Leading article: The BBC must innovate to survive

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The Independent Culture
WHAT IS surprising is not that fewer people listen to the Today programme than used to, but that 4 million still do. There are more radio programmes than there used to be - including the BBC's own Radio 5 Live, which is excellent even if you do not like sport - and a lot of morning television, too. Digital radio and digital TV mean there will soon be lots, lots more. In this context it should be obvious (a) that the BBC will continue to lose audience share, both in radio and TV, and (b) that this will not necessarily reflect badly on the overall quality of BBC programmes.

So far, all the running in the debate about the BBC's future has been made by conservatives, who are irritated by changes to their favourite programmes or who regard the BBC's schedules as part of the infrastructure of their own lives. Thus James Boyle's changes to Radio 4, while handled with a more deft public relations strategy than previous reforms, have been attacked from all quarters, and yesterday's "disappointing" figures will be greeted with a big "told you so" from many of the critics.

But, as David Aaronovitch argued on this page yesterday, the BBC's wider problem is not that it changes too much but that it changes too little. The only way the Corporation is going to survive in the more competitive, multi-channel market is by being innovative, something it is only intermittently good at. Radio 1 changed, and should have been praised for recovering its lost credibility in rock music, not blamed for losing listeners. Nor should the BBC be blamed for losing the rights to Test cricket to Channel 4. To be sure, BBC Sport has adjusted its assumption of comprehensive coverage too slowly to the realities of the new market, but the point is that the BBC had to justify using licence-payers' money to outbid a channel that would keep cricket accessible to all.

Time after time, the private sector has shown that it can deliver many of the so-called core functions of public service broadcasting better than the BBC. To take one small example, Radio 3 should look at the classical music radio station run by the The New York Times, WQXR. (Perhaps The Independent should set up its own station.)

If the BBC cannot make its case as a public service broadcaster in a multi-channel market, especially in news, current affairs and education, it cannot make the case for the licence fee. But it cannot make the public service case unless it stops being defensive about the fact that its audience share will decline - and unless it innovates, innovates, innovates.