Raymond Snoddy on Broadcasting
Sir Michael is looking for savings, so who will have to pay the price?
Monday 15 October 2007
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the citizens of Whitehaven in Cumbria will lose their access to BBC2 – unless they have moved over to digital. It is the symbolic start of a process that will move all of the UK to digital multichannel television by 2012.
By chance, Wednesday is also the day that the BBC Trust will finalise how they will respond to the digital challenge of the next six years, and live with £2bn less in licence income than had originally been sought.
On Thursday, meanwhile, the BBC director general Mark Thompson will reveal to BBC staff who the winners and losers are in the battle for resources and against redundancies, and whether it's to be a further 2,000 or 3,000 jobs that are to go.
The details are still being finalised, but sit down with Sir Michael Lyons (pictured below) and you get a fairly clear idea of where the BBC is heading and some of the tensions and conflicts that will be involved. The former acting chairman of the National Audit Commission talks tough about money, and happily admits that the Trust told BBC executives to "sharpen their pencils" and produce more savings than first offered.
Sir Michael is clearly irritated by high-profile BBC presenters putting their oars into the public debate on the BBC, and then interviewing him on radio and television on the issue. He is clearly talking, in this light, about the likes of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys. He is even more irritated that the tone of the debate has been gloom and doom, and that it has failed to focus on the fact that the organisation has guaranteed revenue of £3.5bn a year for six years.
"What I am trying to do is focus the organisation on the people they serve and the privilege they have of this extraordinary certainty of funding rather than thinking the only story in town is cuts and job losses," Sir Michael says. And, while he recognises the pain faced by those about to lose their jobs, he is unsentimental about what needs to be done. "I am clear what the priority of the BBC is. It is not to focus predominantly on the welfare of the BBC staff. It is to focus on the needs of its audience."
The overall deal goes like this: after consulting viewers, the programme priorities are news and current affairs, education and knowledge, drama and comedy. There has to be more innovation and the programmes must be distinctive. If other broadcasters copy new BBC ideas, then it's time to move on to something fresh.
There must be average savings of 3 per cent a year, although not evenly distributed. The future of BBC3 and BBC4 – current cost, about £190m a year – are safeguarded until 2012. That adds up to more than £1bn for modest audience returns.
To make ends meet, the BBC will be encouraged to make fewer hours of programmes. This means more repeats, but not on BBC1 in prime time.
But how come news and current affairs is being hammered hardest, despite being the No 1 one stated audience priority for what they expect from the BBC?
Nobody is denying that the plan is to merge radio, TV and online news, and to include the main TV bulletins in the News 24 stream, with the loss of up to 600 journalist jobs out of 3,000.
Sir Michael accepts there are "conflicting pressures here" between the priority programme genres and where the "main scope" lies for achieving the greatest efficiencies. In other words, news and current affairs looks like suffering worst, despite being a top priority for the audience, because top editorial management have offered up the greater sacrifices.
There is another tension at work here. The Trust wants distinctiveness above all else. Yet in news and current affairs, distinctiveness is partly achieved through separate editorial teams. This is inherently "inefficient" because of inevitable duplication of effort. While there is clearly scope to reduce wasteful overlaps, taken to its extreme the danger is that you may end up with commodity news and information – the very opposite of what the Trust is trying to achieve.
Doubtless the BBC director general, a former news man, will explain on Thursday how losing 600 journalists – if that number is confirmed – will lead to an improvement in BBC news.
There is also the small matter of the BBC being asked to be more innovative in comedy without the help of one of the acknowledged specialists in the field: the BBC1 controller Peter Fincham, who recently resigned. Many believe Fincham was the best BBC1 controller since Michael Grade.
It is a verdict from which Sir Michael, the former professor of public policy at Birmingham University, says he does not demur. He believes, however, that Fincham was right to resign over the row about the tapes and the Queen. "When he [Fincham] read the Wyatt report, and seeing very clearly that responsibility rested with him, he has acted responsibly and that is something to welcome," said Sir Michael on the damaging affair.
Nifty footwork, but strictly above board
With so much confusion over cats (Blue Peter ones, that is) and controllers at the BBC, it is a pleasure to highlight a bit of innocence for a change.
A number of viewers, assorted hacks and (it is rumoured) at least one mischievous ITV executive thought they had hit paydirt with Strictly Come Dancing.
There, on the Sunday results show, was the former Scottish rugby star Kenny Logan dancing his heart out to preserve his place in the competition. Then, blow me, 10 minutes later he could be seen on the same channel in the ITV Sport dugout in Paris for the World Cup rugby.
Sharp-eyed results show viewers also noticed that Rod Stewart was sitting in the same seat and wearing the same shirt as he had for the main Saturday show the previous evening.
Could this be an open and shut case of the BBC deceiving its audience again by pretending that a recorded show was actually live? Might it be time to call in Will Wyatt?
Actually, no: on this occasion the BBC is innocent. Well, almost. The results show was moved to Sunday to cope with the number of contestants. It will return to Saturday when the dancers have been thinned out a bit. And, although the Beeb did not shout from the rooftops that it was a recorded programme, it did not claim it was live either.
The decision to delay transmission could have caused trouble if there had been any betting on the losers, though. And the whole thing just shows how many people are prepared to believe the worst of the BBC at the moment. So it's nice to know that no terrible skulduggery has taken place.
Meanwhile, it was also good to learn that Alan Yentob, the presenter of the Imagine series, is completely innocent of deceiving viewers. He merely admitted to something he hadn't done – nodding to interviews he hadn't conducted. The BBC press office had made things much worse by claiming that such devices were used all the time.
Good job Yentob was not responsible for naming Blue Peter cats. He'd probably be sacked by now.
Raymond Snoddy presents the BBC television viewer access programme Newswatch
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