Wednesday, September 02, 2015
Let's be realistic about the future of the BBC
As the close of the 2015 BBC Proms season approaches, there is increasing speculation as to how the forthcoming BBC charter and license fee review will impact on classical music. The more sensational speculation is predicting the disappearance of BBC orchestras, and 'Save the BBC' online petitions' are already circulating. Realism has never been a strong point of the classical music industry, so this post will try to balance the mounting hysteria with a little realism. Lobbyists are quite right to press for a strong and independent BBC. But, as recent events have shown, that strength and independence is not being delivered by the present hybrid of guaranteed license fee income and commercial programming strategies. In my view the BBC should move to commercial funding, with vital minority programming including classical music being protected and encouraged by using top-sliced sponsorship/advertising income to fund non-commercial programmes created away from the current damaging pressure to deliver maximum audience numbers.
But first, a little background for non-UK readers. The BBC's TV and radio services are funded by a £145.50 license which is obligatory for all UK residents (with a few exceptions) possessing a television receiver. A Royal Charter is the constitutional basis for the BBC. This sets out the public purposes of the BBC, and guarantees its independence. The current Charter runs until 31 December 2016, while the current license fee of £145.50 is frozen until March 2017. In July 2015 the Conservative government announced a fundamental review of the BBC as part of the charter and license fee renewal process; this review will look at four key areas: the overall purpose of the BBC; what services and content it should provide; how the BBC should be funded; and how it should be governed and regulated. An advisory panel has been appointed to carry out a this fundamental review, with eight members drawn from the commercial and media sectors. Howls of protest have greeted the appointment of this review panel, and accusations of political bias and vested commercial interests abound. These accusations may, or may not, be true. But they miss the fundamental point that radical changes have taken place in recent years in broadcast technology, costs, and business models. It is my thesis that understanding the impact of these radical changes on a corporation constituted almost a century ago is the key to taking a realistic view on the future of the BBC.
The British Broadcasting Company Ltd was a commercial company formed in 1922 by British and American manufacturers seeking to create a market for their radio receivers. In 1927 the British Broadcasting Company became the state-controlled British Broadcasting Corporation by Royal Charter. Radio receivers required a license from the start of BBC broadcasts. When fledgling television broadcasts were resumed after the Second World War, a television licence fee was introduced to finance the new service. In 1971 the separate radio and television licenses were replaced by a single television license. So the BBC's constitutional basis and funding model relies on a framework devised and implemented a little under a century ago. And in the intervening years an awful lot has changed; but the constitutional and funding framework for the BBC has not.
When I joined BBC Radio from university in 1971 some broadcasts were still monaural, valve (tube) mixing desks remained in use, and sound effects for drama productions were played in from shellac 78s. Although commercial television had started in 1955, commercial radio did not arrive in the UK until 1973. A defining characteristic of broadcasting from the launch of radio in the 1920s to the arrival of digital technology in the 1990s was the very high cost of the broadcasting infrastructure. Transmitters and studios used technology that was expensive, unwieldy and unreliable. (We left valve mixing desks switched on all night because powering the valves up and down dramatically shortened their life). When I returned to radio broadcasting in 2005 the technology had changed beyond recognition; the new generation of digital equipment meant that with a minimal production budget I was able to produce a sixty minute programme that generated coverage in both the Guardian and Telegraph and which still remains available on-demand.
The very high entry costs of radio and then television broadcasting was one of the main reasons why the BBC was given protected status via a Royal Charter, and why its income was protected via the mandatory license fee. Another reason for this constitutional and financial protection was that provision of education as well as entertainment was specified as a purpose for the BBC in its first charter, with a subsequent charters mandating the provision of information. The most recent Royal Charter in 2007 empowered the BBC to take a leading role in the provision of new technology, most notably the internet. This addition to the charter was a belated recognition of the massive impact of digital and internet technologies. These technologies had dramatically reduced the cost of broadcast infrastructure provision, thereby removing one of the main justifications for the BBC's privileged constitutional and financial position. The impact of these technologies had been recognised by the Broadcasting Act 1990 which deregulated the UK television and radio industries. This was the first step in the proliferation of broadcast and online media; a proliferation which again made the protected status of the BBC an anachronism. This proliferation of content sources has increased exponentially in recent years with the advent of broadband internet and streaming technologies, and, as a result, industry business models have been overturned.
Pay-to-view was introduced by Sky TV following the passing of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, and this has provided the model for online content streaming services. Most recently Netflix and Amazon Instant Video have become key players in content provision using the pay-to-view model. Significantly in the context of the BBC's future, both Netflix and Amazon Instant Video have moved, very successfully, into programme creation as well as programme distribution. The recent defection of BBC TV's Top Gear presentation and production team to Amazon Instant Video further weakens the argument for the BBC to retain its protected position. Similar massive changes have impacted on the distribution of music; music streaming from Spotify and Apple Music is a personalised form of broadcasting, and streaming is now the most important (measured by revenue) music distribution platform.
Technology driven change is one of the reasons why we have to be realistic and accept that the BBC has become an anachronism in its present form. But there are other equally compelling reasons. The provision of education and information has been a longtanding requirement of the BBC Royal Charter. But the emphasis placed on education and information has reduced dramatically over the years. Just imagine what the reaction would be in 2015 if a BBC executive dared echo the sentiment expressed by the corporation's first Director General Lord Reith that "He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is creating a fictitious demand for low standards which he will then satisfy". The Reithian ethic allowed the BBC to build its unique reputation for independence and quality as a public service provider. But the changing broadcasting landscape has brought massive pressure to bear on this ethical position, and the BBC has failed to resist those pressures.
Recent catastrophic BBC management failures are too numerous to list, but mentions of, on the guilty side, Jimmy Savile, Russel Brand, and, on the innocent side, Lord McAlpine and Dr David Kelly will suffice. In tandem with this self-harm on an epic scale have come further scandals related to senior management expenses, executive termination payments, and allegations of self-interested interference by senior executives in the editorial process. Coupled with these inexcusable management failures has been a conscious strategy to desert the high ground of traditional public service broadcasting, and instead chase the commercial audience downmarket. One result of this is that BBC Four TV, which should provide an eclectic alternative to mainstream output, has become a creative wilderness populated by repeats of 'Top of the Pops' and 'Great British Railway Journeys' interspersed with suitably dumbed down Proms relays.
Which brings us to the future of classical music at the BBC. The BBC's privileged financial position and its past espousal of the Reithian education ethic has allowed it to be a very great and important animateur of the arts. I have written here how my life was changed by a Henry Wood Promenade Concert back in 1975, and, similarly, the lives of thousands have, undoubtedly, been changed by the Third Programme/BBC Radio 3 and also by the Home Service/Radio 4. But in recent years the BBC has shifted the priority from changing lives to bringing entertainment into those lives, and that shift is another reason why we have to be realistic about the future. Purists like me have lamented the dumbing down of Radio 3. But, more seriously, the narrowing of the gap between the output of the BBC and commercial stations has provided a compelling argument for those not favourably disposed towards the arts, that if there is little differentiation in content between Classic FM and Radio 3, why should there be a difference in funding?
Of course there are still major and laudable differences between Radio 3 and Classic FM; not least in the BBC network's support of live music via its house ensembles, and its support - albeit diminishing - for new music. But Radio 3's transparent attempts to split the Classic FM audience has proved to be a two edged sword, and the classical music fraternity must share some of the blame for the exposed position that the BBC now finds itself in. As yet unsubstantiated rumours are circulating about the possible demise of several BBC orchestras. But the same sources are in denial about the oversupply of classical music that may well, sadly, precipitate the demise of these ensembles. For decades it has been common knowledge that there are too many orchestras in the UK. This oversupply has been exacerbated by the recent arrival of music streaming, a disruptive technology that has been enthusiastically embraced by the BBC, by orchestras, and by the whole classical music industry. In fact hardly a day passes without the same journalists who are lamenting the possible demise of BBC orchestras enthusiastically welcoming a new classical music stream. As I stated here last year, the problem is obvious - there is too much classical music. But the classical music industry has yet to face up to the problem.
Laments about the possible demise of orchestras alternate with worries about the future of the BBC Proms. Again this is too little action too late. Back in 2009 I wrote that "I have very considerable concerns about the BBC Promenade Concerts and in particular their transformation into a programming strand of BBC broadcast and internet networks", and now those concerns are becoming reality. My analysis of the exposure resulting from absorption of the Proms into the BBC was ignored at the time. This analysis included a proposal as to how the Proms could be separated beneficially from the BBC. That proposal was formulated because I was invited to participate on a BBC Radio programme discussing the Proms. However, as has been recounted here before, the programme's producer expressly forbade me to discuss my radical proposal on air. The danger of the BBC's hegemony over classical music have been obvious for years, yet it has been totally ignored. Keeping the BBC on side has been the name of the game for too long in the music industry; if classical music is disadvantaged in the forthcoming review of the BBC's activities, it only has itself to blame.
The BBC's dogged defence of its privileged license fee funding revolves around two assertions. The first is that guaranteed license fee income is needed to maintain editorial independence; the second is that the license fee model is needed to create distinctive non-mainstream programmes. However, both defences are fatally flawed. The plea for editorial independence is a self-serving myth carried over from the era of Lord Reith. Since 1995 the BBC has had a commercial arm funded by advertising. BBC World News, which has the largest audience of any BBC channel, is owned and operated by BBC Global News Ltd., part of the BBC's commercial group of companies, and is funded by subscription and advertising revenues, not by the television licence. But despite this commercial funding, BBC World News draws some of its content from the "editorially independent" domestic BBC newsrooms. Funding for BBC World News has come from politically sensitive sources; an example is sponsorship for a programming strand by Emirates Airline & Group; this group is owned by the Investment Corporation of Dubai, a sovereign wealth fund owned by the government of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
In 2015 the UK broadcast regulator OFCOM ruled that BBC World News had consistently broadcast advertorial programmes (biased to the interests of the sponsor) provided at minimal cost by commercial organisations in breach of broadcast guidelines. Editorial independence is a function of management integrity not funding process, as is proved by the slew of awards won by by commercially funded Channel 4. The canard that a guaranteed license fee income is needed to create distinctive non-mainstream programmes is disproved by the wealth of very successful and distinctive non-mainstream projects created within a commercial framework in the cinema and record industries: Decca's Vienna Philharmonic Solti 'Ring' is just one project that should never have happened if you believe the license fee lobby.
Rather than speculate on the possible painful outcomes of the Royal Charter and license fee review, I will outline what I would propose if - dream on - I was a member of the BBC review advisory panel. My view is that the fundamental changes in broadcast technology, costs, and business models outlined above make the BBC's current privileged financial position untenable. The BBC has already broken from the license fee model with its three commercial subsidiaries, BBC Worldwide, BBC Studios and Post Production and BBC Global News. Moreover it has become a commercial broadcaster in all but name in its domestic radio and television services. The current protected license fee model is not a prerequisite for editorial independence or creating non-mainstream programmes. So it is inevitable that the current unsatisfactory quasi-commercial structure of the BBC should be changed to a fully commercial structure. This would mean switching funding from license fee income to subscription or pay-per-view revenue, as already happens with BBC World News.
This funding change would not abrogate the BBC's Royal Charter status, because this constitutional status is required to guarantee independence and protect minority programming. To facilitate this protection, the pay-per-view income would be top-sliced to provide a ring-fenced production budget for non-mainstream programming on both radio and television. This top-sliced income would allow programmes to be created in an environment totally divorced from the BBC's current culture of chasing ratings. The television output from this creative skunk works would be aired on BBC Four, while BBC Radio 3 would disappear, and be replaced by BBC Classical; this would be a subscription/pay-per-listen radio channel positioned close to Classic FM. The outstanding success of BBC Radio 6 Music has shown the market opportunity for a channels without FM frequencies. So I would create a new online-only radio channel with the working title BBC Culture Vulture, a free-to-air service devoid of advertising, which would broadcast minority programming funded by the top-sliced income. Much of Culture Vulture's output would be adventurous classical music programming supplemented by speech and drama.
As part of my proposal the BBC would be obliged to adopt an arms-length relationship with non-core broadcast activities. This would involve setting the Proms up as an independent Trust as per my 2009 proposal, with the Proms Trust able to negotiate a fixed term broadcast contract with the BBC or another media company. For some years the BBC News website has been criticised for providing unfair competition to other news media platforms. This criticism is based, with some justification, on the guaranteed funding that the BBC News website enjoys from the license fee, and on the cost advantages it derives from sharing overheads with broadcast news rooms. To level the playing field the BBC News website should be split off and run as a separate commercially funded operation with an initial contractual relationship with the BBC as a provider of its news content.
We need a strong and independent BBC. But, as events have shown, that strength and independence is not being delivered by the present hybrid structure. Moving to a subscription/pay-per-view model and separating core and non-core broadcast activities would remove the strategic fog that has caused the BBC to lose its way so badly in recent years; while budget top-slicing would allow creating outstanding minority programming to be divorced from ratings pressures. But there is no doubt that any move away from the license fee model will cause considerable pain in some areas, notably in the BBC's classical music activities. When financial markets get out of step with reality, a painful correction takes place. Classical music provision - or rather over-provision - has got seriously out of step with the reality of demand, both in and beyond the BBC. As part of my fundamental review proposals I would task the BBC with producing and implementing a plan, in conjunction with the independent orchestras and media companies, to tackle the oversupply - both live and streamed/recorded - of classical music. Sadly such a downsizing would cause pain to many fine and innocent musicians. But a considered correction driven from within is infinitely preferable to draconian cuts to classical music supply driven from without, and, unless the classical music industry acts soon, others will. Just as we need to be realistic about the future of the BBC, so we also need to be realistic about the future of classical music and accept painful but much-needed change.
Photo of now decommissioned SSL mixing desk in BBC Studio Five Maida Vale via Sound on Sound. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.