BBC’s purse tugged

Ofcom puts onus on Beeb to justify fees

LONDON — The embattled BBC, still reeling from the impact of the Hutton report criticizing its coverage in the run-up to last year’s Iraq war, has received another warning that it needs to clean up its act or face the consequences.

This time the criticism comes from Ofcom, Blighty’s new communications watchdog, in its first big blast since opening its regulatory doors in December.

As more viewers take up digital cable and satellite services, the regulator warned the BBC that it must work harder to justify its annual license fee — currently £116 ($197) per household — and offer a truly distinctive service.

“The BBC needs to reaffirm its position as the standard-setter for delivering the highest-quality public service broadcasting,” Ofcom said. “The BBC governors should take the lead in ensuring the BBC addresses concerns about derivative formats, aggressive scheduling, competition for acquired programming and a balanced schedule in peaking viewing hours.”

In other words, the Beeb needs to curb the ratings chasing and provide a more demanding schedule less dependent on U.S. movies and series, and me-too reality shows.

The comments were made in the first phase of a key report on public service television, believed to be the largest of its kind undertaken in the U.K.

The findings are likely to be taken seriously by policymakers and ministers as they conduct their own scrutiny of the BBC’s services as part of the government review of the pubcaster’s Royal Charter — the document that covers its financing and policy.

Ofcom raised doubts over whether the BBC should stray beyond its core activities, questioning if its commercial arms, BBC Worldwide and BBC Resources, and production activities were compatible with public service.

“Activities, including secondary market distribution, studio and other production resources and indeed production should be reviewed carefully against their distinctive contribution on public service broadcasting,” Ofcom noted.

The regulatory giant has more power over the BBC than the bodies it replaced, including the Independent Television Commission.

Led by ex-cable topper Stephen Carter, Ofcom will keep a close eye on how the BBC’s channels match up against annual promises, and ensure that it sticks to independent production quotas, flouted for three successive years, much to the fury of indies.

Ofcom warned that the BBC should not take the license fee for granted: “The TV license fee is already questioned by viewers whose use of the BBC’s services is declining. Dissatisfaction with the BBC’s method of funding may increase, and there is an additional question about whether the BBC’s income will keep pace with rising viewer expectations for high-quality content.”

One possibility is to introduce subscription fees for the BBC’s digital channels, all of which attract low audiences despite being generously funded.

“Where a high cost of delivery is associated with low viewing figures, it will be harder to justify continued public intervention,” Ofcom opined. “Alternative means of funding, such as subscription, should be considered for these services.”

While the report’s findings make uncomfortable reading for the BBC, its conclusions that viewers do not particularly value arts and religious shows are likely to be leaped upon by private web ITV as evidence that it can be freed of these public service obligations.

The regulator suggested that in the future the litmus test of ITV’s commitment to public service should be based on “news, regional news and original U.K. production.”

Hinting that obligations of private webs like ITV and Five to deliver specified hours of arts and religion will be relaxed in the future, Ofcom senior partner Ed Richards said: “Our obligation is to identify what matters most to audiences. As the pressure mounts, tradeoffs will begin to be made. The range of public service broadcasting commitments on commercial channels will become more and more difficult to sustain.”

But, paradoxically, Ofcom’s research found that viewers across all channels thought “television lacked innovation and original ideas, and relied too much on copycat and celebrity programming, and on occasion talked down to its viewers.”

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