Comparison confusion 

18 November 2014

When it was suggested recently that the BBC’s current affairs division could somehow be separated completely and turned into a commercial entity, the mere thought of this certainly produced a degree of consternation amongst many people both inside and outside of the corporation, but you have to bear in mind the context of this suggestion.

The concept of separating specific BBC production divisions is based on a need to avoid flouting EU rules in relation to state aid, because Tony Hall’s team proposed back in June that certain BBC divisions could operate on a level playing field with their commercial competitiors, enabling (say) the BBC current affairs division to produce programmes for ITV as well as vice versa.

“Compete or compare” is the suggested end result, with remaining in-house production divisions being somehow ‘compared’ to everyone else, whilst newly-privatised divisions will be free to ‘compete’ with everyone else. A purely artificial construct somehow intended to prove the BBC’s value-for-money to the outside world, but likely to be ultimately fruitless dependent on Parliament’s political make-up after the 2015 General Election.

The whole idea in itself generates a huge number of unanswered questions, especially as excessive financial pressures at the BBC could have been a significant factor in relation to Panorama and Newsnight’s recent failings. And doubly ironic that ITV’s “Savile scoop” was at least partly based on BBC research unhindered by commercial considerations; making that research team commercial could have killed the scoop in the first place.

Also it would be embarrassing if a newly-separated production division found that nobody outside of the BBC was prepared to give it a commission. Would ITV be prepared to sacrifice its own existing internal or external teams (including ITN) to give work to a newly-separated “Newco”? What about Channel 4, Sky or anyone else? ITN aren’t going to be pleased at all if this happens and the same applies to any other independent producers specialising in current affairs output.

Of course there are numerous other genres that theoretically may get the same treatment with varying degrees of success. The BBC’s drama department could fare better than current affairs with external commissions, but as with any other production division the same caveats would surely apply to some degree, especially as ITV still wants to concentrate more on in-house production as opposed to external commissioning.

From my perspective, the one major problem with “compete or compare” is that it would be a hugely significant upheaval for the BBC with little or no benefit to either the BBC itself or for any other broadcaster, who would obviously decide for themselves what they want to use for a particular genre and/or production. Newly-created private production entities may themselves flourish but that state of affairs wouldn’t benefit the BBC or other existing commercial broadcasters as well as damaging existing production businesses; a ‘lose-lose’ situation for all but (perhaps) the new divisions.

The end result will be a downsized BBC that will effectively be spending similar levels of money in similar circumstances if nothing else changes, which will inevitably intensify pressure for a lower TV licence fee and/or full privatisation. (Other funding methods are of course an alternative but that’s another topic entirely.) Doing this wouldn’t necessarily make the BBC’s remaining core operations more or less accountable either, making the whole thing a somewhat pointless charade aside from a weak claim that because certain ex-BBC divisions are now commercial and perhaps ‘self-contained’ then they are somehow more ‘viable’ than they might have been otherwise.

Comparing what the BBC does to what the commercial sector does (or doesn’t) do is also problematic far beyond the realm of straightforward comparisons. It’s easy to tell on a superficial level which schools perform the best based on, for example, examination results, but how on earth do you compare things like the BBC’s Panorama to ITV’s Tonight? Or EastEnders to Coronation Street? It’s honestly impossible to compare value for money between two sets of programming, especially when one-off dramas can be wildly different from each other, have differing target audiences and require different budgets spent in different circumstances. Any methodology of so-called “appropriate market benchmarking” will always be questionable unless demonstrably backed up with strong evidence.

Part of the BBC’s remit should be to produce things that are distinctive from the commercial sector, rendering direct comparisons illogical and throwing out traditional notions of value for money. Resorting to convoluted attempts in order to somehow justify something that’s difficult to prove in the first place is never going to work well, or for that matter remain immune from further questions being asked of it. And something that will forever remain irrelevant to the proportion of Conservative MPs (50+, according to the Sunday Express) who want the licence fee to be abolished altogether, in a move perhaps coordinated with a UKIP threat from the right-wing.

More worryingly, doing something like this would be a tacit admission that the BBC in its recent form wasn’t trusted by politicians in respect of doing the “right thing” for itself and/or its management being incapable of handling such a task, and that would inevitably increase external pressures in the longer term as opposed to defusing them. There will always be accountability questions attached to any large organisation, therefore it’s up to BBC management team to comprehensively address these issues first before suggesting any radical solution.

Perhaps this proposal was designed all along just to tick a selection of requisite ideological tick boxes for current ministers, and will promptly be jettisoned during 2015 when the next government has been elected? It certainly looks that way based on current speculation, and hopefully something much more workable will later emerge as a consequence.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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