Providing a comprehensive BBC service for the whole nation 

12 August 2022

Charles Curran, Director-General of the BBC, discusses the cost of providing a comprehensive BBC service for the whole nation. This article appeared in The Times on 12 November 1970.


Cover of "In the Public Interest"

From “In the Public Interest: a six-part explanation of BBC policy” published in January 1971

THE BBC’s annual report deals at some length with our financial position. Earlier this year I forecast in an interview in The Times that the BBC would have run up a deficit of £7 million [£120m now, allowing for inflation -Ed] by April 1971. Since then the BBC has negotiated pay agreements with its staff. They followed the fair comparisons principle enunciated by last year’s Court of Inquiry. The settlement was substantially above our estimates and reflected the need to make good the effect of incomes restraint. The result of this and other economic pressures has radically altered the financial situation. By 1974 the accumulated deficit of the BBC could be nearer £50 million [£850m] than the £13 million [£220m] we had estimated for that date, and even that £50 million assumes a reasonable control of inflation.

That is a pretty awesome prospect. It is not the outcome of spendthrift policies. Our efficiency has recently been examined, publicly by the Estimates Committee of the House of Commons and privately by McKinsey’s. Both returned favourable verdicts on the way we deployed the licence income.

There was never much fat on the budget: there is none at all now. Wages and salaries account for half our costs. Fees to artists are another third. Four-fifths of our costs are therefore payments to people for work done. In the next few years we shall have no money, for example, for the development of programmes, which is always necessary to foster new ideas and without which a broadcasting service loses its vitality. And the extension of stereophony, as important in many ways to radio as colour to television, is among the things which will suffer.

So what in this financial situation should the BBC do? Let us consider – and this is the first question that licence holders would naturally ask – whether the BBC is spending its money on the right things. The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications [Christopher Chataway] was reported in the press last week as having ‘made it plain’ that the BBC ‘should not attempt to compete right across the board with commercial interests’. He is quoted as believing that the BBC should build on the things it does ‘uniquely well’ and ‘what other companies cannot do’. This means, I assume, that the BBC should shift its emphasis towards programmes for minorities.

The Minister’s suggestion echoes thoughts expressed in the House of Commons during a debate on broadcasting about a year ago. It is consistent with a philosophy that public money should be spent only in areas where private money is reluctant to go.

This suggestion is seen by some of its advocates as a way of helping the BBC to economise. In fact, it would raise the BBC’s costs, not lower them. The evidence may surprise the advocates. But it is incontrovertibly true that the minority programmes, towards which the BBC’s attention would be turned, are the most consistently expensive of the BBC’s entire output.

Charles Curran

Let me give some examples.

A seventy-five-minute play, of the kind that makes up the series Play for Today on BBC-1, works out at about £25,000 [£425,000] an hour. A half-hour comedy, such as Dad’s Army or Up Pompeii!, costs about £15,000 [£255,000] an hour. A sports programme, such as Grandstand on Saturday afternoons, costs about £6,000 [£102,000] an hour. And a feature film costs about £4,000 [£70,000] an hour. The figures I have quoted cover all costs associated with the production of the programme. It is a fact of television life that to transmit an afternoon’s horse-racing is operationally much less complicated and therefore much less costly than staging Play of the Month.

The same is true of radio. It is now argued (and often, of course, by interested parties) that we should scrap Radio 1, the pop service the BBC undertook when the Government finally took action against the pirates. The saving would be no more than £750,000 [£13m]. It is in fact the cheapest of the radio services. The most expensive is Radio 4 which, with Radio 3, represents the service to minorities which we are apparently being encouraged to expand. What, then, are the financial facts of radio? Plays on Radio 3 and 4 cost about £600 [£11,000] an hour. Live (or BBC recorded) orchestral music costs £1,200 [£21,000] an hour. Compare these with the cost of £160 [£3,000] an hour for a typical Radio 1 programme.

So there is no saving in costs if we take the BBC out of the entertainment business and fill the time with minority programmes. (It would, of course, leave more elbow room for commercially financed competitors.) The proposition that there would be a saving does not stand up to factual analysis. It is irrelevant to the BBC’s financial problem.

It is worse than irrelevant. It damages the foundations of a broadcasting service financed by licence fees. Everybody who uses a television set, and at the moment a radio set, has to have a licence. A broadcasting service financed by all the people needs to serve all the people. From its earliest days the BBC has attempted to follow the policy of catering for majority tastes while also offering an equitable choice for minorities. (Nor should it be forgotten that the BBC also carries the extra responsibility of the patronage of music.) We recognise that people sometimes share tastes with many others and sometimes with only a few. It is wrong to think that the man who enjoys a Tortelier Master Class is automatically incapable of enjoying Match of the Day. The decision to finance the BBC by licence fees was taken because it represented the best way of ensuring that the BBC would provide a comprehensive service. That is still, to my mind, a sensible doctrine whether in terms of politics or of equity.

There has grown up a public expectation that, on one or other of the BBC’s services and at one or other times of the day – preferably a reasonable time – people will find programmes to please them. The fact that the public continues to turn to the BBC in large numbers suggests that this expectation is being fulfilled. If the BBC’s services were no longer to be comprehensive, politicians might be tempted to consider how willing people would be to contribute to a service offering only a selective range of programmes. It would not be a fair deal.

The BBC’s services have produced a professionalism in all areas of broadcasting. I believe that the development of professionalism is not an accident but evolves naturally in a service catering for the full range of human interests. If that range were to be narrowed the BBC’s professional standards, which have influenced broadcasters not only in Britain but throughout the world, would almost certainly be threatened. And the world-wide reputation of the BBC is an asset that certainly merits consideration in this discussion.

A comprehensive service has meant that many people have encountered subjects and personalities they might never have met in a selective service. It can be argued that television has trivialised politics. There can be more than one view of that charge. But a comprehensive service has enabled the serious issues of our time to be brought before many more people than might otherwise have become aware of them. A policy which limited the range of programmes, which meant that the service would be seen by fewer people, does not seem to me to constitute a policy for a mass medium.

The right question to ask at this moment is not ‘What should the BBC be doing?’ but: ‘How can the BBC’s finances be put on a stable basis?’ There is one important new expectation. The supplementary colour licence fee holds out a reasonable hope of long-term stability – and by that I mean towards the end of the decade. But it will be poor consolation if in the meantime the BBC’s services have been irretrievably damaged by financial starvation. We are already faced with that danger.

The BBC has rested historically on a political consensus, buttressed by independent inquiries. The result has been a service profoundly admired throughout the world. There has been dispute about the prospect of competition, but never about the importance of the BBC as it has developed. A period of political dispute about its future finances could wreck the whole structure. So far there has been general assent to the proposition that broadcasting financed by the public should serve all the public. If there could be agreement on that proposition the BBC’s financial future ought to be assured. The central issue is one comprehensive BBC service for the whole of the nation.




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