Somewhere in Broadcasting House and down the road in Marylebone High Street they will be checking the proofs of the BBC's Annual Report. This document comes in two parts, one from the BBC Trust and one from the executive, but will either tell us what we most need to know – how the BBC is different to any other broadcaster?
The licence fee is under more serious attack than it has been for a long while. The BBC needs not only to perform well but to remind us that what it does and how it does it could only come from licence fee funding. On the evidence of last year's report there will be 60 pages of detailed financial information, the most thumbed pages of which tell us how much the executive get paid. What will they say about what the talent get? MPs will never be satisfied until they know how much Dame Judi Dench (below) was paid for Cranford or Ian Hislop for Have I Got News For You but they are just being nosy like the rest of us. It would hinder not help the efficient and fair running of the BBC to publish this and seriously embarrass the talent, some because they get less than they would want known. The Jonathan Ross contract is another matter. We wait with interest to see how that is handled.
What I look for above all and what the BBC is shy of telling us is how the BBC's output differs from that of other free-to-air broadcasters; how the licence fee enables schedules which, in their parts and as a whole, distinguish them from those of the competition. On past form, the report will measure consumption of BBC services against other broadcasters in both reach and share, but what about the programming?
The programme policy commitments for 2008-09 which have just been published are splendid in many ways. They describe the remit of each service and identify some specific targets for the year. There is no sense, though, of the services measuring what they are trying to do against anything except the other BBC offerings. When Channel 4 proclaimed its vision earlier this year, it stuck its chest out and promised "more new programmes in peak than any other public service broadcaster" and that it would offer the widest range of views. We need to hear such confident claims from the BBC.
Last year's BBC report tabulated the hours of television programmes by genres both overall and in peak, but where were the comparisons? Until two years ago the corporation reported the range of genres in peak across all free-to-air channels. Peak remains a crucial test. Even in today's PVR world most viewing is in peak (there is research to suggest that in PVR homes 85 per cent of viewing is to live television). The peak schedule is a channel's front page, the signifier of what it is and how it seeks to attract the audience.
In the past the BBC did make comparisons with its rivals. The corporation used to show the quality of its output by highlighting the different genres which were covered for an average of at least one half-hour per week in peak time throughout the year; that is at least 26 hours in peak, annually. That measure demonstrated that BBC1 and BBC2 offered a far greater range of programmes than ITV and Channel 4 respectively. This was a good story. Here was clear and testable evidence that a licence fee-funded schedule provided a much wider range than a commercial one. Inexplicably, this invaluable way of highlighting how the BBC's output is different from its rivals disappeared from the corporation's annual reports a couple of years ago. Rather than drop the measure the BBC needs to use it, boast about it and devise others that show the distinctiveness of what it does.
There are bound to be overlaps with others in what the BBC transmits, in popular drama or leisure programmes on television, say, or in some music on radio. But the overall mix, especially the mix when most of us are there to watch or listen, should be public service broadcasting in range and ambition and not a commercial mix with the odd public service programme chucked in.
Measuring this and reporting on it would not only show that the BBC is doing its job, it would provide a restraint on channel or network controllers who might wish to wander off mission in search or bigger audiences.
I suspect that some of the comparisons seem so obvious to people in the BBC that they leave us to work them out: the amount that BBC1 and BBC2 spend on natural history programmes as against ITV and Channel 4; the hours of live or specially recorded music on Radio 3 versus Classic FM; the number of musicians employed by the BBC against all the rest of broadcasting in this country; the hours of children's programmes on the main networks against the other main channels; the hours of drama compared with all other broadcasters. These and other such comparisons should be spelled out and proclaimed.
I wonder whether the BBC can also boast about having less reliance on acquired programming? Or that it makes a higher number of science programmes than other broadcasters? Or more programmes about the rest of the world? Or that it commissions more new writers? These are the sorts of things that need to be there in the annual report.
If the BBC is able to deliver in these areas, then it should tell us. If it can't, it should tell us anyway and do something about it.
Will Wyatt is a former deputy to the director-general of the BBC and was the author of last year's official 'Wyatt Report' into the corporation's treatment of documentary footage of the QueenReuse content