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Back to the Future: The BBC is still dead

March 2nd, 2010 · 7 Comments

Biff Tannen: And uh, where’s my reports?
George McFly: Uh, well, I haven’t finished those up yet, but you know I… I figured since they weren’t due till…
Biff Tannen: Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly. Think! I gotta have time to get ‘em retyped. Do you realize what would happen if I hand in my reports in your handwriting? I’ll get fired. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would ya? Would ya?
George McFly: Of course not, Biff. Nah, I wouldn’t want that to happen. Now, look. I’ll, uh, finish those reports on up tonight and I’ll run ‘em on over first thing tomorrow. All right?
Biff Tannen: Eh, not too early. I sleep in Saturdays. Oh, McFly, your shoe’s untied.
[jabs his finger up to George's face]

Biff Tannen: Don’t be so gullible, McFly. Got the place fixed up nice-o, McFly.

Amid all the anguish and strife surrounding the BBC’s Strategic Review and the news that 6 Music, BBC Switch, and BBC Blast are going to be axed, I couldn’t help think of an alternate version of Back to the Future:

Biff Tannen: …Where’s my money?

George McFly: Uh, well, I haven’t finished cutting those websites yet, but you know I… I figured since people liked them and they didn’t cost so much…

Biff: Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly. Think! I gotta have those paywalls. Do you realize what would happen if you keep on putting that public service content out for free? I’ll get fired. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would ya? Would ya?

George: Of course not, Biff. Nah, I wouldn’t want that to happen. Now, look. I’ll, uh, cut the online budget by 25% and I’ll only make sites that are about TV and radio programmes. All right?

Biff: Eh, that’s okay for a start, we’ll see how it works. Oh, McFly, your shoe’s untied.

[jabs his finger up to George's face]

Biff: Don’t be so gullible, McFly.

No prizes for guessing who the BBC is in this exchange (or Rupert Murdoch).

Most of the coverage of the Strategic Review has been about the audience efforts to save 6 Music; clearly it’s a station that many people are very attached to. However, the money saved by killing 6 Music is only £9 million, or 1.5% of BBC Radio’s £587 million budget. It’s baffling that the BBC would choose to kill 6 Music given its steadily growing audience and listener hours; surely, if money was the issue, they could have found that 1.5% among the other stations? But one might imagine that 6 Music was chosen on purpose, precisely to generate this kind of audience backlash and prove that the BBC actually does make valuable and popular content; but that’s just speculation.

Still, even if 6 Music were to be killed – which would be a shame – it would hardly spell the end for BBC Radio. But imagine if BBC Radio’s budget were cut, not by 1.5%, but by 25% – that’s £147 million. Here’s what they’d have to chop:

  • Radio 1
  • Radio 2
  • Radio 3

and they’d still need to find £2 million to make up the shortfall. A 25% cut would cripple BBC Radio.

Or let’s look at TV, which the BBC spends £2.335 billion on. A 25% cut would require savings of £584 million, and for that, you’d need to axe:

  • BBC 2 (including Horizon, The Thick of It, Mastermind, University Challenge, Songs of Praise, Newsnight…)

Alternatively, you could kill everything other than BBC 1 and BBC 2, which would mean saying goodbye to:

  • BBC 3
  • BBC 4
  • CBBC
  • CBeebies
  • BBC Alba (BBC Scotland)
  • BBC News 24
  • BBC Parliament
  • BBC Red Button
  • BBC HD

Either way, the BBC’s TV operation would be devastated.

The BBC's Budget (click to zoom in)

The BBC's Budget (click to zoom in)

Thankfully, no-one is proposing 25% cuts in TV or Radio. No, they’re just proposing it for BBC Online.

According to the Strategic Review (PDF), “the number of sections on the site (its ‘top-level directories’, in the form bbc.co.uk/sitename) will be halved by 2012, with many sites closed and others consolidated,” and “the BBC will spend 25% less on BBC Online by 2013, with a corresponding reduction in staffing levels.”

Some of these sections have been named, such as /celebdaq and /sportdaq (stock exchange games). I was amused to see /jamiekane among one of the games listed – it was the BBC’s first ARG, and it hasn’t been playable for at least a year, so I can’t imagine that shutting it down would save any money. Other sections include /bbcpartners and /openweekend – why not visit them and judge for yourself the millions that have undoubtedly been saved by axing them?

Oh, and “some sites will be consolidated under larger audience-facing propositions, such as /history or /drama e.g., /spooks, /robinhood.” So, does this mean that the Spooks and Robin Hood online content will be cut, or is this just some bizarre trick to reduce the number of top-level directories?

The fact is, the BBC have been remarkably vague about how they’re going to save at least £30 million from Online. I see two possible reasons for this:

  1. The BBC does not have the guts to tell us what’s really going to be cut (and believe me, it’s going to be more painful than closing sites that are already closed)
  2. The BBC have no freaking clue what they’re going to cut

Either way, it suits them not to be specific, so that their audience won’t have a chance to protest much. You might think I’m getting overwrought about this, but imagine if the BBC had announced a 25% cut in TV or Radio, but didn’t specify where those cuts were going to land – well, it’d be absurd and insulting.

The simple fact is that a 25% cut in BBC Online spending will effectively kill much of its services and content, and there are bound to be incredibly popular and valuable things among those. It’s common for people, even within the BBC, to say, “Oh, there’s a lot of shit on the BBC’s website, there’s no problem in cutting it,” and no doubt there is. But you could say the same about any radio station or TV channel – there’s plenty of shit programmes in those, and we’re not talking about cutting them by anything close to 25%.

One response is that cuts to BBC Online don’t matter as much, because fewer people use the BBC’s website. Nonsense. This would make sense if Online’s budget were in the hundreds of millions or billions, but it’s £177 million (or, confusingly, £122 million by some accounts). The lower number is on par with BBC 3’s £115 million, and Radio 4’s £109 million; I don’t know which of the three has the biggest audience, because they’re all pretty damn big.

But what really bothers me about the Strategic Review are its reasons for slashing BBC Online:

The internet then is not an optional extra: it is the future for the BBC, just as it is for so many other organisations. But precisely because the BBC’s online services have become so vital to delivering its purposes, they must be held to new and higher standards of distinctiveness, efficiency and openness. Under this strategy, BBC Online will create new content for the web only where it fits the five content priorities, delivers audience impact and is of demonstrably high quality and distinctiveness. The site’s quality and consistency will be improved with the closure or consolidation of half of its main sections; its efficiency stepped up; and its links to the rest of the web increased radically.

Two words: Bull. Shit.

How can the BBC say, with a straight face, that the internet is “the future for the BBC” while cutting its budget by 25%? Exactly how do you improve the site’s quality and consistency by closing half the sections? If it were that simple, why not cut everything the BBC does by 25%? I would be more satisfied if Mark Thompson was honest and said, “You know what, we just don’t give a damn about Online,” instead of these totally insulting weasel-words.

And I’ll tell you which “other organisations” see the internet as their future – News International. And if they don’t have to compete with free public service content, all the better. But hey, the commercial sector can do the BBC’s job just as well, right? Right?

Two months ago, when the BBC Trust announced the beginning of the Strategic Review, I wrote a post called The Death of the BBC, arguing the case for the importance of creating public service content online, and predicting the slow, agonising descent of the BBC into irrelevance if it didn’t invest in the internet and give its commissioners the freedom to do their jobs. I hoped that it might make a small difference. Obviously it didn’t.

Tags: bbc

7 responses so far ↓

  • Paul Bennun // Mar 2, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Wow.

  • AVI // Mar 2, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Adrian,
    Good to see you back to blogging, and another well written post.
    I wish I had the time to reply in detail, and maybe I will sooner or later – but intrincisally, do you think the BBC should exist, and if you do, how should it be funded? Is it really fair to have an additional tax (the licence fee) which subsidies some 52 local radio stations, 5 national ones, the DAB stations, the web services, the TV channels… etc etc.? Is it really fair to put these enourmous barriers in the way of commercial competitors seeking to serve the same audiences?
    The BBC’s local radio stations effectively destroy a wealth of meaningful competition in the local radio market’ they effectively prevent the commercial companies from delivering a better services. That’s not really helpful – and we’re all taxed for the privilege!

    Aside from all that, quite what the BBC thinks it is doing with it’s commercial arm I’m not too sure. Why does a public service broadcaster need to spend £70m on buying Lonely Planet? Hey, if they sold it for what they paid for it, that’s more than two years worth of cuts to Online that they needn’t bother with, on a cost basis.

    IMO, not only is the BBC a somewhat bloated organisation resistant to change, but it is about time to start to ask just how much we should be subsidising it in the first place…

    AVI

  • AVI // Mar 2, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    I meant to add – it’s worth noting, w.r.t. BBC 6 Music, that Absolute Radio has said they would bid to buy 6 Music it from the BBC. Note that Absolute, at the current time, half twice the listeners… and half the budget.

    So, hang on – if the private sector come along and reckon they can run it for half the cost… and they are willing to pay for the privilege of doing so… what’s not to like? (as Mark Wadsworth puts it here: http://markwadsworth.blogspot.com/2010/02/weekend-corporatist-fun.html )

    AVI

  • AVI // Mar 2, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    forgive the typos. That should have read:

    I meant to add – it’s worth noting, w.r.t. BBC 6 Music, that Absolute Radio has said that they would bid to buy 6 Music from the BBC. Note that Absolute, at the current time, has twice the listeners… and half the budget.

    So, hang on – if the private sector comes along and reckons that they can run it for half the cost… and they are willing to pay for the privilege of doing so… what’s not to like? (as Mark Wadsworth puts it here: http://markwadsworth.blogspot.com/2010/02/weekend-corporatist-fun.html )

    AVI

  • Chris // Mar 3, 2010 at 9:53 am

    I never thought I’d see the day when I actually thought: “I wish John Birt was back in charge.” But that’s what happened yesterday. At least Birth genuinely invested in the future. Thompson just calls his plans “Creative Future” and hopes that’ll do.

    For years, many staff at the BBC have been privately hoping that Thompson knows what he’s about, even through all the swingeing cuts.

    I think a lot of people finally had to come to the realisation yesterday that he knows shit, has no backbone and will be the death of the BBC.

  • JA // Mar 3, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    I was going to write something on this, but when you read something that’s all your thoughts and more, well… I’m going to go have a sandwich instead.

  • H&K London’s Blog » Blog Archive » Web Curios // Mar 4, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    [...] A Smart Perspective On BBC Cuts – The big story of the week, at least amongst generic media wankers in the UK, has been over the BBC Strategy Review, published on Tuesday, which recommended a whole raft of cuts to the Corporation’s output to cut costs – most notably the axing of BBC 6Music and the BBC Asian Network, as well as a scaling back of non-programme related content on the BBC website as a whole. Lots has been written on this already, but the above blog post by Adrian Hon is a thought-provoking summary of why the ’savings’ in terms of BBC Online are a nonsense. [...]

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