An article in Monday’s Guardian and a subsequent column by Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Tuesday revealed that the BBC ” has been using a distant sun-kissed villa as a base for entertaining…..at a cost to date of £90,530″. Now to be fair, apparently it has been used to entertain television executives to persuade them to invest in future projects, reducing the net cost to us license-payers of programmes: reportedly £80m a year in investment is secured through such activities.
Whatever the truth behind this specific example though, and regardless of whether the entertaining was justified and represented good value for money, it raises further questions about the role and strategy of the BBC in an increasingly segmented and non-linear media marketplace. The problem is that if it makes popular (and generally populist!) programmes, it is quite rightly argued that these are produced effectively by the commercial sector. If it focuses more on traditional public service broadcasting, with an emphasis on factual, cultural and news programming, then it loses audience share and is attacked for failing to provide the service that most license-fee payers want.
Over the weekend, Ed Vaizey suggested that BBC’s youth orientated Radio 1 should be sold off, claiming that it was failing to reach its target 15-24 demographic. This channel’s output arguably encapsulates the modern BBC: the daytime programming is fairly mainstream, and is very similar to the output of a multitude of national and local commercial stations, whilst the nighttime shows promote new music and more diverse genres, something generally not offered by most other stations.
What I suggest then is that the mainstream populist output of the BBC (with which I have no problem and often enjoy) should be spun out into a commercial entity, funded by adverts. In the absence of the BBC, I believe that factual, cultural and niche programming would continue to exist on commercial channels, and in fact increase to fill the gap left. Already, broadcasters including ITV and Channel Four provide some excellent factual content. In the unlikely event that there was strong demand for a type of programming that the mainstream media (including an independent commercial BBC) was not providing, then people who wished to have such content would be served by niche channels, made possible by the increasing channel capacity of home TV services and the proliferation of web-based media. The fact is that the dramatic development of technology in the decades since the formation of the Beeb have rendered it an outmoded institution with an uncertain role, bloated by the regressive license fee.