Media: Taking liberties with the free market: The BBC's hunt for revenue abroad may damage its domestic output, says Jay G Blumler

A little-noticed feature of BBC policy is its aggressive determination to become a major player in the international television market- place. The keenness of BBC Enterprises to sell abroad a programme about the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York, which the corporation is not screening in the UK, is the latest and most high-profile example.

Although debates about BBC finance assume that it is wholly funded by the licence fee, in reality its commercial earnings are steadily increasing, and policies are in place to boost them further. Two questions arise from this: in following international opportunity rather than domestic need, is the integrity of BBC programming decisions in jeopardy? And if so, can measures be devised to counter the threat?

In 1991-2, the turnover of all BBC commercial subsidiaries exceeded pounds 200m - or one seventh of the value of licence fee payments ( more than pounds 1,400m). In the same year, programme sales abroad earned pounds 47m and co-production finance brought in another pounds 25m. Combined, both sources of income have quadrupled since 1981, growing at more than 10 per cent annually.

In 1991 only about 7 per cent of the corporation's gross production costs were recovered by these resources. But the BBC is now resolved to plunge ever more deeply into international waters. In Extending Choice, its charter review manifesto, this is presented under the heading, 'Communicating between the UK and Abroad', as one of four main goals for the future (on a par with 'Informing the National Debate', 'Expressing British Culture and Entertainment' and 'Creating Opportunities for Education'). And in January, John Birt, the Director-General, announced measures designed 'to ensure that we have the maximum incentive to generate additional revenue'. Whereas, for example, earnings from programme sales have always gone directly into the corporation's central coffers, from April 1994 originating programme departments will hold and benefit from all ancillary rights for the first three years.

The bases of such a policy are readily understandable. Shifting expectations of BBC performance in the political arena, Thatcher-inspired and Peacock-endorsed, provide the backdrop. These include the belief that only through competing in the same market-place as other broadcasters will the corporation become an efficient prospect. The Government might also regard the BBC as Britain's champion in the expanding global media market-place - like Berlusconi in Italy, Bertelsmann in Germany and Hachette in France.

For its part, the BBC aims to assure British viewers that no stone will be left unturned in exploiting the earning power in secondary markets of programmes made possible by their licence fee payments. At a time when the economics of production is relentlessly pushing costs beyond conceivable increases in the licence fee, international revenues also offer help in filling the funding gap, sustaining standards of quality and enabling major projects to be realised that might not reach the screen without supplementary finance.

The BBC seems keen to present its commercial activities as both central and supplementary. It claims that the financial earnings it strenuously pursues top up but do not rival licence fee income, and that they will support, not distort its provision of a distinctive programming service, stamped by range and quality. But such a portrait may be overly sanguine.

Firstly, the prospect of even modest additional revenues may exert a greater influence on programming than the literal sums imply. Co-production finance can serve as crucial marginal money, able to make the difference between a green and red light for a major project.

Secondly, when gauging the potential impact of external business involvement on internal programme planning, the uneven participation of different programme areas in the international market-place must be kept in mind: for some, the resulting earnings may be little more than welcome gravy, but for others, dependence may already be a reality, even if this appears not to be the case for the organisation as a whole.

At present, for example, 50 per cent of BBC natural history budgets are said to be covered by foreign revenue. Major documentary and dramatic projects often need prior assurances of foreign support to secure production go-aheads. When recently conducting a study for the Broadcasting Standards Council called The Future of Children's Television in Britain, I found that its economy was 'increasingly becoming more dependent on international markets'.

Thirdly, far-reaching organisational pressures may be activated by the growing importance of the international market-place. A programmer's chances of winning a firm commitment from his channel controller for a production proposal will be stronger if its prospects of attracting international support appear favourable. Gaining a worldwide sale and presence may also change the way that individual programme-makers work; they may seek and prize international visibility as a mark of their professional standing.

It is difficult to condemn the BBC for its current business policy, whatever its tensions, even contradictions. It is valiantly striving to combine the vision of a fresh public service with a newly found entrepreneurial thrust. Nevertheless, several causes for concern arise from the growing commercialisation of the BBC.

There may be a point at which emphasis on programmes with international appeal will conflict with the needs of the British audience for material relevant to its domestic circumstances. Moreover, the international market-place is no natural supporter of programme range. Arguably, it is even structured against diversity - favouring, for example, longer series; programmes with more universal or immediate appeal, depending more on action, emotion, compelling scenes, sounds and pictures, rather than on words, ideas and analysis; and programmes featuring internationally known actors and celebrities.

On the subject of children's television, knowledgeable producers told me that animation of all kinds - puppetry and drama from culturally similar societies (such as Australia and Canada) - travel most easily across national boundaries, in contrast to much other drama and factual and magazine programmes.

Co-production carries the risk that creativity will be compromised to meet international partners' differing needs and demands.

Finally, the increasing involvement of the BBC in international deal-making may gradually transform its internal corporate culture. Along with other imperatives to run a tight financial ship, it could subtly, but in the long run decisively, inject a different set of priorities into the organisation's governing ethos.

In such mixed circumstances, three steps must be urged on the BBC. One is to frame guidelines, safeguards and boundary limits, intended to ensure that its international tail does not wave its domestic dog.

Certain ultra vires activities - to be avoided because they are in direct conflict with the essential principles and purposes of public service broadcasting - should also be specified and discussed. It is possible that had such a policy plank existed before, two recent BBC ventures might not have been pushed through without modification.

One is the deal whereby the Murdoch-owned satellite channel, Sky Sports, gained exclusive rights to live coverage of Premier League football matches on the strength of a BBC undertaking to screen edited excerpts in its Match of the Day round-up. Since this transaction deprived many sports fans of coverage that was hitherto freely available on a terrestrial service, it arguably violated a long-standing principle of public service: the universal access of viewers to widely valued programming.

The other is UK Gold, the joint BBC-Thames satellite channel, featuring popular programmes from both organisations' archives. This arguably conflicts with the BBC's long- standing refusal to countenance reliance on advertising revenue, since programmes that were originally transmitted without commercial breaks are now regularly interrupted by advertising spots.

The last step is to document and publish a fuller account of the BBC's commercial activities than is currently available. In its present form, the Annual Report is almost useless - both sketchy and self-promoting. Information should hereafter be provided on the scale of the BBC's commercial activities; their impact in the various programming areas; and their effects on the corporation's domestic programming pattern overall.

Jay G Blumler is emeritus professor of the social and political aspects of broadcasting at the University of Leeds. A longer version of this argument will be published on Friday by the British Film Institute in a series of essays on the BBC Charter Review.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year