The Media Column: British TV is being bought up and outgunned by the Americans, leaving the BBC with a dilemma

The organisation’s proudest claims relate to being the best on the global stage

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Nearly seven years ago, the Competition Commission killed a bold, technological innovation called Project Kangaroo and, at a stroke, changed the direction of British television.

From that moment, it could be argued, our broadcasters were destined to follow a lesser path which now leaves them dwarfed by American-based global entertainment giants and vulnerable to being swallowed up by US media companies. The latter have acquired Channel 5 and are circling ITV.

Kangaroo – a joint initiative by BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4 – was absurdly named but one hopes the commissioners had better reasons for a ruling that, senior industry figures are convinced, had profound consequences which are only now being understood.

“That would have been the British Netflix,” says Sir Peter Bazalgette, the chair of the Arts Council and former boss of Endemol. “By now, it would have grown to a model where it could have enough money to commission 13-part box sets of the sort the kids like to watch and we would be selling them around the world.

“It was an incredibly short-sighted decision and we aren’t now competing with Netflix – and it has more than four million subscribers in this country.”

It’s not just Netflix. Amazon Prime’s video service showed its muscle when winning the bidding war for Jeremy Clarkson’s next venture, and Apple TV has become the latest colossus in the market.

Watching 13 episodes of a series, one after another, is not a viewing experience you associate with the BBC iPlayer, where content is mostly restricted to a 30-day window after broadcast on regular TV and feels rather thin because of it.

Lord Hall, the director-general, well appreciates this, which is why he made it a central feature of his speech last week at the Science Museum on the future of the BBC.

“I now want to experiment with the BBC issuing bigger and bolder series all at once on iPlayer, so viewers have the option of ‘binge watching’,” he said.

At the same time, the DG invited British content creators – from broadcasters to cultural institutions – to jump on board iPlayer and share its “brand, technology and reach”. It sounded like he was belatedly trying to revive Kangaroo. But that bouncing marsupial long ago unlaced its boxing gloves and retired from the ring. It is hard to imagine that ITV and Channel 4, which have their own catch-up services, would put shows on the BBC platform for free or that much-needed licence-fee funds could be splashed on paying rivals for shows that are already available for nothing.

The BBC has a dilemma. Tony Hall emphasised that the corporation is dedicated to sharing and uninterested in expansionism. Yet the organisation’s deepest instincts, and its proudest claims, relate to being the best on the global stage and at the very forefront of technological development.

It is having to rein in these ambitions due to pressures on its finances from the last two licence-fee settlements, just as commercial broadcasters are still adjusting to the painful impact of recession on their advertising revenues. The result is that the UK television sector, which is pound-for-pound the most successful in the world for global exports of hit formats – from  Top Gear to the Got Talent franchise – has cut its annual spend on original programming to around £2.4bn, from £3bn before the recession. The big money is thrown at football rights, which account for a quarter of spending but, with games confined to pay TV, deliver a tiny percentage of the total audience.

It might explain why blockbuster international hits are drying up as the industry struggles to find a replacement idea for the “balloon debate” formats – one contestant voted out each week – that have dominated peak schedules for 15 years (since Bazalgette first offered up Big Brother). That international market is further threatened by European Union proposals for all channels to be made available across all member states, destroying the value of territorial rights.

So, as the broadcast sector gathers this week for the annual Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention, it is at a new, critical juncture. The American behemoths will be represented at the event like never before. Viacom (new owners of Channel 5), Discovery (new co-owners of the British production giant All3Media), HBO (the cable network that supplies so much drama to Sky in particular), Google’s YouTube, AMC Networks (which owns half of BBC America and has a separate partnership deal with BT TV) and NBCUniversal are all participating.


Presumably, they are aware that one of the debates is titled “Working for the Yankee Dollar”. On the panel for that discussion is the Channel 4 CEO, David Abraham, who used his MacTaggart lecture at last year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival to warn of the “gold rush” of US encroachment and its potential threat to British culture.

The Americans will, justifiably, present themselves as well-intentioned. Their financial interest, they might argue, is a signal of the vitality of the UK market.

With spending on original programming in decline, the Brits can’t say they don’t need investment. And if Americans want their British channels to find audiences, and their British production companies to win commissions, they need them to focus on British formats (admittedly with international appeal). Public tastes and Ofcom rules mean that the fear of an Americanised public service broadcaster in Britain is a fallacy.

But with advertising revenues squeezed at home, US networks are aggressively looking for growth overseas, and the UK sector, with its fine reputation, is an obvious target. And as these companies expand globally, so, ironically, the BBC – mocked last month by a senior Google executive for its parochial outlook – is being obliged to curb its competitive instincts.

Lord Hall, who is chairing the three-day Cambridge Convention, will be expected to come up with answers about the future ambit of the BBC.

He has in recent days outlined several initiatives for a more “open” BBC, ready to share for the greater good its digital expertise and distinguished brand. Those plans hint at cuts to existing services. One online platform, BBC Ideas, could be a replacement for BBC4.

Another, iPlay for children, could mean the end of BBC children’s channels on the goggle box. With other British broadcasters having abandoned this sector, children’s television would become the preserve of US producers such as Disney, Fox and Nickelodeon. Whether newborns and toddlers will later blame us for this, or be unconcerned by the demise of an outdated medium, time will tell.

But consider the position of Ashley Highfield, chief executive of the newspaper company Johnston Press, who last week denounced Lord Hall’s plans for openness and partnership (in local news coverage) as unhelpful and ill-intentioned. Seven years ago, Mr Highfield was CEO of Project Kangaroo. Things could have turned out so differently for him, for the BBC and, indeed, the whole British television industry.

'The Sun' displays old warmongering colours

As the furore rages around the long-awaited Chilcot report, some newspapers are again deploying the most intemperate language to make the Government’s case for war.

I vividly recall the headlines in 2003, breathlessly reporting the 45-minute claim and other falsehoods from what came to be known as the “dodgy dossier”. That was an almost impossible situation for editors. With Alastair Campbell summoning journalists and presenting them with an apparently evidence-based account of the critical threat posed by Saddam Hussein, the story couldn’t be dismissed. But many titles went further in preparing the ground for invasion, including The New York Times, which damaged its reputation by lapping up claims about weapons of mass destruction.

Once again, jingoistic UK papers are sounding the bugle for battle stations. The Sun, which summarised the 2007 departure of British forces from Iraq with the headline “Job done”, now calls for “our boys” to attack Isis and “blitz ’em to hell”. It denounces Labour leaders on its front page as “cowards” for not backing military action, while praising Downing Street for drone strikes on British jihadis: “Wham! Bam! Thank you Cam”.

The paper even put its “For Aylan” logo (with a picture of the tragic young boy) on a strapline saying “52% say bomb Syria now”. Expect Tony Gallagher, who starts as editor today, to continue the paper’s new-found sympathy for refugees. I’m sure he will bring a smarter approach if it continues to argue the case for war.

Mohan takes his inside knowledge Outside

A former Sun editor, Dominic Mohan, has ended two years of “gardening leave” at News UK to go into public relations.

He follows the path trod by his fellow ex-Sun editors David Yelland and Stuart Higgins, who have used their inside knowledge of the media for the benefit of corporate clients.

Mr Mohan’s strength is show business and he’s joined The Outside Organisation, known for working with the likes of David Bowie and The Who. Outside founder Alan Edwards is a fellow Arsenal fan.

Meanwhile, Mr Mohan’s old colleague Colin Myler, final editor of the defunct News of the World, is returning to Britain after working in New York. If News UK is looking for someone to cover Sun on Sunday editor Victoria Newton’s maternity leave, Mr Myler would be a safe, if controversial, pair of hands.

Twitter: @iburrell

  • More about:
  • BBC