Raymond Snoddy on Broadcasting
Here is the news: the BBC has a new licence fee, and it's no joke
Monday 01 January 2007
or the next six years we are all going to have to get used to more repeats on the BBC. Plans by the corporation to reduce the number of repeats in prime-time, an aspiration virtually mandated by the Government, seem the most obvious casualty of the below-inflation licence-fee leaked by the Treasury for Christmas.
So brace yourselves for more opportunities to see Open All Hours, The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise this year.
The symmetry of the numbers is almost spooky. In its now hopelessly optimistic claim for a licence fee based on inflation plus 2.3 per cent, later reduced to 1.8 per cent, the corporation earmarked £1.6bn for programme "enhancements" and a cut in repeats. This, by chance, equals exactly the bill that the BBC has been presented with by the Government for carrying out social policy initiatives on its behalf.
The BBC had budgeted for the £600m it must spend on a new digital transmitter network that will make the UK a wholly digital nation by 2012.But the Tessa Jowell diktat that the BBC will also have to pay a further £600m to ensure that old and disadvantaged people's sets are converted to digital before the existing transmitters are switched off came as a nasty shock.
Add on the £400m medium-term costs of moving a number of programme-making departments to the planned new Media City in Salford and you've got a bill of £1.6bn. The BBC knew it had to build the digital network for the rest of Britain's broadcasters, and the move to Salford was seen as desirable as long as the money was there.
It is now clear that all elements of the £1.6bn package are seen by the Government as obligatory and will be "ring-fenced" within the licence fee settlement.So it's programmes that will get it.
Such a vast and bureaucratic organisation as the BBC can always be made more efficient , and a further wave of job cuts now seems inevitable. Some money can be saved by postponing, or scaling down, plans for local television stations. This will please regional newspaper publishers who campaigned vigorously against such publicly funded opposition.
Viewers' distaste for repeats, as long as there are not too many of them, is increasingly illogical. With three quarters of the country already able to receive at least 30 channels "another opportunity to see" a high-ticket programme or series, even with the latest personal video recorders, becomes almost a godsend. Far too many great programmes are already gone before positive word-of-mouth manages to establish their reputation.
As he starts to make his difficult choices for the next six years, the BBC director-general Mark Thompson is, however, entitled to feel "disappointment", particularly with the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell. She fought Gordon Brown and the Treasury to the last ditch but one and then quietly gave in.
Jowell can argue, with some justice, that she got more for the BBC than the Treasury wanted it to get. The deal - a three-per-cent rise for two years, followed by two per cent for a further two with something between zero and two per cent for the final two - is better than others have had to settle for. Inflation minus five per cent has been the going rate so far.
What Jowell did not do was take the issue to the Prime Minister. The script was supposed to run on predictable lines: deadlock between the Treasury and the Culture department would be reached by Christmas and, in January, Tony Blair would have turned 15 minutes of his attention to the issue and the BBC would have received at least a tad more in an amicable compromise. Alas, with Blair on the way out, Jowell may have been influenced by an understandable ambition to remain Culture Secretary beyond the summer, and did her deal.
Disappointment there may be at the BBC, but is there another media organisation anywhere in the world with more than £3bn annual income guaranteed until 2012? And at least it's good news for the former BBC chairman Michael Grade. ITV's battle with the BBC will be more even-handed in future.
The viewers still want good old-fashioned stories
It's time to be bold for the new year and proclaim that network terrestrial television is not dead. Moreover, there is no sign that its ultimate demise is at all imminent, not even by 2012 when all of the UK will have multi-channel television.
Lovers of the new communication technologies have the power to scare traditional broadcasters witless with their predictions that the end is nigh. When the evidence to this effect is sometimes lacking, then the fall-back position is that the young have no interest in traditional media. So it's only a matter of time and generational change.
Perhaps. But it is surely not too utopian to suggest that, in the end, programmes made with skill and wit and money might just ultimately prevail over three-minute home-movie clips.
As more and more viewers have access to several dozen, if not several hundred, channels, before broadband even enters the equation, audiences to the main channels will inevitably fragment. It would be strange if it were not so.
The remarkable thing is how robust the performance of the main channels, including the much-maligned ITV1, still is . ITV had eight of the top-10-rated shows on British television last year. The most interesting thing is that all of them - with the exception of one that missed by a whisker - attracted audiences of more than 10 million.
The recent trend of declining television audiences over Christmas was even reversed with the overall audience peaking at 24.8 million at 9.45 pm on Christmas Day, helped by the long expected death of a favourite EastEnders character. And no fewer than 11.4 million watched Dawn French's The Vicar of Dibley find love at last.
The lesson is simple. Find compelling stories and tell them well, and the audience is still there.
Al Jazeera English, Putin TV, and all that jazz
The great joy of digital broadcasting is that it does allow an almost limitless ability to launch new products and test the market.
The prize for new arrival of the year should go to Al Jazeera English. At last we can actually see the news from an Arab point-of-view without having to hire Arabic translators. The new service is much more than just a translation of the original controversial channel: a hybrid also bringing serious stories from the developing world.
It is not clear how big an audience there will be, but neither CNN nor BBC World, the BBC's international television service, are likely to be too deeply troubled.
The emergence of a growing stream of regional, or continental, 24-hour television stations in English, designed to boost cultures or reach out to diasporas, is clearly a welcome development. For the latest news from an Indian perspective try NDTV. For a Chinese take on world events there's CCTV.
Jacques Chirac could not be left out in the cold so, in December, we saw the launch of France 24, and then there's "Putin TV" from Russia. Euronews and Fox News are both churning out their views on the news but in these troubled times Al Jazeera English could still be the most useful in extending understanding of the Arab world.
In the UK a warm welcome also for theJazz, the digital jazz station launched on Christmas Day as a "sister station" for Classic FM. It comes years after Jazz FM turned into something much smoother and lighter.
The new station may find it difficult to reach a commercially sustainable audience but it's not impossible. There are already more than three million digital radios in the UK and according to some estimates we could all have one by 2010 - quite apart from us being able to listen online and via satellite and other television.
Raymond Snoddy presents 'NewsWatch', the BBC's viewer-access programme
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