The BBC has been warned to stop chasing young viewers and mass audiences by wasting money on sports rights, such as for Formula One coverage, and formulaic game shows, such as BBC One's Hole in the Wall, that could be provided by commercial channels.
A report by Policy Exchange, the centre-right progressive think-tank regarded as influential within David Cameron's Conservative strategy team, calls for the BBC to be made to spend 5 per cent of its licence fee income on making distinctive programmes for other broadcasters. It says that the BBC should not be trying to outbid commercial broadcasters to hire popular entertainment presenters and should end its obsession with attracting viewers under the age of 35.
The report's author Mark Oliver, who was head of strategy at the BBC when John Birt was its director general, said that the Corporation should only be making programmes that were distinctive. The BBC broadcasts wasteful content because it is mindful of its obligation to provide programming for all licence fee payers, he said. "There's a lot of pressure on the BBC to get to everybody."
Instead of wasting money on derivative programmes or expensive buy-ins designed to attract reluctant young viewers, the BBC should be co-funding the production of content on channels such as E4, where young people are already engaged, he said. "There are lots of commercial channels targeting under-35s so it gets expensive to get people to watch the BBC," said Mr Oliver. "The BBC spends half its money on getting people to come to its channels. It should start working with the market."
He accepted that there would be cultural resistance within the BBC to the idea of making programmes for other broadcasters, but Mr Oliver said there was some precedent in co-productions such as the Planet Earth series, made with the Discovery Channel, Canada's CBC and Japan's NHK.
The report, Changing the Channel, also recommended the privatisation of Channel 4 by 2012, though it said the channel should retain a public service broadcasting licence for a further decade, receive additional digital capacity and be allowed to keep the proceeds from privatisation. It also said Channel 4 should be allowed to merge with Five.
Channel 4 welcomed the recognition of its public service role, but stated: "We oppose privatisation and remain firmly of the view that our publicly owned, not-for-profit status is the most effective means of ensuring Channel 4 can continue to play the public service role the report endorses."
The paper also recommended that ITV1 and Five be allowed by 2012 to opt out of their public service obligations but should be allowed to remain at the top of the electronic programme guide. The channels would pay for the privileged digital-terrestrial access they have previously been gifted and the money paid to a new Public Service Content Trust, which would oversee the provision of such programming.
Shows under fire
Hole in the Wall (BBC One)
"A basic, low concept idea bought off the shelf and something which ITV or Five would easily have picked up."
Snog, Marry, Avoid (BBC Three)
"A make-over and dating show for young people, which is trying to show you how to portray yourself as the marrying kind, not that that's hard."
We Need Answers (BBC Four)
"An attempt to get a younger audience. It has celebrity guests doing stupid things and trying to win points. It's something that could be on the Bravo or Living channels."