The BBC Civil War

It’s a shame to see what’s happening at the BBC now. With the TV license fee not increasing anywhere near as much as the BBC had hoped, something’s got to give, and people are all trying to point the finger at anyone but themselves. Jon Humphrys from the Radio 4 Today Programme suggested killing off BBC3 and BBC4 lest any further budget cuts affect his own work, which has sparked off a furious debate about the worth of the channels. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be at BBC3 while this is on – a media frenzy is probably the worst way of figuring out a sensible solution.

Yesterday, Jeremy Paxman, whose own Newsnight is facing the same 20% budget cuts as the Today Programme, responded in Ariel:

Well, hold the front page! John Humphrys thinks his programme shouldn’thave its budget cut. That’s not even up there with Dog Bites Man.

Perhaps the Greatest Living Welshman would like to consider how clever it is for us all to start fighting like rats in a sack because this organisation apparently finds it impossible to live on an assured income of £3.5 billion a year.

Might it be wiser to ask that senior management make some strategic judgements about what we’re FOR?

In his Edinburgh Festival lecture, Paxman said:

I guess there’ll certainly be one more licence fee settlement. But can we really be certain there’ll be a fourth? Or a fifth?

In other words, how long will the BBC be funded by the universal TV licence fee? It made some sense in the past, when production and broadcasting costs were high, but nowadays, costs are lower and competition is higher. The BBC is too expensive at the low end and it can’t compete with the US at the high end – nothing they produce comes close to Lost, 24, Heroes, Deadwood, South Park or The Sopranos. Thanks to the internet, young people have both the desire and the ability to watch those programmes.

A couple of weeks ago, I logged on to BBC iPlayer to check out what was on. Only a fraction of the BBC’s broadcast output was available for download. Bafflingly, there were a couple of Doctor Who episodes from the second season. The only reason they were there was beacuse they’d been repeated in the past week.

This is absurd. Why carry over a practice that’s used to fill in the scarce gaps in BBC3’s live schedule to the internet, which has no scarcity whatsoever? The BBC has all the Doctor Who episodes digitised. It could put them all online, not just the paltry one or two that happened to be repeated.

The BBC fundamentally does not understand content. A TV is nothing more than a really big computer monitor that has in-built streaming of live, high quality video. The notion that we should be slaves to TV schedules and arbitrary channels is insane, when there are so many other ways of getting content now. Who cares whether something is on BBC2 or BBC3 when we’re all going to have Freeview and Tivo and the iPlayer in a few years?

All of this running around, trying to hoard as much money for as long as possible, completely misses the point: the BBC is quickly becoming irrelevant. That’s why the budget is decreasing.

This is the BBC’s future: they’ll keep radio. They’ll keep the news. They’ll keep the very best and most popular dramas and documentaries (e.g. Planet Earth, Top Gear, Doctor Who, Who do you think you are?, Eastenders). They’ll probably still fund some experimental programming. They may or may not decide to enter gaming, but they’ll meet some stiff opposition for anything but ‘serious games’. And that’s about it.

5 Replies to “The BBC Civil War”

  1. As I may have observed before, so far as I can tell the BBC’s charter requires it to produce programming for which there’s no commercial substitute. So, for example, one could argue that while it should carry on producing Doctor Who – do any of the British commercial channels produce anything even remotely comparable – but should stop producing Eastenders as there are entirely adequate substitutes. And I think there should be many more big ambitious documentary series.

  2. One thing I don’t quite get about the BBC is why it spends £400,000 (or was it £500,000?) per episode for a series like Heroes.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Heroes, and I haven’t even seen episodes before catching them on the BBC. I also enjoy the lack of ads, and there’s obviously more potential with the title itself.

    But… it obviously wouldn’t have been passed on by the other networks. Why spend so much on it, if the charter is to produce programming for which there’s no commercial substitute? I would say there’s probably a need to keep BBC mindshare (and thus viewer share), but that doesn’t seem to be explicitly stated by the charter.

    (Not that I’ve read the full charter. A bit long! I’m hoping I caught most of the salient points in the first couple of pages… I did find the whole “forefront of digital switchover” thing interesting though. Now there’s an argument for BBC 3 and 4!)

  3. I think the reason for both these things is that the BBC has become (groan) a British institution and therefore cannot be allowed to pass into irrelevance or indeed be overtaken in the ratings war by ITV. This is clearly a futile effort. You would think that with the passing of scheduled TV, perhaps they might try and focus on their strengths, but I see precious little of that thinking happening.

  4. A lot of people seem to decry the death of schedules, but these generally tend to be the edgerunner geeks who know the new stuff is going on, where to get it, and have the infrastructure to play it. While it’s interesting to see the popularity of, say, watching Heroes on-line, weeks before it came out in the UK, it’s still the case that the vast majority of people aren’t geeks, and the BBC isn’t primarily there for geeks.

    Geeks like to be flexible, as they’re usually pretty busy. But I’d say quite a fair few people also actually *like* scheduling – they know when something’s on, it gives them some regularity, like audiovisual fibre. For instance, I *like* the fact that Neighbours is on at 1.35pm (for now) – it’s lunch candy and I don’t care if I’ve not seen the rest of the series. On another level, scheduling = shared experiences. If everyone’s watching things at different times, you can’t talk to each other about a programme immediately afterwards (hmm, probably some interesting research on that somewhere). In fact, you’re probably going to be under threat of spoilers for a fair few weeks after.

    I think maybe TV is fragmenting, but I’m not sure it’s fragmenting as much as futurists think it is. Some “young” people download things, and a fair few to make a difference. Others are just less interested in TV, perhaps. And, I’d say, (figures would be interesting) the majority still just watch stuff the “normal” way 😉

  5. I can barely imagine what is must be like at BBC3 at the best of times having to constantly excrete programmes to keep the unhosed stupid masses partially amused between their cans of Tesco value lager-style drinks.

    There is no justification for the BBC to produce BBC3 while the commercial sector does the same thing just as badly. And what’s happening at the BBC is not a shame at all it’s a wholly good thing that people like Humphrys (who at least does his best in trying to be a serious broadcaster) is starting to attack the executives at the Beeb who are making all these absurd and expensive decisions on our behalf.

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