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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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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Plurality

Lay readers will not know what I mean by this. It’s a word that’s being bandied about everywhere in the debate about the future of public service broadcasting (something else which lay, non-media, people are bemused about – see below).

Plurality means more than one. So let’s just say more than one instead of plurality. It’s easier to say and is three syllables rather than four.

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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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