A new avatar for BBC?

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The UK government wants to slash the
broadcaster’s size and scale with new programming policies. But is this an attempt at curbing the popularity of its news programs to protect newspapers?

By MR Dua


BC, Britain’s enormously popular television and radio network, is going through painful financial times and a highly stressful governance patch. The government is, reportedly, reviewing proposals for completely overhauling and transforming BBC’s structure so that it attains a new avatar.

Close to a century-old, BBC needs a brand new look. With the passage of time, new ideas have emerged and new technologies have changed broadcasting models. On top of that are BBC’s innumerable shortcomings and technical flaws. Some of its problems include shrinking audience, dipping revenue, diluted credibility and flat artistic content.

These, along with the viability of current programming policies, has been causing concerns.
Affectionately nicknamed by mediapersons as “Beeb” and “Auntie”, the BBC has also been derisively addressed by adversaries and critics as “Beast”. This is probably due to its unwieldy size and scale.

UNACCEPTABLE INNOVATIONS

“Beeb” has been held responsible for a number of unpleasant and unacceptable programming innovations and diversifications in recent times. Consequently, BBC’s controllers and regulators, the board of trustees and audiences have reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with its overall governance and programming.

The Times (London), meanwhile, said BBC’s purse controller, Chancellor of Exchequer George Osborne, “has launched a 650-million-pound budget raid, forcing the Corporation to meet the cost of free television licenses for the over 75s”. BBC charges a 145.5-pound annual license fee on all households, barring those aged 75 and above. It is believed to be running a deficit of about 3.7 billion pounds. How should this colossal deficit be made good is the weighty question troubling its key functionaries.

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BBC’s crime drama Silent Witness, The legendary British science fiction, Sarah Jane Adventures, from BBC

 

Since BBC’s charter is up for revision by 2016-end, new measures need to be drafted. According to the British Budget Office, BBC’s finances are likely to face sharp and heavy cuts since free television licenses will be bestowed on those over 75 years. Its current volume of subsidy of about 3.7 billion pounds will continue, though.

However, in a bid to affect savings, BBC had earlier this year announced plans to shear over 1,000 senior positions, slash coverage and disband some news bureaus in foreign countries. But, the overall cut is not likely to exceed 10 percent.

REAL REASON

But the main provocation for slashing BBC’s size and scale lies elsewhere. These are said to be the excellent and diverse 24 news programs of BBC. Paradoxically, BBC’s comprehensive, timely and well-written commentaries and investigative news analysis have impacted heavily on the advertising revenue and circulation of daily newspapers. In fact, it has profusely “stifled” them.

The Times explained it recently: “The BBC rolled a rival (news source) so fast that it beat” the morning papers to the hilt; many local (London) and regional (British) established dailies and wee-kly publications have disappeared. The fact is that “print media are having a really, really tough time”. Many rival television channels, ITV News, for example, have been reportedly flattened by high-quality BBC shows.

Its commercial service has been an inordinate success and has fattened its bank balances. But, according to its mandate, the Corporation is not only committed to earn money, but “its responsibilities are more than just commercial”. As Sunday Times’ political editor Tim Shipman recently stated: “The BBC will be told to return to its public service roots and do away with highly commercial programs (mostly patterned on American TV shows).”

Conservative member of parliament John Whittingdale arrives for a meeting at 10 Downing Street in central London on May 11, 2015. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron continued to appoint members of the government after a shock election victory in the May 7 general election. Whittingdale was appointed Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALLBEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
An eight-member panel has been set up by British Culture Secretary John Whittingdale to reform BBC

The government has, meanwhile, recently published a “Green Paper” on BBC, where it questions whether the entire mission statement of BBC is correct or whether it should stop chasing viewers and provide more public service programs. An eight-member experts’ panel, set up by British culture secretary John Whittingdale, has been appointed with a brief to conduct “Root-and-Branch” reform of BBC and set out a new charter that’ll come into force in 2017.

BURNING ISSUES

The panel will detail its future programming strategies and spell out devices to tackle the following burning issues bedeviling it:
lLicence fee non-payment to be decriminalized. As of now, non-payment leads to fine and prison.

  • No license fee for people 75 years and above. 
  • Highly commercial entertainment programs may be disbanded.
  • Examining funding models: household tax; subscription; means-tested license (ability to pay).

Scale back website, as it has been “completely crowding out the national newspapers”, as George Osborne has said, adding: “It’s a good product but it’s becoming a bit more imperial in its ambitions.”

  • Replacing the BBC Trust; setting up a new broadcasting regulator.
  • Figuring out “the kind of BBC we want to have in future”.

Since BBC has expanded rather disproportionately, it felt that it should be of a smaller, modest size, “providing public service broadcasting and such programs that commercial sector broadcasting cannot provide”, ending purely entertainment shows. The panel, which includes eminent broadcasters and former social media executives, will scrutinize “clues about the direction in which the government wants to take BBC”.

Finally, since the broadcasting business is being extensively digitalized, and latest technological gadgets are forming an essential part of the key operations, new sources will have to be commandeered to fund spiraling operational costs. As BBC is globally known to be credible, objective and unbiased, it’ll have to maintain its essential services to keep its image intact.

Befittingly, as Whittingdale underlined: “No one is seriously proposing the BBC’s abolition…. One serious area of contention is… the extent to which the BBC manages to meet its impartiality obligation and how best this should be achieved and regulated.”