Debate begins on BBC future

The great public debate on the future of the British Broadcasting Corp. officially kicked off yesterday, with the publication of the British government’s BBC Green Paper.

The Green Paper is the first step on the path toward new legislation that will redefine the function and financing of the BBC after 1996, when its Royal Charter is due to expire.

The BBC already appears strongly placed to win the biggest argument, in favor of retaining its funding by the public license fee.

National heritage secretary Peter Brooke, who is in charge of the legislation , said, “We want to look at all the options for financing the BBC, but so far none looks obviously better than the license fee.”

The other options listed in the Green Paper include advertising, sponsorship, taxation and subscription. However, there now appears to be little supportfor these alternatives in any quarter.

One of the most radical suggestions in a largely uncontroversial Green Paper is that license fee revenues could be made available to fund public-service programs on private stations as well as on the BBC.

Mixed reaction

This idea, for a “Public Service Broadcasting Council” to “promote, regulate and fund public service broadcasting on all channels,” was originally excluded from the document by the former national heritage secretary David Mellor, but was reinserted by Brooke after Mellor resigned over a sex scandal

It has been attacked by many politicians and senior TV exex as a backdoor tactic to weaken and destroy the BBC. But it has received prominent support from Melvyn Bragg, LWT’s head of arts and the man behind ITV’s flagship arts program, “The South Bank Show.”

The Green Paper attempts simply to define the areas for debate and invite responses. It offers few strong opinions of its own, but merely suggests various alternative views on each subject. The BBC’s own response will be issued tomorrow.

But the purpose of the debate is to create “a coherent framework for the range of the programs which the BBC will be expected to provide, the number of its services, the way the programs and services are paid for, the extent of the BBC’s other activities, the way it is organized, and the arrangements for editorial decisions, and for public accountability both for programs and value for money,” according to the document.

In all this, says the Green Paper, the interests of the audience should take priority over those of broadcasters, advertisers, political parties, shareholders or any other group.

The Green Paper reiterates many questions that are already the subject of much discussion within the TV industry.

Should the BBC seek a wide range of audiences for its TV and radio channels, or should it concentrate on information, education and minority interest programs not provided by private broadcasters? Should its programs be distinctively British? Should the BBC seek to expand the audience for its shows overseas, either by program sales or by launching international channels?

The document suggests that if the BBC’s program lineup was restricted to exclude many popular genres, there could be an argument for reducing the number of BBC TV or radio channels.

The government questions whether the BBC could be structured to use its public money more efficiently. It also asks whether the BBC should continue with its current broad range of non-broadcasting activities, such as investment in training, engineering research and orchestras, or whether its function should be restricted purely to production and broadcasting. And it suggests that there may need to be a more formal division between the BBC’s commercial activities through BBC Enterprises and its public service functions.

Varying methods

Although the government seems broadly in favor of the license fee, it suggests that there may be a variety of different ways to implement it, in combination with other forms of funding.

But for many supporters of the BBC’s traditional role as a broadcaster of high-quality, mass-appeal programs, the greatest threat to the BBC does not come from the Green Paper, but from the policies of the Corporation’s own management.

These executives are currently implementing radical internal reforms, involving the loss of thousands of jobs, designed to modernize the BBC and give it a viable role in the new world of multichannel TV. The Green Paper is broadly supportive of these initiatives, but critics say BBC management is destroying the very fabric of the BBC’s formidable production base.

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