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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Welcome back, Cannes-lubbers

Welcome home, everybody who’s been to Mipcom and couldn’t stand the whole week out there. I remember it well: the thrill as you touch down in Nice then taxi or chopper to Cannes on, say, Sunday. You start with a few (free) glasses of champagne somewhere and end the night with G&Ts dropping like stones on the terrasse outside the Martinez. By Wednesday night, you can’t wait to get home to your own bed and a warming mug of Ovaltine.

So what have you missed? The BBC and Ofcom have thrown a few punches at each other over public service broadcasting. And the BBC has said it could move production of shows including Casualty out of London. Oh, Casualty is already made in Bristol, you say? Yes, well the BBC wants to move it slightly further away from London to Cardiff. It’s part of being an industry goody goody, supporting creative talent in the regions while ITV threatens to walk away from public service TV forever.

So how will commercial media players in the regions – from newspapers to ITV newsrooms to drama directors – react to the BBC’s renewed love affair with “out of London”? Does it go against the BBC’s professed aim to partner other organisations and instead suggest the BBC might be more of a competitor to people already doing these things in the regions?

This was a question put to BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons on Wednesday. This was the answer: “I do believe Scottish people will be pleased if the BBC ups its game in Scotland. This isn’t a cosy deal between PSBs. It has to be rooted in what the public want.” So there you have it. The BBC will continue to be a competitor, not a partner, where it leads to a better deal for viewers and/or listeners. Sounds fair enough to me.

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BBC chairman finishes lunch, despite pressing policy issues

I’ve hot-footed it back from the Smoke, to tell you what you won’t read elsewhere about the Broadcasting Press Guild (BPG) lunch yesterday with BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons.

For the uninitiated, the BPG is a club – not exactly cosy, but warmish – of journalists and other hacks who write variously about TV, radio and other ‘broadcasting’, possibly new media, things. Every month, someone from the broadcasting industry is invited to a lunch with BPG members where that person is grilled on the subjects of the day and everything is on the record. (Except if you’re called Greg Dyke, when you might assume inter-course small talk is off the record. It isn’t and you could get in trouble if you kick back and suggest some of your on-screen presenters aren’t as hot as they might be. Since Greg, noone has done that.)

Back to Sir Michael. I shall tell you that he stood to address a few opening remarks to the assembled journalists. Normally it’s all quite friendly and we make a show of being relaxed, so noone stands and everyone apart from the guest and his or her PR minder has a glass or two of wine. Standing was unusual.
He also started by saying: “The moment we’re at means I’ve come along with a speech to deliver to you.” By this he presumably meant something like: “ITV chairman Michael Grade had a platform to make a speech last week. I want to respond so I’m turning this lunch into a platform.” So far, so good. At least the daily hacks knew they’d have a story and everyone took the lids off their Bics.

The gist of Lyons’ speech you’ll have read elsewhere, unless you don’t work in the media and are reading this out of loyalty to me and my blog stats – in which case, I love you and promise to give more hilarious insights into my life as a yummy mummy soon. I’m just working out the media/mum balance, for commercial purposes.

The gist was that ITV should remain a public service broadcaster but the BBC is keen on partnerships, as it’s said before, particularly if it means the BBC can keep hold of all its licence fee money in future and not have to share it with Channel 4 or, God forbid, parts of ITV.

But Lyons he did say, in questions after the speech, that the BBC might be interested in supplying regional news to ITV as a third party, as long as cause problems such as having a too-dominant news provider in the country and didn’t dent the BBC’s independence. ITN has for years supplied national news to both ITV and C4, so I don’t see why the BBC can’t help ITV with its regional news, albeit perhaps through a joint-venture arrangement set up under the auspices of the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. I think BBC director general Mark Thomspon has more or less said as much and no doubt greater brains than mine are working on this.

The other thing you should know about Lyons is that he said: “The BBC does a bloody good job on children’s [programming],” referring in particular to Cbeebies. Of course, I agree and told him it’s the cheapest form of childcare there is – which is true, at £135.50 a year for a service that airs 12 hours a day, seven days of the week. Even an eastern European au pair costs more. Lyons also swore, and in my book that makes him a good egg.

Finally, you should know that Sir Michael managed to finish his lunch of roasted fillets of sea bass on a bed of braised lettuce with baby peas and pancetta despite having to give his speech while the rest of us were tucking into the fish and answering questions for over 45 minutes when the rest of us had finished. For once in his corporate life, he was effectively being bought lunch by a group of journalists so, quite rightly, he didn’t want to waste a mouthful.

Lyons said lots of other things which I’ll summarise for those of you still reading. He said he thought Ofcom’s proposals on the future of public service broadcasting don’t “encompass the full range” of what’s possible. He agreed with Steve Hewlett, who has asked why ITV doesn’t try harder to sell advertising around its regional news and thus make it more commercially viable. He accepted the revenue “may not be big” but it’s worth exploring. He said he thought “the prospect of top-slicing the licence fee has receded dramatically” because Ofcom got such a “resounding” no to the idea in the first phase of its PSB consultation and because Ofcom has since narrowed its case down to focus on a funding gap of £145m to £235m. And finally Lyons said ITV “is still a very important part of the PSB ecology but the impression has been given at one stage that it could be ignored and you could pump up C4 to do the same job”.

So ITV isn’t off the hook over PSB. Lyons found a platform on which to say that and the behind-the-scenes lobbying by ITV, C4 and the BBC will be frenetic between now and Christmas, so that everyone gets more or less what they want or can be contented with in January. Good luck, guys.

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Brinkmanship

To save you all rushing to consult your tattered dictionaries (what do you mean, you don’t even own one?), I’ll give you the definition from my Concise Oxford English dictionary which says: “brinkmanship, art of advancing to the very brink of war but not engaging in it”.

I used this word this week in an article for Thursday’s edition of Broadcast magazine about a speech by ITV chairman Michael Grade in which he said the media regulator Ofcom must either give ITV what it wants or face the possibility that ITV will no longer be a public service broadcaster in future. Instead it would operate purely commercially like Sky, for instance.

Specifically, ITV is discussing changes on advertising, arrangements for network programming and regional news and something technical called the CRR – a mechanism by which it gets paid less for advertising if its ratings go down.

To me, the suggestion that ITV might just throw in the public service broadcasting towel if it doesn’t get what it wants looks very like brinkmanship. Advancing to the point of all out war with Ofcom, without actually declaring war. A declaration of war in this context would presumably be to simply hand back the public service broadcasting licence, without faffing about on the brink first.

Anyway, the word was ruled too inflammatory or something or other and we chose another form of words to question how serious Grade is about ITV becoming fully commercial in future, with no obligation to air particular amounts of UK-originated programming or news from the various nations and English regions. You’ll have to read Broadcast later this week to see just how scintillating this is all panning out to be.

Suffice to say here, that various broadcasters – ITV as described above and Channel 4, which last week ditched plans to launch new digital radio stations – are turning up the pressure on Ofcom to act quickly and spell out what it expects of so-called public service broadcasters in future. The whole subject (PSB, to policy wonks) is under review by Ofcom and two government departments. Pronouncements are expected early in the new year. But with advertising dropping like a stone as the economy apparently ploughs head-forth into recession, broadcasters who earn their living from advertising (principally ITV and C4) are panicking somewhat.

As C4 Andy Duncan told a special edition of the MediaGuardian podcast last week: “This is not a time for dithering. This is a time for action.” Sounds like he’s on the brink, too.

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Public service broadcasting: the public’s view

Note to the industry: my partner, an Oxford-educated man who watches a bit of TV although admittedly spends most of his time reading books and doing other things, was surprised to hear that C4 is a publicly owned corporation. He thought it was a sort of BBC 2 to ITV’s BBC 1, which I guess it was when it launched.

In this context, Ofcom’s protracted public service broadcasting review plus the work of the government convergence think tank not to mention the legions of consultants and public affairs execs beavering away on the future of public service broadcasting look like the most colossal waste of time, energy and money. There’s a limit to the amount of detail that’s needed here. The public doesn’t know much or care – Ofcom’s latest pronouncement on public service broadcasting showed less than half of 2,000 people mentioned the BBC when asked what the TV licence fee is for. The licence fee currently exclusively funds the BBC.

As for C4, it is caught between two stools – commercially funded and therefore the home of Big Brother but meant to be public service minded and therefore expected to make Dispatches. Just privatise the thing and see if Dispatches sinks or floats – as a documentary strand it’s had to change with the times anyway and is a world away from erstwhile ITV strand World in Action, for instance, because of the market which has created so many alternative distractions, on TV and elsewhere.

That’s my succinct and rather glib answer to the question of what public service broadcasting should look like in a couple of years’ time. And keep fighting for the BBC, with its complex mix of the popular and potentially commercial and the less popular and commercially unsustainable.

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Ofcom inches forward with interminable review, public doesn’t care

Not the greatest of headlines but a pretty accurate summary, IMHO, of Ofcom’s announcement today about the second phase in its ongoing review of public service broadcasting.

If you don’t work in TV or, to be more precise, in the public affairs department of a British broadcaster, you can’t possibly care about this stuff so I won’t go into too much detail here. The announcement is part of an incredibly tedious – though, it has to be said, thorough – process to decide what so-called public service olibgations the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Five should have in the future when we ALL have digital TV.

Ofcom is really taking its time over this one. In April, the regulator came up with four options for the future of public service broadcasting. These included firstly evolution of the current state of play, where all four major broadcasters have some PSB role but perhaps with more money and fewer obligations for the commercially funded ITV, C4 and Five. Secondly Ofcom proposed a BBC-only model, where the BBC would be the only public service broadcaster. Thirdly, Ofcom foresaw a situation where the BBC and C4 are the main public service broadcasters; and finally the regulator suggested a world where anyone, including but not limited to ITV, C4 and Five, could bid for money to make public service content.

Today, after thinking about this for almost five months, Ofcom has simply dropped the BBC-only option. The BBC will not be the only public service broadcaster when all our televisions are digital and receiving hundreds of channels in 2012 (the date when analogue TV will cease to exist).

That’s a long time to come up with not a lot. Meanwhile C4 wants to know exactly how it will get help with the £150m it reckons it will be short of by 2012 and ITV wants to cut its commitment to regional news bulletins, increase the amount of ads it carries and change the way its ad sales are linked to ratings, so the price of airtime doesn’t go down as ratings go down.

To be fair to Ofcom, today’s announcement does include some detail about ITV’s regional news. It looks like 15 regional ITV news services will be cut to nine, saving around £40m a year. The NUJ is predictably up in arms, saying 500 jobs are on the line.

And Ofcom has today put a figure on the cost of ensuring that the BBC isn’t the only broadcaster making public service TV, radio and so on in future. That cost is somewhere between £145m and £235m. But that seems a pretty big margin to me. Couldn’t they get their figures a little tighter over the course of five months’ policy-wonking?

There is so much detail and lobbying behind the scenes of this review that it’s impossible to do it justice. Suffice to say, Ofcom has merely inched forward today and we’ll have to wait until next year – when several other consultations have also come to a head – to get any real idea of what the future holds. Oh, to be a regulator, now that recession is near.

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