What price the BBC Proms?

My life was changed by a Henry Wood Promenade Concert on 4th August, 1975. In the second half Sir Adrian Boult gave us Vaughan William's Fifth Symphony, and the blazing intensity of that performance remains unmatched, in my experience, in the concert hall or on record. Sir Adrian's 86 years had no relevance to his music making. Music, not age, was what mattered then.

In the summer of 1975 punk was at its peak and the Vietnam War had ended after Communist forces took Saigon in the spring. Back with classical music, Pierre Boulez was in his last season as principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which was at the top of its game, while William Glock's golden period as BBC controller of music and Proms administrator still informed music making in London. Your life could be changed for £1.30, which was the price of a balcony seat in the Albert Hall. All of which set me thinking, what price today's BBC Proms?

In 2009 Promenade Concerts are one of few remaining great British institutions. The Empire and Princess Diana have gone. But the Proms, with their signature Last Night, live on. And, just as with the Royal family, it is still considered ungentlemanly to question their role. But On An Overgrown Path was born for opposition. So the following is a rare attempt to discuss the role and price of the BBC Proms.

This article has been prepared from information in the public domain, supplemented by a small amount obtained by me via BBC Freedom of Information Requests. My sources are identified below. If errors have been made in my calculations I apologise, and corrections will be acknowledged. But, some time back, based on the surprisingly extensive readership of On An Overgrown Path, I requested via the correct channels access to BBC Radio 3 controller and Proms director Roger Wright for an interview. My request did not even receive the courtesy of a rejection. That is the price, I assume, for not posting the Wright stuff.

In an April 2009 article (source 1) Roger Wright explained that 'of the £8.8m budget for the [Proms] festival, approximately £6m comes from BBC subsidy'. In 2009 there are 95 ticketed Prom concerts, of which 19 are for chamber music. Dividing the BBC subsidy by the number of concerts gives an average subsidy of £63,158 per concert. That word average is important; 20% of the concerts are for small forces so the subsidy for the larger performances will be considerably higher, and probably in excess of £75,000 per concert.

What do the words 'BBC subsidy' mean? Quite simply £6m from the BBC TV license fee, which is currently a £142.50 annual poll tax on every UK household with a TV receiver, is used to pay for the Proms. Now, not even I would dispute that £6m of license fee revenue is better spent on classical music than on more episodes of Holby City. But that is not my point, even though an average £63,158 subsidy per concert makes those infamous BBC expenses look like small change. My concerns revolve around why the BBC is so generously subsidising the Proms, and what transparency and controls operate over that subsidy.

For the reason why the BBC subsidise the Proms look no further than my header montage. In 1975 it was 'The BBC presents the 81st season of HENRY WOOD PROMENADE CONCERTS', their capitals not mine. In 2009 it is simply the 'BBC PROMS'.

During the 2009 Proms season there will be 25 TV broadcasts on either BBC TV Two or Four, that is more than a quarter of all concerts. So why are the Proms so appealing to the TV planners? The reason can be found in a document in the BBC Governor's archives (source 2). This shows that in 2005/6 the average cost per hour of BBC Two TV programming was £99,300. My calculations above, assuming two hour concerts, show an average cost per hour of £31,579 for televising the Proms. That is less than one third of the average network programming cost before a proportion of the charge is allocated against BBC Radio 3.

The Proms are a low cost source of programming, both for TV and radio, during the summer months when broadcast audiences are small and repeats dominate the schedules. This is the main reason why the BBC Proms have been expanded to almost 100 concerts with more than 25% of these televised. An additional benefit is that cultural content helps the BBC to justify its never ending requests for increases in the TV license fee. Plus there is the old chestnut that televising classical music creates new audiences for live music. Sadly, there is no evidence to support that. Today's televised classical music simply produces an audience for more of the same, arguably at the expense of live performances.

The lie to the cultural content argument is also given by the fact that the recent commendable Indian Voices Day at the Proms was denied either a live or recorded TV broadcast, unlike the MGM Film Musicals concert. Cultural content is only champion until it meets ratings. And that is my key concern about the BBC Proms. They have moved from being an independent music festival with its own unique DNA to just another programme source, with all the attendant pressures related to audience size and ratings.

Further proof of this is provided by the role of the director of the BBC Proms. If you can actually pin that role down. An FOI request (source 3) to give the salary band for the director of the Proms, to compare it with similar positions, received this response:
I can confirm that Roger Wright holds the combined role of Controller R3 and Director BBC Promenade Concerts, for which he receives a salary in the band disclosed in the previous response. There is no separate salary band for the role of Director BBC Promenade Concerts.
A subsequent FOI request for the terms of tenure of the director BBC Proms post has so far been met with an extended silence - update 27/08, see comment below. The BBC are doubtless puzzling over how to explain the contract terms of a post that scarcely exists on paper, yet alone in practice.

To all intents and purposes the BBC Proms are run by the executives responsible for radio and TV scheduling. Missing from today's Proms is the passion and vision brought by a daring artistic director which is the hallmark of other distinctive and successful music festivals. For what drives the BBC Proms look no further than BBC Radio 3's service license issued in 2008 (source 4). The first, and longest, parameter in the network's performance measurement framework is:
Reach: Radio 3 should contribute towards the maintenance of combined BBC weekly reach at over 90% by aiming to maintain its own weekly reach. It should contribute towards on-demand consumption of content. This will be measured by weekly reach of non-DRM audio downoads over the internet.
I am a huge fan of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, and, as described above, they have changed my life. But 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. My concerns extend to the lack of accountability and tangibility of the role of the director of the BBC Proms.

This article is an expanded version of the notes I prepared when invited recently to take part in a BBC Radio Five live discussion about the Proms. Unfortunately I was not allowed to air these views because, as the programme presenter explained, Roger Wright was not on the programme to answer my points. The BBC's unique dual position of both making and controlling the news about the Proms allows them to implement a policy of if you publish the Wright stuff you get your interview. Not to mention the dual roles played by a number of leading music journalists.

It would require another extended article to suggest how the future of the Proms and the BBC can be untangled without jeopardising the many invaluable benefits brought by the annual Albert Hall concerts. But here are some bullet points:

- Separate the Promenade concerts from the BBC and establish them as a stand-alone non-profit organisation.
- Negotiate a 5 year contracted annual fee for broadcast rights with the BBC or another broadcaster, including minimum coverage and publicity clauses.
- Appoint an independent and innovative Proms artistic director answerable to a board of trustees on a fixed term contract.
- The BBC, or other appointed broadcaster, to have one seat on the board of trustees, but no other control over concert content.
- Contract a London orchestra and principal conductor to provide a minimum quota of concerts, and reduce the appearances by touring orchestras.
- Forge partnerships between the Proms and other arts festivals, including the visual arts.
- Publish artists' fees for concerts using banded scales.
- Sell the rights to Last Night name and format to Victor Hochhauser for a very large sum. Use money raised for endowment fund for new music commissions.
- Question all other current assumptions about the Proms, including the use of the Royal Albert Hall as principal venue.

These changes would almost certainly mean less Proms concerts. But that is a fair price to pay to create an independent future and identity for the Promenade Concerts. Which is what is missing today, despite the BBC's spin. For when the fickle TV audience tires of Clive Anderson's vacuous chatter and the maestro cam what will the BBC move on to? What guarantee is there that the BBC Proms will not then be consigned to the ever expanding graveyard of intelligent broadcast arts coverage?

1. Guardian article 8 April 2009.
2. BBC Governor's Archives, Broadcasting Facts and Figures 2006.
3. BBC FOI RFI20091032
4. BBC Radio 3 service license 2008.

All photos were taken by me at the first night of the 2006 BBC Proms season. Yes, I do still sometimes go. Read my article here.
All photos (c) On An Overgrown path 2009. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk. V1.2, last modified 27/8/2009.


Pliable said…
Email received:

At least you still have the Proms.

We never did. And it’ll never happen either, especially since our Public Broadcaster has been duly eviscerated.


David Cavlovic
Pliable said…
Yes David, we still have the Proms, and what happened to CBC Radio 2 was a calamity -


My concern, and the reason for the article, is that a similar evisceration could happen here.

Scare mongering? No, just remember what the BBC management tried doing to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Their clumsy attempt to disband the BBCSO actually resulted in the cancellation of twenty concerts in the 1980 Proms season, a fact that is not often mentioned today by the BBC -

Pliable said…
Email received:

Orchestras, Proms, and Public Broadcasting notwithstanding—and not happening—the best music is now heard on the ‘Net, with programs like Paul von Wichert’s Komodo Dragon Show, and, oh yes, On An Overgrown Path!


David Cavlovic
Pliable said…

Oliver said…
I'm no great admirer of current programming at the Proms, but your proposal makes no sense at all. It would only be a sensible thing to do if one could be *certain* that hiving the Proms off into a separate trust would produce better programming. But there's no logical reason why that should be so.

Conversely, it also isn't necessarily the case that if the Proms remains with the BBC, programming will never improve.

So under your scheme we have a certain net loss (fewer Proms). There's also the possibility that programming may improve, but there's no certainty at all about that.

Under the status quo, we have more concerts (a positive) and admittedly lacklustre programming. But the chances of programming improving under the current dispensation are surely no worse than under your proposed solution - there's no good reason to believe otherwise.

Which means that in fact, on your own analysis, the status quo is in fact preferable.
Keith said…
"which is currently a £142.50 annual poll tax on every UK household with a TV receiver"

As a result of a totally unpublicized change in the legal definition of 'receiving apparatus', I have had to purchase a licence. We do not have a television in the house, but a 'broadband connected computer' now constitutes a 'receiving apparatus'.

I too have reservations about your proposal. I think we need to seed local festivals on a smaller scale to build (real) audiences for (live) music. The web and the new broadcasting channels could allow those more distant to share these local events.
Pliable said…
Oliver, you have missed my point.

My article is not about 'better' or 'worse' programming, although my proposal for an independent and innovative artistic director surely cannot produce more lacklustre programming than that of Nicholas Kenyon's years and Roger Wright's tenure to date.

The rot at the Proms goes much deeper than the programming malaise. My article is about whether the Proms should be reconstituted as an independent and adventurous festival, or whether they should be allowed to become another BBC brand, just like Strictly Come Dancing. And let's be in no doubt, the transition to BBC brand is almost a fait accompli.

Fewer Proms would not be a bad thing. Quality is preferable to quantity. My most stimulating musical experiences this year have been at festivals a fraction the size of the Proms.

I am afraid I also do not subscribe to the view that 'the status quo is in fact preferable'. The Hutton Inquiry, Jonathan Ross fiasco and senior expenses scandal, among others, show the dangers of allowing any status quo at the BBC to continue.

But I appreciate that there are two sides to any debate. Another point that the current BBC Radio 3 management does not accept.



Pliable said…
Interesting that the much trumpeted 'Official BBC Radio 3 bloggers' have disappeared -


Or rather they have been absorbed into the Radio 3 blog which ...

'is a place where the Controller of Radio 3 and Director of BBC Proms Roger Wright and some of his colleagues and guests will discuss Radio 3, the Proms, the BBC performing groups and draw attention to particular programmes and live events'.

I am sure there will be a lot of two sided debate there.

Pliable said…
Keith, thanks for that. You have highlighted a very important point in regard to the legal definition of TV receiving apparatus.

For non-UK readers I would point out that the BBC is the sole beneficiary of the TV license. Independent broadcasters are funded by advertising revenue.

You also make a very good point about seeding local festivals. I would hope that reducing the profile of 'the world's loudest music festival' would direct more attention to local music making.

Once again, though, it is gratifying to see a debate about this shaping up here. You won't find it at the Guardian, Independent or Radio 3 blog.
Pliable said…
Now here is a surprise. 48 hours after this article is published the BBC suddenly respond to my request for clarification on the tenure of the post of director of BBC Proms.

Here is their response:


As confirmed in our previous response (RFI20091032), Roger Wright is contracted to undertake the combined role of 'Controller, R3 & Director BBC Proms'; therefore, each role is not treated separately in terms of length of the contract/conditions of service. I can conform that Roger Wright is currently on a permanent standard Senior Manager contract with the BBC in the above role; there is no fixed tenure associated with this role.

Which exactly confirms my point. This BBC response talks of role in the singular. The post of 'director of BBC Proms' does not exist as a separate post. It is simply a responsibility of the controller of BBC Radio 3.

As I said in my article:

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. My concerns extend to the lack of accountability and tangibility of the role of the director of the BBC Proms.
Pliable said…
Returning to Oliver's point about improving programming.

One reason why more adventurous programmes would result from my proposed changes occurs to me. Touring orchestras with their celebrity conductors bring programmes chosen for their portability and acceptance across different countries, rather than for their adventurousness.

Cutting back dramatically on the appearances by touring orchestras would allow the resident BBC Symphony Orchestra to take a bigger role in the Proms, and to present some challenging programmes.

Just like in the Boulez and Glock days.

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