Simon Shaps: The BBC's strength now risks damaging the competition

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The Independent Online

If a week is a long time in politics, then a matter of a few months feels like an eternity in television. It wasn't so very long ago that the BBC appeared to have legitimate cause for complaint about its £3bn-plus licence settlement. Programme budgets would need to be cut, expensive talent deals reined in, croissants axed – again – and, more recently, "off-site" bonding and brainstorming curtailed. The BBC has certainly not been shy about appearing in public wearing a hairshirt.

Today, in the wake of ITV's annual results and Channel 4's longstanding campaign for a bail-out, the BBC's position now looks somewhat different. Arguably, the source of its strength – guaranteed income – is fast becoming its Achilles' heel. Television in the UK works best when there is an equilibrium between competing broadcasters.

The viewers' interests are served by genuine competition for ideas and talent, as the schedules of the major broadcasters go head to head. If that delicate balance is upset, the consequences can be grim, with commercial broadcasters losing revenue as they lose audience. This isn't simply a question of the BBC outbidding commercial competitors for talent, sports rights or ideas. The BBC is too politically savvy to allow that to happen.

More dangerous is the corporation's ability to sustain investment across two major terrestrial channels, as well as its two digital channels, at a time when its commercial competitors are cutting back.

It isn't merely money spent on the programmes themselves that is the issue. Every pound the BBC spends on a drama, comedy or factual series, can be supported by significant cross-promotion from radio and online, as well as above the line marketing. (It is difficult to miss, for example, the campaign for the new sketch show on BBC3 by the stars of Gavin and Stacey, which seems to be on every London bus at the moment).

So, in an age when commercial television was a licence to print money, the BBC's access to public funding felt like a perfect counterweight. Now it risks damaging the competition, in particular the rich diet we have been used to for more than 50 years, of high quality, domestically produced programming.

In fairness to the BBC, none of this is really its fault. The BBC's director-general, Mark Thompson, can hardly be expected to hand a chunk of the licence fee back. Moreover, the evidence from yesterday's ITV results is that its on-screen performance is, in fact, holding up pretty well, boosted by shows such as Dancing on Ice, Whitechapel, Law and Order, Unforgiven and Wild at Heart.

But even if we cannot see it yet on screen, the danger signals are there. In time, that could pose a devilishly tricky problem for the BBC Trust, and ultimately for Government.

Simon Shaps is a former ITV director of television