LONDON — It’s been hailed as a triumph for the BBC, but will the biggest ever shakeup in the way the pubcaster is managed put Auntie in a straitjacket?
Last week the British government issued its pre-legislative White Paper, setting out how the BBC will be run and funded for the next 10 years.
First the good news for chairman Michael Grade: The BBC license fee is guaranteed for another decade, as is its mandate to entertain, inform and educate audiences.
“I want to see the BBC continue to take fun seriously,” says media minister Tessa Jowell. She insists it would be wrong for the pubcaster to dedicate itself only to worthy, upscale fare — something its commercial rivals would love.
The license fee, which costs £126.50 ($215) per U.K. household, brings in about $5 billion a year for the BBC’s myriad services across TV, radio and the Internet.
It’s remarkable that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration has defied some of its most powerful supporters, including one Rupert Murdoch, by ensuring the BBC maintains its enormous budget and the right to program commercial content beyond the 2012 digital switchover.
The proliferation and penetration of digital TV channels is eroding ratings for the BBC’s flagship webs, and this looks likely to continue with the introduction of broadband-delivered video-on-demand.
On March 8 flagship web BBC1 recorded its lowest primetime ratings with chat show “Davina,” whose 10.5% audience share was less than half the network’s usual level.
“This government is philosophically well disposed to the BBC, so the White Paper was never going to do anything but endorse the BBC’s public purpose,” says a senior executive at paybox BSkyB, which is controlled by News Corp. Indeed, it differs little from the consultative Green Paper issued last year.
Not surprisingly, it’s the Murdoch camp that consistently opposes the Beeb, complaining its cash advantage crushes competition.
In a terse statement issued less than three hours after the White Paper was published, BSkyB accused Jowell of “missing an opportunity to reassure license fee payers that they are getting genuine value for money.”
It continued: “That can only be done if people have confidence that the BBC is not wasting public money on launching services that the private sector is already providing.”
Murdoch-owned tabloid the Sun, Blighty’s biggest-selling daily, went further, accusing the Beeb of being “bloated” and a “fat cat” organization.
In fact, ax-wielding director general Mark Thompson is culling 6,000 jobs at the pubcaster out of a workforce of 25,000 — and it seems the government considers that is enough economizing for the time being.
The big change at the BBC is the abolition of the board of governors, which oversees BBC operations. It will be replaced with the BBC Trust, answerable to viewers rather than to the BBC.
Critics have always claimed the board of governors lacked genuine independence or sufficient expertise to keep the BBC in check.
So far, so good. So what’s the bad news for the pubcaster?
The BBC must introduce independently monitored “market value assessments” before it launches any new services, which may act as a brake on the BBC’s ambitions.
The BBC has to date been a highly expansionist organization, something that rivals claim amounts to unfair competition.
Also, in future all the Beeb’s U.K. services have to adhere to strict new criteria.
“For the first time, all our channels will have to have service licenses that go into great detail about what they can and cannot do,” says a senior BBC man.
“This means we will not be able to change them in a hurry. In a fast-changing media market, that limits the BBC’s room for maneuver, something which our competitors are very keen on,” he adds.
The BBC is unhappy that the White Paper, which will form the basis of the BBC’s new Royal Charter, for the first time raises the possibility of giving a handout to rival U.K. pubcaster Channel 4.
“All told, the BBC is no longer a law unto itself,” reckons a rival broadcaster. “The BBC has had its wings clipped because it will come under greater scrutiny than ever before.”