Thompson’s legacy 

14 March 2012

As Director-General Mark Thompson prepares to stand down soon after the Olympics, his legacy can be described by outsiders as being remarkably mixed all things considered, though perhaps predictably his recent RTS speech tended to concentrate on the good points with a bit of Piers Morgan-bashing thrown in as a post-phone hacking luxury.

It’s arguable that the BBC has somehow been standing at a crossroads in its existence for at least ten years if not longer, because events seem to keep shifting with the sands of time and old certainties now appear to change almost as frequently as we expect them to stay the same.

Case in point, the BBC once thought that its licence fee settlement had been secured, but political circumstances changed and the corporation was forced into a further licence fee freeze, triggering a second round of cutbacks which for a time threatened to scupper whole services like the 6 Music and Asian Network radio stations.

What was simultaneously intriguing and worrying about the 6Music/Asian Network debacle was the reason(s) why those station(s) had been selected for closure over and above anything else. Here’s a quote from Mark Thompson’s speech:

We proposed closing 6Music not as part of some Machiavellian political scheme but because, compared to other BBC services, it scored rather low on value for money and quite a lot of its then rather modest audience told us it wasn’t a priority for them. And we convinced ourselves that at least some of 6Music’s unique sensibility and play-list could be transferred to our three other popular music networks, Radio 1, 1Xtra and Radio 2.

At least Thompson had the decency to apologise for such poor judgement, but you can’t help but feel that if they badly screwed up over something that important then there surely must have also been a host of other, perhaps less important things that were misjudged as well.

Part of the problem here is an innate conflict between marketing (namely, promoting your services) and public service, because if your marketing isn’t up to scratch then public service gems like 6Music tend to get overlooked and underappreciated, leading them to be judged as poor value for money compared to established services like Radio 1.

Alternatively the Asian Network was judged to be relatively poor value for money because its listeners might be better served on a more local level given the very diverse nature of its output. However this plan was abandoned partly because of changes to local radio strategy as well as the realisation that it could be more expensive to pursue that option.

Another problem can result when the marketing department is allowed (or even encouraged) to lead the bull by the horns, resulting in decisions being made with marketing put at the top of the agenda, especially when the cost of marketing something is taken into account.

So we have the illusion that what’s easy to market is something that’s worth preserving, because anything that doesn’t fit into an ‘ordinary’ category may be misunderstood therefore cannot be marketed effectively without mass publicity, which is too expensive when the object of the exercise is to cut back as opposed to spending more money.

The 6Music debacle solved itself because the closure controversy led to lots of free publicity which in turn gave the station the audience boost required to save it in terms of value for money. (Either a blindingly brilliant marketing strategy or a fortuitous chain of events; the subsequent local radio closure proposal really tends to suggest the latter.)

Therefore Thompson would have been far more honest if he had been brave enough to say: “Look, we failed with the 6Music decision because the station was previously underpromoted and at the time we thought that the amount of money needed in order to rectify this error was too high”.

We can see this exact train of thought perpetuate itself yet again with those proposed BBC local radio cutbacks, namely because the cutbacks now look like being reversed with the assistance of BSkyB’s decision to reduce its carriage fees for radio stations, roughly saving £5m a year overall for the BBC.

(This isn’t a warm-hearted gesture from BSkyB; they’re purely doing this to prevent commercial radio stations from deserting their satellite platform in droves given the comparative cost effectiveness of internet radio streaming, but a decision that again has fortuitous consequences for BBC local radio given its almost impeccable timing.)

If you were BBC management actively looking for something else to cut back, local radio looks to be a candidate purely in terms of falling listener numbers and appreciation. But scratch the surface and underneath a different, far more complex picture emerges.

BBC local radio is a multi-headed beast consisting of stations which are highly valued by a relatively small but significant number of predominantly older listeners. Some of these stations are poorly funded and produce highly derivative output, whilst others provide a genuine service to their listeners and are hugely appreciated by their audience.

An ideal past scenario would have been to pump more resources into local radio, ensuring that all BBC local radio stations produce distinctive and highly-valued programming as opposed to just some of them as is currently the case.

But the BBC couldn’t realistically pursue such a strategy whilst commercial radio licences were being dished out like confetti, causing local radio to be in a perpetual state of flux. It’s tough enough avoiding accusations of stifling commercial operators at the best of times without simultaneously investing in local radio services (“the competition”).

So BBC local radio services were effectively left to their own devices for many years, with a fair number of stations operating on minimal budgets and suffering from chronic underfunding even before any further cutbacks are taken into account.

Therefore when it came to looking for cutbacks, local radio was a highly tempting option from an accountancy/marketing perspective; something that couldn’t be properly promoted except at great expense (we’ve heard this argument before), as well as being relatively poor value for money in several areas, at least on paper.

More recently, however, commercial radio has gone into reverse with numerous stations amalgamating or closing; big brands such as Capital, Heart and Smooth replacing numerous existing regional and local stations with many of their staff being made redundant courtesy of centralised playout systems and networked presenters.

So you would have thought that the BBC might now conceivably be interested in restructuring local radio to fill in those gaps that have now become unviable from a commercial perspective, but it seems that Thompson and his advisors have been concentrating solely on cutbacks as opposed to public service provision.

If confronted with an unavoidable necessity to cutback whilst undergoing some form of restructure, a budget reduction could have perhaps been expressed in poorly-performing stations being ‘mothballed’, with any remaining ‘good’ stations pooling their resources regionally to a greater extent if strictly required.

Whilst radio services were being selected for review predominantly on the basis of marketability/perceived value for money, other decisions such as the renaming of Radio 7 to Radio 4 Extra may have been far less controversial but again betrayed the hand of the marketing department.

Like 6 Music/Asian Network was initially, local radio was chosen for potential downsizing on the basis that it somehow couldn’t offer “value for money” in its current form. But as we’ve seen all too often in the past, the phrase “rather low on value for money” can be frequently misused as a catch-all to describe almost anything you like.

You could say that large chunks of BBC Four are rather low on value for money when its programming could find a larger and just as appreciative audience on BBC Two instead of the often highly derivative cooking and lifestyle programming frequently being shown there. (Not to mention many commercial channels showing similar lifestyle shows.)

A similar argument could apply to “Snog, Marry, Avoid” on BBC Three, or for that matter certain specialist classical music concerts on Radio 3 which have relatively low audience figures for a national radio network when a greater audience could be served by Beethoven, Brahms or Handel instead.

Indeed you could close down half of the BBC simply by misusing the phrase “poor value for money” by altering its meaning depending on the context that it is used, and especially when comparing the BBC’s output to its commercial competitors, ignoring the “no ads” benefit altogether.

BBC Three itself has been crippled by funding cutbacks to such an extent that it’s now considered to be a ‘feeder’ channel for BBC One simply because the BBC can no longer afford to commission that much in the way of fresh original programming to the point that you begin to question its continuing existence.

Exactly the same also applies to BBC Four, with significantly less original content and a shift away from expensive original drama to cheaper repeated programming, with even certain repeats such as The Singing Detective threatening to be too expensive for the channel.

Indeed it was originally suggested that BBC Four should close as a channel altogether, and you may begin to feel that this could have been the better option if it was also somehow guaranteed that its programming and ethos would transfer unaltered to BBC Two. (In short, beware of what you wish for.)

After all, BBC Two is still the TV channel with an image problem as well as being stuffed with derivative programmes, basically continuing to be the dumping ground for everything that doesn’t quite fit elsewhere (more populist than BBC Four, more lifestyle-orientated than BBC One, older age profile compared to BBC Three, etc.).

The most important BBC TV channel thankfully also happens to be the star performer. BBC One may have been outperforming ITV1 as early as 2001 but has continued to do so ever since and may even pull further ahead if The Voice proves to be a great success.

Of course the success of a TV channel is largely dependent on both funding and the competence of its controller, even if you have to be pretty incompetent to screw up something as relatively straightforward to manage as BBC One. (Niche channels are arguably harder to manage because their audiences can be more demanding.)

We can overlook occasonal clunkers such as Don’t Scare the Hare and The Royal Bodyguard as long as there are runaway hits such as Call the Midwife, Doctor Who, Frozen Planet and Sherlock for people to watch.

Indeed to a fair chunk of the UK population, BBC One is the BBC, so if you’re going to get one channel ‘right’ in order to preserve the BBC as worth watching to the bulk of TV licence fee-payers it better be that one.

Whilst on the subject of satellite broadcasting, deafening silence from the very top in relation to BSkyB’s hugely controversial television carriage costs for BBC television channels suggests an unwillingness to rock the boat, an unwillingness to defend the BBC, or there’s some form of conspiracy involved. (Not that the latter is necessarily true.)

It has been left to some of the BBC’s more junior managers to publicly suggest that these charges may not be (shock, horror) that fair for the corporation and that this issue ought to be pursued further as a matter of urgency. (Still silence from the top at the time of writing on this very issue, though there could be commercially sensitive issues at play here.)

On top of this there were a series of scandals involving everything from misnaming Blue Peter cats to badly edited promos causing a kerfuffle (Crowngate) via a prank phone call made by two overgrown schoolboys (Sachsgate); certainly more than enough to keep the BBC’s overstretched and underfunded PR department very busy indeed.

To many people outside of the BBC this appeared to be a succession of PR disasters, namely nothing in themselves that could wholly be regarded as deal-breaking but somehow seemed to amplify the drama made out of a crisis through what appeared to be

The BBC as a corporation seemed to muddle though all of this with no real sense of leadership, leading the tabloids to have a field day

All those so-called fakery scandals could have happened at that time regardless of who was in charge of the BBC, because it was the potentially lethal combination of artifice (namely, making the programme run smoothly) and premium-rate interactivity (phone calls, texts, etc.) and/or competition prizes – a major disaster just waiting to happen.

Thankfully for the BBC there were no significant instances of fraud compared to what was happening elsewhere in the commercial sector, but the BBC was perceived to have frequently dealt with such instances with an inappropriate response as opposed to setting the right example as may have been the intention at the time.

For example, the sacking of a Blue Peter producer for the misnaming of a cat may have set an example to the outside world for precisely five seconds, but was a ludicrously heavy-handed move that didn’t exactly instill confidence and faith amongst BBC staff.

Then there was Sachsgate in 2008, which (if you want to know more) has already been extensively covered here and here, but suffice to say that it was the aftermath that was handled with a relative lack of finesse and saddled the corporation with a suffocating extra layer of costly compliance procedures that have yet to be properly reassessed.

(All this just to appear to the wider world that the sort of mistake that may happen once every five or so years will never happen again. Allegedly.)

Some sections of the media’s pathological hatred of Jonathan Ross (for his salary relative to perceived value) obviously didn’t help matters, and it’s instructive to note that Russell Brand (whose show it was in the first place) emerged virtually unscathed, with Ross left to present an ITV chat show which at the time of writing isn’t exactly setting the world alight.

All this compliance “red tape” has resulted in a news department working on its limits due to successive cutbacks, and question marks have been raised over impartiality issues as well as

And then there was the astonishing admission that the BBC somehow couldn’t report on the News International phone-hacking scandal compared to its competitors, which is clearly contrived nonsense if the likes of Channel 4 News can provide comprehensive coverage without apparent compromise.

Therefore any assessment of Thompson’s tenure has to bear all of this in mind, along with having to coexist within a very tricky political climate that was especially complicated by News Corporation’s uncomfortably close relationship with the establishment until exposed by the phone-hacking scandal and the subsequent Leveson inquiry.

It’s true that the BBC is still largely in one piece despite the best efforts of certain individuals, but much of this is a result of a fortuitous set of circumstances as opposed to the very best efforts of BBC management, that have often appeared to contradict

Even Thompson’s key successes haven’t been entirely free of controversy

First controversial point in relation to Salford relates to the choice of departments selected for the move. In particular, choosing sport for the move north soon appeared to be rather unfortunate when the 2012 Olympics resulted in shiny new sports facilities being built far away from BBC Sport’s new home in the North.

(However you could argue that such a move is exactly what’s required to counter all those Olympic facilities showing a southern bias, despite the inconvenience.)

Then there was the choice of children’s television for a Salford move. This seemed an excellent idea on paper: children’s has the longest history of independent production in British broadcasting as well as long-standing connections with the area (Cosgrove-Hall, Granada as an ITV franchise, etc.), but even this idea could have been contentious.

The reason? It’s intended that children’s programming will no longer appear on BBC One and Two once all areas have completed digital switchover, and until very recently there appeared to be little hope of the CBeebies and CBBC channels having the ability to broadcast in high definition.

Therefore there could have been the potential embarassment of moving children’s TV to shiny new HD studios only for their programming to be only viewable in good old-fashioned standard definition – at least in the short term – but the BBC HD channel could now get a reprieve after Channel 5 pulled out of its proposed HD Freeview slot.

Such decision-making seems to betray a lack of joined-up thinking that seemed endemic amongst upper management, with perhaps

Ironically Thompson’s comment about Downton Abbey being thought of as a BBC production in America highlights a crucial dilemma that still afflicts the corporation, namely how to make BBC productions distinctive versus the competition, especially with accusations that BBC television channels in particular are still too derivative in nature.

With independent producers proposing derivative formats aimed at commercial channels, there are strong concerns that BBC programming can frequently end up just as derivative if the corporation relies on formats proposed by others.

What’s dangerous for the BBC could be the next three years of its existence. As currently seems to be the case, the National Health Service is being ‘devolved’ as well as (at least) part-privatisation of roads being next on the agenda for the government, so very radical changes (forced sell-off of channels/assets, etc.) could be imposed on the corporation.

Then there’s Project Barcelona, whereby the BBC’s archive is opened up to the general public to download as long as you’re prepared to pay for the donwloads. Server space and bandwidth all cost money of course, and this is essentially only a modern equivalent of selling DVD’s and video tapes like the BBC has freely done in the past.

Some might remember that there was an earlier project to make at least some of this archive free of charge to access for everyone, but since this is the cash-strapped BBC we’re now talking about here this has now predictably switched to a pay-to-download model.

Not so bad news in itself if we can download obscure items from the BBC’s archive for a modest fee, but what will be interesting is how the charges will compare to its commercial competition (iTunes, Lovefilm, Netflix, etc.); too little and the BBC will be accused of undercutting everyone, whilst too much will obviously result in failure.

Indeed the whole theme of “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t” has been an ongoing concern during the Thompson era

The BBC still remains an organisation which is less than perfect, but arguably it deserves our support even more now as it did thirty years ago because it still represents the gold standard in programming despite all its numerous faults, and without the BBC setting high standards the rest of the UK media industry could end up sliding into oblivion quality-wise.

Thompson’s tenure at the BBC has coincided with a particularly unsettling time for the corporation, namely technological changes both in terms of the digital television switchover and the growing availability of broadband internet services that in theory greatly extends the choice of television viewing on offer.

A greater choice of viewing theoretically means that the BBC has to work harder in order to justify being funded by a TV licence fee that’s compulsory in the UK if you wish to watch live television either using a traditional television receiver or via online video streaming.

Thompson’s BBC therefore had to fight incredibly hard in order to prevent the licence fee being reduced in real terms. He took up the role originally as a caretaker replacement for the outgoing Greg Dyke, who had been forced out under somewhat suspicious circumstances; hardly a quiet start to what would

Indeed it’s perfectly possible to argue that the BBC has been saved from itself on several occasions despite the best intentions of its management

This leads inevitably into the legacy relating to downsizing the BBC after two unfavourable licence fee settlements

Delivering Quality First has frequently turned into Delivering Cutbacks First despite previous assurances that this wouldn’t happen (namely, programmes wouldn’t be axed altogether as a consequence); the comedy panel game Shooting Stars was axed in 2011 using DQF as the excuse, which still went on to win

So who will replace Thompson

Tim Davie has

On the positive side he appears to be very confident and quick-witted when giving speeches (more so than Thompson), but his significant downside is being too closely associated to the 6 Music and Asian Network closure proposals plus local radio downsizing that happened to be the only ones that failed badly. Whoops.

The worst may be over the the BBC in the short term but there’s another licence fee settlement to negotiate, which may end up becoming two separate settlements if Scotland gains independence; the latter being a whole can of worms for the BBC, especially in dealing with

(One possible escape route for the BBC is that an independent Scotland will no doubt have a desire for its culture to be preserved, and this will certainly require public service broadcasting of which the BBC is already in a strong position to deliver if the price is right.)

If Scotland keeps the TV licence fee at least for the short term, it may still wish to have its fee lowered if not abolished altogether; those circumstances could spell trouble for the BBC, not just because of the obvious cut but also putting downward pressure on the licence fee for the remainder of the UK.

So the next DG may be lumbered with the deeply unpopular prospect of closing services through necessity; something so far dodged with the aid of an outcry over previous radio service closure proposals.

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