrived on Thursday, it was no surprise that it asked some fundamental questions. Should the BBC be smaller? Should a mix of public funding and subscription services replace the license fee?

The paper also questioned the corporation's efficiency and commercial activity, which represents about a quarter of the BBC's total income.

Most interestingly it asked where the remit of public service broadcasters should end and commercial operators begin. Whittingdale may want to curtail some of the BBC's programming that's designed to drive market share.

"This does not mean that the BBC should not be entertaining," the government document states. "It is about the BBC providing distinctive programming across all genre types.

"For example, the BBC acquired the format for The Voice. This was a singing talent show developed overseas, bought by the BBC at a reported cost of around £20m and similar to ITV's X-Factor."

So on one level, the green paper could be seen as a sensible call for the BBC to stop blowing its cash on expensive imports. But it could also be seen as the opening salvo of a concerted attack on a British institution.

The BBC certainly seemed to think it's the latter.

"We believe that this green paper would appear to herald a much diminished, less popular BBC," it said in a statement. "That would be bad for Britain and would not be the BBC that the public has known and loved for over 90 years."

The BBC may be unique as a public service broadcaster in terms of size and recognition. But public service broadcasters the world over are increasingly coming under scrutiny.

Our own RTÉ has been through a series of extensive reviews since 2013. The BAI, Indecon and NewERA (the National Treasury Management Agency masquerading as consultants) have all given it the once over.

The NewERA report shows that RTE has cut costs considerably and is "currently in a constrained financial position".

That's one way of putting it. Commercial revenues, which hit a high of €245m in 2007 had slumped to €145m by 2013. RTE therefore has an issue with capital expenditure - which is vital when it comes to keeping up with the demands of a technologically driven marketplace.

Thankfully, NewERA came up with some solutions. One of these is to consider flogging the Montrose campus, or part of it.

Another asset that could be sold off is 2rn, RTE's transition network.

NewEra also suggested that RTE's in-house production teams compete for commissions with independent producers who may offer better value for money.

This would certainly be a boon to the independent production sector - RTE is currently commissioning the statutory minimum from the independent sector.

RTE, like the BBC, is under pressure in areas where its output is closest to that of commercial operators - not that we have a lot of them here.

NewERA's report earmarked cost cutting as another option. However, it recommends nothing should be done to harm the areas that aren't commercially viable. The likes of RnaG, Lyric FM and the orchestras should be protected.

And as with the BBC in Britain, funding is obviously an issue.

In 2013 Pat Rabbitte announced a universal broadcasting charge to replace the TV Licence. It was unclear whether this was a genuine attempt to move with the less TV-centric times, or to make licence fee evasion harder. Either way, it was half-baked and the plans were shelved. According to Minister Alex White the TV Licence will be here to stay until the Government has built public understanding for the change. (Get the condescension: there's nothing wrong with the plan, you plebs just don't understand it yet.)

But while politicians grapple with the nature of public service broadcasting, the public may be moving on. They are certainly being courted by a new breed of international operators dedicated to assiduous international growth. In the van of this new wave is Netflix, which announced last week that it exceeded its growth projections for Q2 of this year. It now has 65 million subscribers, is preparing plans to move consumers toward higher-priced plans in the US and will soon expand into markets like Japan, China, Spain and Italy.

"Around the world, everyone wants internet TV. It's just a better experience than linear TV," chuffed CEO Reed Hastings, announcing the results. With cocky online competition like that, it's vital that public service broadcasters are given a clear steer in relation to their remit, and a solid financial foundation to fulfil that remit.

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