BBC: U.K.’s Right-wing Government Questions Role, Scale, Funding of Public Broadcaster

LONDON — The U.K.’s right-wing Conservative Party government kicked off a review process Thursday that will question the purpose, scale and funding of publicly owned broadcaster the BBC, whose revenue last year totaled £4.81 billion ($7.48 billion).

The secretary of state at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, John Whittingdale, unveiled draft legislation, known as a Green Paper, that sets out how the public and industry can feed in their views on the BBC during a 12-week consultation process. The full document can be found here.

In his introduction to the consultation document, Whittingdale said the government must seek answers to some “hard questions.” These included: “What should the BBC be trying to achieve in an age where consumer choice is now far more extensive than it has been before? What should its scale and scope be in the light of those aims and how far it affects others in television, radio and online? And what are the right structures of governance and regulation?”

Whittingdale said in Parliament that revenue from the compulsory television license, which last year contributed £3.74 billion ($5.82 billion) to the BBC’s revenue last year, will remain at the present level in the short term, but the review would look at whether the broadcaster could be funded by a voluntary subscription instead in the long term. He said that the technology to introduce a subscription model immediately did not exist at present.

The review process will lead to the passing into legislation of a new 10-year charter for the BBC, which will come into force at the beginning of 2017. This charter will protect the BBC’s freedom, and imposes on it a requirement to be politically impartial, but also restricts the scope of its operations and defines the way it is funded. It also sets out how the BBC is governed.

In Thursday’s debate in Parliament, Whittingdale made it clear that the present system of governance, with the broadcaster’s executives reporting to the BBC Trust, has failed and should be overhauled. He cited the handling of the Jimmy Savile sexual-abuse scandal, excessive pay-offs for BBC executives, and the debacle over the defunct Digital Media Initiative as examples of BBC governance failures. “Governance systems have proved opaque and cumbersome,” Whittingdale stated.

He said that BBC programs should be popular and entertaining, but they should also be “distinct,” such as “Sherlock.” To illustrate the point he contrasted singing show “The Voice,” a format that it acquired from Talpa and that is, arguably, not so very different from other talent shows, like ITV’s “The X Factor,” to “Strictly Come Dancing” — known in the U.S. as “Dancing With the Stars” — which the BBC developed itself and is different from shows on U.K. commercial channels.

Whittingdale stated: “Questions persist around the distinctiveness of the programs the BBC delivers, and whether it uses its broad purposes to act in too commercial a way, chasing ratings rather than delivering distinctive, quality programming that other providers would not.”

The review will question whether the BBC’s audience should be “universal” or targeted. Should the BBC “focus on providing programs and services for all audiences?,” the review document asks, or should it “focus more on particular or underserved audiences with its output?”

Another question in the document Is whether the BBC should “have a more targeted or prioritized set of purposes to reflect its increasingly varied and competitive environment.”

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