Top-slicing the Beeb: Clueless execs get busy

Some quangos, like jellyfish, seem to be able to reproduce asexually. It’s what they live to do. What this means is that without any contact, parthenogenesis occurs and they simply spawn off a little version of themselves, which may grow as large as its parent. Britain’s uber-regulator Ofcom, I learned this week, definitely falls into this class. I just hadn’t realised how badly it longs to plop out lots of baby Ofcoms.

Ofcom recently proposed that the BBC should share the licence fee with commercial rivals. But with one exception, none of the commercial rivals actually want this to happen – which leaves Ofcom keenest of all on the idea.

At the Westminster Media Forum debate on Wednesday, executives from the top of British TV management discussed the regulator’s review into Public Service Broadcasting, in which “top-slicing” the licence fee is The Big Idea.

As we discussed here, Ofcom gets itself into terrible difficulties trying to define the subject. It can’t decide what “Broadcasting” is in the Noo-Media era, nor what “Public Service” is, either. This culminates in some very strange conclusions, such as lauding Symantec’s Anti-Virus help page as a very modern example of Public Service Broadcasting.

Amongst other things I also learned is how this purportedly “blue sky consultation” contrives to leave most of the interesting options out of the debate. Which isn’t surprising when you see how few people there are at top of the public service TV business – they all simply swap jobs every few years – and how almost all of the Professorial “independent experts” are really just part of the furniture. Shafts of insight were as rare as rude words in church. But more of that in a moment. As for top-slicing, where do they stand?

Take your positions

Naturally the BBC regards Ofcom’s review as an attack, or “pickpocketing”. In a speech on Tuesday, BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons said the licence fee is “not a back pocket for government or regulators or anyone else for that matter. It is not a spare pot of cash, a contingency fund, to be raided every time there is a cause, however worthy, with a hole in its balance sheet and a media flag attached.”

In other words, it’s the Ark of the Covenant, and the BBC alone is trusted with the sacred duty to spend it. That’s not so surprising – what is rather startling is that neither ITV nor Five want a slice of your money.

“We’re not asking for money, we’re asking for freedom,” said ITV’s director of strategy Carolyn Fairbairn. She agreed that the old model no longer worked, and that a multi-channel world meant only a fraction of revenue – around ten per cent – was being invested in programming by the newer channels. Magnus Brooke, ITV’s directory of regulatory affairs, added that ITV would be tied by bureaucracy and compromised by public money.

Five echoed this theme, with its regulation exec Martin Stott chastising “an experiment in intervention that may or may not succeed”. He also criticised the lack of accountability of a licence fee diffused between commercial broadcasters, and thought that by the time the cost of the additional bureaucrats had been totted up there wouldn’t be a great deal of extra money for programmes. So you might as well give the money to the BBC.

BSkyB, which receives no public subsidy and has no public service broadcasting obligations, also thought it was a daft idea. There wasn’t really a problem with a dearth of material, what with shows like Ross Kemp in Afghanistan, said Sky’s director of corporate affairs Graham McWilliam. Sky’s subscription highbrow arts channel was a good example of the market meeting the demand, he added. None of Ofcom’s four proposed options involved less regulation, McWilliam pointed out – they all involved more. Jellyfish syndrome, again.

Naturally Channel 4’s chief executive Andy Duncan disagreed. Duncan’s main problem was not looking too chuffed at the suggestion of top-slicing, since Channel 4 is the biggest beneficiary.

His argument was primarily economic – the TV advertising market is shrinking, and C4 is great value, since it doesn’t have to pay a dividend to shareholders. (ITV also points out the looming crisis in ad spend, but would prefer to have the public service obligations lifted so it can compete with Sky, rather than get a cash hand-out.)

What does a TV executive look like?

It’s hard not to notice when you look at these top execs and policy makers that they all share similar backgrounds. Dame Patricia Hodgson ran the Independent Television Commission – she’s now on the BBC Trust. Ofcom’s lead on the review, Peter Philips, was head of corporate planning at the BBC. C4’s finance director was the BBC’s finance director. And the aforementioned Fairbairn, a McKinseyite management consultant, has sashayed from being Director of Corporate Planning at the BBC, to the same job at ITV. She stopped off at 10 Downing Street, from which Ed Richards, Ofcom chief, sprang…

No wonder that when they see a hairline crack in opinion, it looks like the Grand Canyon.

It was Kip Meek, former Ofcom No.2, who pointed out that for all the talk of “plurality” there was actually very little when you looked at the output of the public service news organisations. Not, he said, when you compared them to Fox or Al-Jazeera for example. Which is very true – when these news outlets “compete”, it’s to elbow each other out of the way to get the most melancholy shot of a polar bear. They won’t tell you that polar bear populations are actually doing just fine.

And it was a movie distributor (of quality documentaries), Tim Sparke, who dared describe most public service broadcasting as rubbish, or “fast food”, with thin ideas stretched into whole series.

Sparke’s right – the big broadcasters have lost their ambition of making challenging programs that make people think (rather than agree with a thought or feeling). This is a real heresy, and challenges us to compare the memory of the public service broadcasting we grew up with (Morecambe and Wise Christmas shows, The World About Us, Dennis Potter) with the reality of prime-time today, where we find the BBC – with a few honorable exceptions – is one long advertisement for itself, punctuated with glossy cooking and property shows. No wonder the reality of the BBC today is unbearable for many so of the pundits, that they prefer the sentimental fiction – the paternalism and the smell of Ovaltine – that emanates from the constructed memory.

Not so for Sparke, but then he has never worked at the BBC – and so can’t have had the chip implant.

Hands off my dial

Alas, the pundits and “citizens groups” are even more myopic and interbred than the cosy coterie of TV executives. There’s the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, which was set up 25 years ago in response to the prospect of The Archers disappearing from Radio 4. (Seriously.) Speaking at Westminster on their behalf was Ivan Gaber, who makes programmes for the BBC.

Journalist Steve Barnett, who chaired one panel, can be relied on to portray the BBC as a handicapped, put-upon contender; as can another journalist, Maggie Brown, a sort of Diet Polly Toynbee.

But the most vociferous ankle-biter, ever-present at such events, is marketing advisor Patrick Barham. He hectors and interrupts panellists to announce that the licence fee is far too low, and he’d gladly sell his house and all its possessions each year to pay for the Beeb. I’m exaggerating, but not by much.

(In 2004, the BBC rewarded his loyalty with a hefty digital consultancy.)

Three of the above four are “Professors” (Bedford, Westminster and LBS respectively), and all can be relied at such events on to keep the debate on tightly-defined territory. Narratives which may see the BBC expand on a global scale, for example, or which question any of its sacred duties, are simply excluded. Time and again they presented polling evidence that the current licence fee arrangement was for the best.

But people are voting with their feet. Or thumbs. And this Ofcom correctly identifies as an issue worthy of public debate.

Martin Lejeune found himself being attacked from all directions, but raised a very simple fact – that a third of the public consumes less than five hours of BBC services a week.

The panic this provoked from the audience was fascinating to see.

A bloke from the production staff union BECTU, who was so loud he didn’t need a microphone and who deafened everyone when he did, effectively called Dejeune a fifth columnist. Another attendee, whose affiliation I didn’t catch, argued that if the BBC’s revenues were cut, then it would be crippled, because its cost base had to remain the same. Deductive reasoning, anyone?

Almost the last word went to independent producer Alex Graham, who swotted away a point by Reg favourite Anthony Lilley of Nathan Barley Quango notoriety. Graham’s company recently completed the amazing series The Genius of Photography, and he’s a scourge of reality TV.

Lilley did his usual Fear Pitch of sub-Jeff Jarvisisms, by talking about the “attention crisis”. As ever, the answer to the crisis of the dwindling TV audience is “employ New Media people like me!”.

(At Westminster Forums, panellists write their own bios – I’ve been on a couple. And I couldn’t help noticing that the only person with a bio longer than Anthony Lilley’s epic contribution was Steve Barnett.)

But Graham pointed out that the answer to the “attention crisis” (ie, people finding something better to do than watch terrible TV) was quite simple – make great programmes.

Do you think it might work?

Alas the Beeb’s crisis of confidence is now so great, it’s unable to do what it should, and can do very well. But even more of a problem, I think, is that its supporters prefer a fictional, nostalgic, saccharine version of the BBC rooted in a bygone era, the one that really only exists in their imaginations.

They think they’re helping the BBC, but really they’re helping kill it. Slowly and painfully.

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