Selling off the BBC 

8 January 2008

Kirk Northrop examines the effects and potential for yet further ‘Outsourcing’ in the broadcasting industry.

It has been common practice in business for quite some years now to sell or close anything not core to the company and replace it with an outsourced option. In most cases this creates a significant cost saving – economies of scale and the like. The same is happening with the BBC. Bits of it keep disappearing. If this is a cost saving, surely that’s a good thing? More money can be spent on the programmes and less on duplicating what someone else is already doing more cheaply.

Many people argue that this is leading to a privatised BBC. I would suggest that privatisation is a separate argument. Just because the BBC canteen is run by Aramark does that mean the BBC is privatised? If the BBC can run a canteen more cheaply by outsourcing it, then that only makes sense. Similarly, in this digital age where many channels can be played out from a single room, why own the company? Why not get someone else to do it and end up paying less? In the analogue age, it made sense for the BBC to ‘playout’ it’s own channels. There would have been no great economy in running 10 broadcast suites over the one. Now there is.

With the buyers taking the staff of the most recent sell-offs – BBC Technology and BBC Broadcast, where does this leave the staff? The Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union fought long and hard to keep union representation but both these groups are now looking at industrial action over various issues. Whether these changes would have happened under the BBC is debatable, but having lost the protection of working for a large state owned corporation they are understandably worried for their welfare.

Economies of scale certainly reduce the cost of the service but commercial operators are much more willing to cut these costs in a short termist reaction to any drop in revenue, in order to protect the share price, whereas he BBC had 10 years to work on its record in order to secure future funding.

With the BBC constantly doing more outside its remit – such as funding the digital switchover for both itself and Channel 4, which it agreed to do in the mistaken belief that it would help raise the licence fee, it is now looking at further sell-offs in order to raise all the money it can, to put towards its core purpose.

The question is, what is the core of the BBC? What is actually important? One could easily argue that the important part of the BBC is the commissioning. Independent producers have and do produce public service programmes. All the BBC needs to do is ask them to produce it. I don’t think this is the answer. What about impartiality? As many complaints as the BBC gets about perceived bias, it is far and away the most unbiased broadcaster in the country if not in the world. Most accusations of bias can be explained away, although not all. Can you imagine Flextech (aka Virgin Media Television) producing Watchdog?

In the name of impartiality, the BBC must stay as a producer. By extension it must also stay as a news provider – aside from providing impartial reporting of events, commercial producers might be wary of controversial investigative journalism.

Does the BBC need to remain as a broadcaster? As long as public service programmes are produced and broadcast by someone, does it matter where and by whom? Before we consider the BBC let’s consider how ITV has gone. Any public service commitments it still has are pushed out to the extremes of the schedule. Regional commitments are often shows remade slightly for several regions.

The BBC aren’t perfect in this regard but programmes that people should watch are mixed in with those people want to watch. BBC Four shows a wide range of minority programming which would perhaps find only a couple of hours a week on a normal channel. BBC Three often puts interesting and educational programming in the middle of its schedule, although some of this was required as approval for the channel. However popular they may be, programmes such as the Ten O’clock News and Newsnight appear at points in the schedule which could easily be used for alternative programming which would draw even more viewers.

It is therefore vitally important the BBC remains a broadcaster. The BBC is not wrong to chase ratings – after all, we all pay for it. More popular programmes mean better value. Only the BBC can afford to ignore ratings when necessary and show programmes of interest to a minority.

The BBC’s services also provide that vital mix of information, education and entertainment that no-one else does. Where would you find authoritative news reports followed by top quality comedy than Radio 4 of an evening?

What is important about the BBC is the culture. The introduction of the internal market may have stifled a few ideas which would have come about more incidentally but the BBC wouldn’t have survived without it. The BBC doesn’t need to own its studios or broadcasting chain. It just needs to inform, educate and entertain. And it still does that as well as it ever has.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Friday 19 July 2024