Andy Duncan On Broadcasting
The BBC needs to remember that we're all in this together we're all in this together
Monday 01 May 2006
Channel 4 and the BBC are part of the same broadcasting family. We may be the black-sheep, teenage nephew to strait-laced suburban Auntie, but similar public service DNA runs through our veins.
As with most families, there are two sides to this relationship. You won't often find Channel 4 joining the chorus of disapproval that accompanies every initiative or utterance from the Broadcasting House boardroom; we support a strong BBC, funded fully to carry out its public service purposes. We look forward to continuing to compete with it, providing much-needed plurality in the public service space.
Equally, however, because we are aligned in our focus on public service objectives, we are acutely aware of it when we think that our White City cousins are going awry.
It's with these kind of mixed feelings that we've been digesting the BBC's Creative Future announcement last week. And it does take some digesting.
Strip away all the warm words and window dressing, and a few clear messages emerge. The BBC, funded by licence-fee payers, must remain focused on its audience and deliver value for money to all parts of it. This audience's consumption habits are changing - rapidly in the case of some technologies, less so in others - but we are inescapably moving towards an on-demand world where all programmes/content will be available "anytime, anywhere".
The BBC must not be dragged reluctantly into this world, but must surf the crest of the "second digital wave", realigning its creative ambitions and working practices ahead of the mass adoption of these new technologies. And, in this complex 21st-century digital landscape, the BBC must focus creatively on making its output as distinctive as possible from its competitors' - innovative and high quality, if unashamedly entertaining - while harnessing technology to unleash the creative potential of its viewers, listeners and users.
So far, so uncontroversial. Only its most implacable critics could argue against the BBC equipping itself best to operate in the emerging on-demand world. Yes, the BBC's changing focus may bring it into conflict with an array of new competitors - MySpace, Bebo, YouTube - but that is the nature of the BBC as a huge state intervention in broadcasting. It's the price we pay for all the good things the BBC delivers.
Channel 4's concern, as the UK's other key public service corporation, as well as a commercially funded competitor to the BBC, is not to shackle the BBC's new media ambitions, but to shape them in a way that takes account of what the rest of the market is providing.
This is, above all, a question of good governance, of making sure the BBC does not indiscriminately park a publicly funded tank on every lawn or an icon on every home page, but acts responsibly to let commercial markets develop in parallel with its own activities.
This message may just be getting through. The BBC iPlayer, allowing computer users to download BBC TV shows after their transmission, will now undergo a public value test carried out by the new BBC Trust and a market impact test conducted by Ofcom before it can be launched to the public.
It should pass the public value test easily, but we should not pretend that the BBC giving away its content for free in this arena will not have a massive knock-on effect on the commercial ambitions of its rivals. The BBC, if it is to act responsibly, should structure its offering in a way that leaves space for a market to develop.
The same rules must apply to any other new services that emerge from the implementation of Creative Future. We do not envisage the BBC having to seek permission for every new programme or website, but developments like a major new teen brand with a dedicated broadband offering, as is being proposed, must go through the same approval process as the iPlayer. If it does not, the debate about the BBC's governance structure will have been a farce.
Even at the BBC, with its £3bn of public funding, resources are finite. The corporation cannot be on every digital lawn, but must prioritise - like its counterparts. In prioritising, it should take account of what the market is already providing, especially the complementary offering of its public sector cousin, Channel 4.
In education, for example, we have focused successfully on 14- to 19-year-olds and the creative industries. It won't offer the public good value for the licence fee if Creative Future impinges directly on our efforts with this audience.
This is not special pleading on Channel 4's behalf. Every player in UK television feels the creative and competitive pressures engendered by the BBC. In radio, the commercial sector has long lived in the shadow of its spending power and hugely privileged spectrum position, and must be nervous at some of the plans for music broadcasting outlined in Creative Future.
Beyond the headlines about axing Grandstand, an impressive creative route-map for the BBC is emerging. But I believe Channel 4 has an equally coherent and inspiring vision for transitioning into the digital world.
The highways and by-ways of the BBC's route map must join up with those of Channel 4 and the blueprints that exist elsewhere in the industry. We are all, family and foes, impelled in the same direction of travel.
Broadband revolution starts here
ONE OF the perks of working at Channel 4 is access to the DVD "cupboard" for early episodes of our hit imports, such as Lost and Desperate Housewives. While the rest of you will get the chance to see the first two episodes of season 2 of Lost on Tuesday night at 10pm, I'm several episodes ahead. I can reveal that Hurley's mystery numbers refer to pages in The Da Vinci Code, where the Island's secrets are laid bare. And look out for a guest appearance by David Icke....
Seriously, those of you who didn't "get Lost" first time round now have a chance to find out what the fuss was about, with Channel 4 and Disney partnering to make the first series available via channel4. com. The first two episodes will be free and the rest 99p each. Episodes from season 2 will be available after their final transmission on Channel 4, and Desperate Houswives will follow suit. The service will also be available via digital TV to ntl/Telewest customers.
We think this is a global first. And it's a vote of confidence in Channel 4 that Disney has chosen to partner with us in the UK market on its flagship series. It points towards a broader launch of Channel 4 branded video on-demand services in the second half of the year.
Andy Duncan is the chief executive of Channel 4
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