Raymond Snoddy on Broadcasting
There's nothing more dangerous than a minister who's being 'bold'
Monday 21 January 2008
It has been a great few days for clearing out daft ideas – the sort that have lingered like cobwebs for decades. First, Culture Secretary James Purnell delivered what ought to be the coup de grâce for a thoroughly bad idea – saving public service broadcasting through the creation of an "arts council of the air".
Purnell told an Oxford conference last week he did not think funding individual programmes presented a viable model for the future. Such a body, Purnell noted with precision, would itself become the commissioner of programmes but "without the necessary relationship with the audience."
Whether or not such programmes would necessarily be "posh" as Purnell put it, there is an obvious danger they would be programmes that few will watch – ritual rather than real support for public service broadcasting. The same arguments apply to the great Ofcom daft idea – at least in its original purist form – the Public Service Publisher. Take programmes commissioned and funded by God knows whom and spray them out across the internet. Now we've got YouTube for that sort of thing.
The more refined version of the thought – providing support for struggling genres such as children's programmes – is much less daft. But there are still issues over what would actually be commissioned, where it would be shown, and who would pay for it.
Luckily Ofcom is back-peddling like mad on the PSP idea and is now describing the idea as merely "a rock thrown in a pool". This is a great relief, although it seemed like a pretty big rock at the time.
They never planned to create new institutions. Honest. That is the Government's job.
The third bad idea, "top-slicing" of the licence fee, is far from dead, though it ought to be. Those with obvious self-interest, the commercial broadcasters who would like to get their hands on some of the BBC's money, will ensure it keeps running to the end.
As Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust noted, top-slicing would increase the level of complexity while reducing the BBC's accountability to its audience. He also warned that top-slicing was being seen as the solution to the problems of public-service broadcasting before the debate had even properly begun.
But as the BBC director general Mark Thompson argued in a good week for broadcasting debate, the Government will have to spell out what level of public service broadcasting it wants the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five to deliver and then suggest how it should be financed. The starting point in such a debate is simple. First you review, and then discard all the whacky ideas that have been hanging around for years. That process now seems well under way.
Then you concentrate on the real issues – how to strengthen the existing broadcasting institutions which have served the audience well and will continue to do so in future if the Government holds its nerve.
The concept of the licence fee, with all its obvious difficulties, will remain a perfectly serviceable mechanism for ensuring a strong flow of original programmes in the public interest for the foreseeable future. ITV really ought to be able to stand on its own two feet. Five, without many specific public obligations, has discovered that voluntarily offering "public service" documentaries and arts programmes is actually good business. Unlike ITV, the channel has not dumped original children's programmes.
The jury ought still to be out on whether Channel 4 can remain viable through its own efforts or needs some form of public subsidy in cash or kind.
There is more than a lingering suspicion that if the channel had directed more of the time and effort devoted to getting hand-outs to its programmes it might be in better shape.
The one alarming note in the recent flurry of debate was also struck by James Purnell. He promised to be "bold" in reviewing the framework for public service broadcasting over the next year. When ministers promise to be "bold" it's time to run for cover. Vacuous, ill-thought out nonsense calls for "change" are rarely far behind.
It's time for a certain vigilance to ensure that Purnell, having successfully kicked the daft arts council of the air idea into the long grass, will not come up with something even worse on the rebound.
Bongs back, but not the big ads
It's too early to jump to any conclusions about News at Ten. It looks good, and the opening-night combined audience of around nine million for the BBC and ITV at 10pm was very welcome. But the curiosity value never lasts long.
Give it a month to see how the averages shake out. Audiences for news depend greatly on preceding programmes. First signs are that the BBC audiences have stayed loyal – those of News at Ten less so – hardly unexpected after the years of "News at When?".
The big surprise, however, was the lack of ads. The lucrative middle break was part of the tradition, too, and should have been filled with big-name advertisers. Now, it would seem, they're having to sneak their ads back as if they were somehow ashamed of them.
CNN International's smart but simple new idea: put your money where your content is
Broadcasters desperately seeking a roadmap through the challenges of the digital world could do worse than look at the approach of Tony Maddox. The former BBC newsman who runs CNN International is in the middle of implementing a big idea.
While other media organisations are responding to difficult times by cutting back – the BBC alone is getting rid of hundreds of UK journalists – Maddox is expanding: more correspondents, more news bureaux.
The plan is for new operations for Afghanistan, Belgium, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland and Vietnam. With such plans you can get lucky: the new Kenya correspondent, for example, was in place in good time to cover the recent violence.
The Maddox theory goes like this: in an age of ever-proliferating media outlets, you need more high-quality, trustworthy content, not less. And you need to own all the rights to it.
Which is why CNN International let its contracts with the news agency Reuters run out last year, in what many people would consider a very "courageous" decision.
The money saved, plus millions of dollars more, has gone into an expansion of staff journalism. Once you have got your own content, you then use all available methods of distribution to get it to audiences, wherever they are – including YouTube. But it is the content that is in the driving seat, not the delivery platforms.
Raymond Snoddy presents Newswatch, BBC Television's viewer access programme
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