Conor Dignam On Broadcasting
This isn't how to ensure decent programmes on commercial TV
Monday 05 February 2007
With the BBC licence fee settlement and Big Brother racism rows dominating media headlines over the last few weeks, it's no surprise that a statement from Ofcom about its plans for a Public Service Publisher (PSP) barely caused a ripple of reaction.
After all, even the name - the PSP - sounds like the kind of thing best left to the policy wonks at Ofcom's Southwark Bridge headquarters - while we get back to debating the important issues of the day, such as does Jade Goody still have a TV career?
But the PSP merits much closer attention because if Ofcom has its way this could become the most significant intervention in public service broadcasting since Channel 4 was launched in 1982.
For those readers not up on their Ofcom public service policy initiatives (and there may be one or two of you out there), the PSP is an idea first mooted by the regulator two years ago as part of its brief to ensure that the future of public service broadcasting isn't left entirely to the BBC once the analogue signal is switched off and the UK's television goes fully digital in 2012. At that point, the old, cosy arrangement in which commercial broadcasters agreed to their public service obligations (news, regional output, current affairs, arts and religion - that kind of stuff) in return for a limited and valuable analogue broadcasting spectrum, will officially be dead.
In a fully digital world, Ofcom will no longer be able to trade an analogue spectrum for public service favours - and left purely to the market, the regulator fears PSP output will be squeezed from the schedules.
So, for example, where viewers of C4 last week could have watchedChannel 4 News, Dispatches or documentaries such as last week's Inside Waco, there will be more Deal or No Deals or US imports.
ITV will be a cultural television wasteland (though some might suggest it's that already) but with all regional programming and news, along with children's television, wiped out.
On many levels Ofcom is asking the right question about what happens when the old analogue world ceases to exist.
The problem is it has come up with the wrong answer and seems determined to stick to it.
For Ofcom the answer is the creation of a new organisation or body - the PSP - that will oversee a pot of money created to commission and then produce the kind of programmes that commercial television will have no place for. It's a bold idea - but it's also a very bad one. The regulator is still sketchy about how that organisation would work - these are details to be worked out in consultation with the broadcasting industry - but one way or another we are looking at some form of digital quango, created by the regulator with the job of boldly going where ITV or C4 no longer can.
Ofcom, for the moment, under its new chief executive, Ed Richards, seems wedded to the PSP idea and continues to push it as a strong option.
But there are good reasons why the PSP isn't really needed and ultimately won't work.
The first is the obvious one - money. There is only one obvious route for funding the PSP - and that is taking money from the licence fee.
Ofcom has suggested that this is one of the first places it would look for the funds for the PSP.
That would be a dangerous and potentially disastrous piece of tinkering with the licence fee and its historic link to the BBC. The licence fee may not be the most popular of taxes, but at least everyone knows where the money is going - to the BBC. To start siphoning some of this funding towards a new PSP could quickly undermine the licence fee itself - and further destabilise the BBC's funding.
Then there's the question of quite how much money the PSP wants. Ofcom initially suggested the PSP could manage on a budget of £300m - a not inconsiderable sum - but last week revised that figure, suggesting a fund of £50m-£100m could still make a "significant impact" in the market.
The problem with this kind of figure is that it's probably not enough to do what Ofcom wants to do in offering a public-service alternative to the BBC - but it's a hell of a lot of money to waste on some form of arts council of the digital airways. Finally - and most importantly - there's the thorny question of how Channel 4 fits into all this. After all, C4 is already a state-owned broadcaster with a remit to offer new and challenging output.
C4 may not be perfect, but it is still a publicly-owned broadcaster - with a core public purpose. It still delivers high-quality programmes across a range of genres - and has a valuable future contribution to make in public service output. Andy Duncan, its chief executive, continues to make the case for some form of public support once the analogue signal is turned off so C4 can continue to fulfil its public purpose.
Ofcom is currently carrying out a major review of C4's future funding and role - which will decide whether the broadcaster does benefit from some form of indirect public subsidy in the future, most likely through being given a digital spectrum to launch new services.
The most logical thing for Ofcom to do is to support C4's case and consider how best to support its public service role in the future.
But the regulator can't have its cake and eat it. It won't be able to back C4 as a publicly-owned broadcaster and also create a new PSP.
To have three publicly-owned broadcasters out there (the BBC, C4 and PSP) would clearly be too many. So this increasingly looks like a choice between C4's future public role - or the PSP.
If Ofcom supports C4's case that it needs additional public support in the digital future, it is likely to sound the death knell for the PSP.
If on the other hand it effectively cuts C4 loose - and tells the broadcaster it's on its own - then that will also raise questions about C4's longer-term future, including possible privatisation.
More information can be found about the PSP at Ofcom's website (www.ofcom.org.uk) and deadline for initial views on the PSP is 23 March.
But if Ofcom has its way, the PSP idea is going to be around for some time to come - and now Celebrity Big Brother is over, perhaps it is time for the broadcasting industry to pay it a bit more attention.
Conor Dignam is publishing director of 'Broadcast' magazine
BBC should let the indies get on with it
What do Life On Mars (which returns to our screens next week), Spooks and Hustle all have in common?
Well, apart from being some of the most stylish and compelling contemporary dramas around, they're all made by the same independent production company - Kudos Film and Television.
The new year has begun pretty well for Kudos. Last week it was named as Independent of the Year at the annual Broadcast Awards. And the week before that it was sold for £40m to Lis Murdoch's indie Shine, making the two major partners, Jane Featherstone and Stephen Garrett, extremely rich. Both Featherstone and Garrett are remaining with the company and continuing to work on their slate of hit shows.
As BBC director general Mark Thompson mulls over what to do about a £2bn shortfall in what he wanted from the licence fee, indies like Kudos are the answer staring him in the face. Many of the BBC's most popular shows now come from the independent sector - including The Apprentice (TalkbackThames), Who Do You Think You Are (Wall to Wall), The Vicar of Dibley, Robin Hood, The Catherine Tate Show (Tiger Aspect), and I could go on.
Despite the cutbacks of the last couple of years, the BBC still appears to have far more programme-makers working for it than it has programmes for them to work on.
In certain genres - such as popular factual - in-house BBC shows can cost up to 30 per cent more than a similar show made by an indie. And despite 3,000 redundancies over the last few years - the BBC still employs around 22,500 people.
The BBC should bite the bullet and accept that there are some types of programme - such as makeover and lifestyle - that it simply doesn't need to make itself anymore and are best left to indies, which can often make them better and more cheaply.
That would bring down the BBC's staffing levels and costs - freeing up more money to be spent on the bigger and more important shows and on genres where the BBC should still have in-house production.
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