C4 already cooking up a deal with BBC

After yesterday’s media talkfest in Oxford, you have to wonder who the audience is for this stuff. Is it simply the press?

Media secretary Andy Burnham made it clear that broacasters had to sort out their local difficulties themselves, mainly about funding. Within hours, a solution for C4 had emerged in the form of some quite detailed plans with BBC Worldwide. Those plans have obviously been laid over weeks if not months by the BBC and C4. So it was wrong to believe, last week, that the BBC and C4 were poles apart on this issue. Burnham was already preaching to the converted when he said it made sense for C4 to seek an agreement with BBC Worldwide over its future funding.

The comment by BBC chairman Michael Lyons that the BBC shouldn’t be the Lloyd’s bank of the TV industry already seems less inflammatory. C4 has clearly been talking to the black horse for some time.

This is the key point about any BBC/C4 deal, taken from the MediaGuardian’s story yesterday: “The idea being considered would see BBC Worldwide’s UK operations, which include its 50% stake in the profitable UKTV channels business, its DVD joint venture with Woolworths, which recently collapsed, and its magazines division brought together in a commercial joint venture with Channel 4, and potentially Channel Five.”

So C4, and possibly Five, would get a share of what exactly? According to the latest BBC WW report, the BBC earned more than £83m from programme sales by the UKTV joint ventures and £274.6m from its share of all joint ventures including DVD business 2 entertain with now defunct Woolworths. Sales of magazines generated £177m. Will a slice of all this be enough to keep C4 going in its current form from 2012 onwards?

Answers on a postcard to Stephen Carter, please.

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Andy Burnham’s speech

Andy Burnham. Dept for Culture, Media and Sport

From the speech made by media secretary Andy Burnham today:

“The old media world has ended – and the sooner we say so the better.

With it must go old thinking.

But the difficulty we all have is this: it doesn’t yet feel like an era of new possibility, and change we can all believe in, but one of threat and decline.

My main message today is: we need to break out of this thinking and we can – but only if we look beyond our own backyards and see the bigger picture.

So here is our collective challenge now: can we articulate a shared vision and forge a path to the future for British public service content, however difficult it may be?

That vision is more likely to stick if it is done with goodwill, holds the broadest possible consensus and, crucially, represents a good deal for the public.

But achieving it means two things for everyone without exception: change and compromise.

In 2009, we will find out what appetite and capacity we each have for both. Whatever happens, this needs to be a year of decision.

This should not be a debate about winners and losers. If we believe in the bigger picture – preserving and building Britain’s creative strength – then everybody should have the courage to stand outside long-held positions.”

That sounds like a warning shot across the bows of broadcasters: they’ve got to reach agreement over issues like the future funding of C4. Supposedly this has always been a “light touch” government, in media at least.

Burnham again: “We will only succeed if at all times we are guided by the viewing and listening public whose voices, at times, are dangerously excluded from fevered and inward-looking industry debates.

In my view, the public reaction to the Ross-Brand episode was a raw articulation of what Ofcom has found: that quality and standards matter in a world of fragmenting media experiences.

Content made primarily for TV in the public mind still stands for quality and higher standards.”

Fair point. What he’s saying is that it doesn’t matter what the TV industry is debating – the future of public service TV, or whatever – viewers and listeners respond to what they see and hear on TV and on the radio. He slipped up by going on to talk about “content made primarily for TV” because, of course, the Ross/Brand row blew up over a Radio 2 Saturday night programme. Once again, it’s convenient to forget just how that original programme was taken out of context and broadcast, online via YouTube and in newspapers, to an audience who decided to get offended.

On with the speech. Burnham welcomes Ofcom’s latest offering on public service broadcasting and “would like to thank Ed Richards and his teams for carefully guiding us through a necessarily exhaustive process and for rooting this entire debate where it needs to be – in the views of the public.” Unbelievable. Where is the evidence that Ofcom’s report reflects the views of the public? In the research I cited yesterday, which shows just how little “the public” know about the funding of TV?

Blah, blah, blah. He re-states the importance of having more than one public service broadcaster (ie, not just the BBC); he says good, impartial regional and national news is important, as is great British content including children’s programming, drama, current affairs and factual stuff.

Good news for indies. Burnham made a point of saying one of his priorities is: “Supporting and promoting independent producers. We don’t celebrate enough these British indies, whose flow of good ideas has made such an impact on viewing in the UK and exports around the world.”

He wants a strong BBC but he wants it to be a “supporting hand under others, rather than build itself ever bigger.” He wants to see the BBC and ITV develop proposed partnerships in regional news. He wants things done locally, helping people get into the media industry.

Then to the meaty stuff. ITV is being let off some of its public service obligations. So C4 should “balance the BBC in core public service programming”. All this we know. He said it’s time for “a new structure” for C4 and “a new more specific remit” (another one?). Then he said all the stuff about it making sense to look at BBC Worldwide.

His conclusion was “that the investment the public already makes in broadcasting can be made to work harder on its behalf”. That means no extra money for the broadcasting industry.

What happens next is that broadcast minister Stephen Carter will publish a report on Digital Britain, which will say a lot more about broadband than was mentioned today. This will be consulted on and a final Digital Britain report will be published by the summer. So, in Burnham’s words “we are only weeks away from clear decisions”. Thank Christ for that.

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The future of TV: the government must decide

Family & remote control. Ofcom

The TV industry may not agree with Gerhard Zeiler’s assessment of Channel 4 and Five being “complementary broadcasters” (the cultures of the two places are radically different, as is their history), but C4 changed the day it started selling its own advertising in 1993.

From that point on, its public service remit has been in tension with the need to earn money and operate commercially. C4’s commitment to making loss-making, public service programmes such as Dispatches and Channel 4 News is therefore already being tested by its need to survive commercially. A tie-up with BBC Worldwide would not end this commercial tension but simply bring in more cash, just as the end of the ad sales arrangement with ITV did in 1998. That money went on digital channels Film4, E4 and so on. A merger with Five would also perpetuate the tension between public service output and commercial revenue. But at least the new entity would have a larger share of TV viewing and advertising. In these days of doing fewer things better it seems the most realistic option.

The public service brodcasting review which has come to a head today – like the countless others before it – has taken place in and among the TV industry with the general public still not having much of a clue about how broadcasters are owned and/or funded. Ofcom insists it has done “detailed audience research”. But look at Annex 8 of the report on public service broadcasting in which Ofcom tells us it interviewed 2,004 people in July and August last year.

When asked unprompted what the licence fee pays for, less than half of respondents mentioned any aspect of the BBC. In other words, a huge swathe of people – 56% in this survey – do not automatically link the BBC with the licence fee. Only 2% of people in Ofcom’s research correctly said the licence fee pays for all of the BBC’s services. Far more, 24%, mentioned TV channels/programming/TV technology generally in connection with the licence fee.

This gives a truer picture of the level of ignorance about how TV is funded than the results of the next question where people were prompted with a list of services that the licence fee could pay for. It’s far easier to answer a multiple choice question than an open question where you have to supply your own answers. When prompted with a list, 87% of people mentioned at least one BBC service (mostly BBC 1 and BBC 2) when asked what the licence fee pays for. Only 37% knew all of the BBC’s services are paid for by the licence fee, even when prompted with the right answer.

Against this background, it’s impossible to argue about what the public “want” from public service broadcasting. The public show what they want by using their remote controls: they watch BBC 1 and ITV 1 in their droves; they make programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity and Big Brother “popular”; they don’t watch C4 News and Dispatches in huge numbers. That is the reality and only a certain amount of tinkering with the format of public service programming will change it. There are just too many other things to do and too many other ways of getting information.

So the public won’t care or particularly miss out if C4 and Five merge. Unless C4 suddenly stops selling advertising altogether, it must continue to behave commercially however it’s set up. The government should now decide what it believes will give the viewing public the best of all options in future: the popular and the worthy. Over to you, media secretary Andy Burnham, who is giving a speech tomorrow.

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The future of television: right here, next week

Mark Thompson. BBC Michael Grade. ITV

Andy Burnham, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport (let’s call him the media secretary, eh?) is due to make a speech next week at a media get-together in Oxford where, it’s widely thought, he will outline the government’s thinking on public service TV.

Ofcom’s been doing its own work on this and will report its findings soon, too. And of course the main public service broadcasters (the BBC, ITV and Channel 4) have been lobbying hard for what they want. The last-ditch efforts came out in newspaper articles at the beginning of this week, penned by TV execs and their ranks of public affairs officials. First off, BBC director general Mark Thompson wrote something for the FT about how it would be a good idea if C4 and Five merged (but he would say that, because he came up with the idea when he was running C4 a few years ago). As it happens, I agree with him. Then on Tuesday ITV chairman Michael Grade wrote something for the Daily Telegraph in which he called again for a relaxation in the many rules that apply to ITV.

The media industry is waiting with baited breath to find out what Mr Burnham says. Meanwhile it is screamingly obvious that noone in the real world knows anything about this high-level moving and shaking to determine what our mainstream TV channels will look like in the future. Bookmark this site and return next Thursday to find out the shape of things to come.

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