Let the Beeb rule the waves

The BBC's new chairman must prepare for fierce global competition. But British TV could triumph
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It was a nice coincidence that the new chairman of the BBC, Sir Christopher Bland, should be announced on the same day as the news that Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV is leading a consortium bid of more than $2bn for the European rights to the screening of the next two Olympics. So we have a new head for our state-owned broadcasting company, who himself made a fortune out of commercial television; and a new and potentially devastating challenge to the European state-owned television establishment from one of the strongest commercial players.

Step back a little. We bang on in Britain about the future of public service broadcasting, the excellence or otherwise of the BBC, whether the licence fee method of funding can be sustained and so on; but these issues are subsidiary ones. The future of the Beeb is less important than the future of Britain's place in the international television market. It is as though, back in the Fifties, we were discussing the future of the British Motor Corporation rather than the future of our motor industry as a whole.

Sure, the BBC is currently our largest manufacturer of television programmes (as was BMC of cars), and therefore what happens to it is an important element in the industry as a whole. But maybe in the future our flag carrier, our best hope of dominating a global TV market, will not be the BBC but BSkyB.

Mercifully, the prospects for our television industry now are not as bleak as those for our motor industry were then; though it is chilling to recall that in the early Fifties we were second only to the US as a car producer, just as we are currently second only to the US as an exporter of TV products. But we surely have powerful comparative advantages in broadcast media that we did not have in engineering: most obviously language, but also creativity and independence. It is much harder for, say, Korea, to challenge us in a service industry such as television than it is in a manufacturing one.

Now think ahead 25 years. Global media will continue to grow. We can be pretty sure that there will be hundreds of television channels, distributed all around the world. But beyond that we know very little. For example, we do not know whether they will be delivered in real time - transmitting to set schedules for everybody watching - or whether the whole medium will be on demand, with people ordering programmes when they want them. We do not know whether the principal delivery mechanism will be terrestrial broadcasting, satellite, cable or even telephone wire. We do not know whether we will still watch programmes on a television set, or on a PC screen, or maybe on a souped-up video phone.

But if there are great uncertainties, there are also great opportunities, for London could consolidate its position as one of the two or three main production centres for global broadcasting. London already makes more international telephone calls, trades more international securities, manages more international money, than any other place on earth. So it ought to be in a strong position to make more international television programmes. The question is: how?

I am sure the BBC has a big potential role here, but one has to ask tough questions about its real comparative advantage. We are in a transition phase between a time when the Beeb operated in an oligopoly in the British market and the only challenge came from ITV, to one where people will have access to television services throughout the world. So the present advantage - ready access to a 50 million market - disappears. Any company will be able to deliver the big hits, such as the Olympic Games, provided they can sign a big enough cheque.

The Beeb does not have any advantage in buying foreign programmes: any organisation can go out and acquire the Oprah Winfrey Show. Nor does it have an obvious one in hiring UK celebs: anyone can buy the talents of Noel Edmonds or Anthea Turner. In this new environment - much more akin to newspapers or magazines than broadcasting as we know it - the BBC would seem to have three clear comparative advantages.

One is brand recognition. Thanks principally to the World Service, the BBC is both a globally recognised station and surely a contender for the most trusted. Next, there is the whole training and development programme, which over the years has developed lots and lots of very good people, maybe pretty brassed off at the bureaucracy in which they survive, maybe not very entrepreneurial, but world-class none the less. And third, there is the security of income. While the licence fee remains, the Beeb has the luxury that no commercial broadcasting company has of knowing its income two, three, four years ahead.

All three advantages are fragile. The brand name could be damaged if the product slipped; the people can walk; and the fixed income is surely a wasting asset for, as the BBC's market share slips and technology changes, it will become impossible to justify a flat tax on television sets.

So what should our national strategy be to try to ensure we get the largest share of the global television cake? I suggest two tracks.

One track is for the BBC. It has gained in Sir Christopher an acutely commercial chairman, someone whose previous experience of the media - running LWT - was one of success. He replaces Marmaduke Hussey, whose previous media experience was one of failure: the disastrous stoppage of the Times newspapers under his stewardship led to their sale by the Thomson family to Rupert Murdoch.

It seems sensible, therefore, to expect the BBC to behave in a competently commercial manner. It is not necessary for it to have a single blueprint - that can wait until the structure of the industry worldwide becomes clearer. Eventually, maybe in a decade, it will have to be privatised, but that needs to be done with great sensitivity to preserve the best bits of its all-important ethos. Meanwhile, the BBC needs to respond swiftly to market opportunities. It was fascinating that Sir Christopher yesterday was already acknowledging that it might need a pay-TV service alongside its state-funded one. Why not?

The other track is for the rest of the industry. The BBC may be our best shot for the world market, but it is not our only one. We should encourage the world's media to base international operations here, as some already do. We should relish the success of BSkyB and not worry overly about Mr Murdoch. It is only half-owned by him, and in any case it is unlikely that his empire will survive as a single entity after his death. And if other big British players - BT, for example - wish to enter the global media game, that should also be welcomed.

Above all, we must as a country be nimble. The trick is not to try and pick winners; rather, never to close doors. We have a gorgeous, wonderful opportunity if we think global; and the long shadow of the British Motor Corporation if we do not.