30 September 2009

All things to all men

I mentioned this article by David Elstein about the BBC yesterday, and I found it very interesting

I can broadly agree with the sentiment that there is little point in the BBC making populist shows (Eastenders, Strictly et all) because they can be easily produced by the market - one could argue that some people may want to pay for that, rather than watch it for 'free', where the cost is in watching hours of ads, but I think it's been shown that the commercial sector can make a reasonable fist of these things

But of course, they feel obliged to cater to this market because everybody funds them - if we are all forced to pay 140 quid for it then we should at least like something there - personally I think screw that, if people don't like current affairs or education and only watch tat then they should still be paying for something useful, it's a public service, like museums - just because you'll never go to one doesn't mean your taxes aren't going to fund it

But my view will never get off the ground, my brand of logic is too extreme for most and the principle remains that if we all pay, then we should all be able to watch, hence the BBC does need ratings, contrary to popular belief - if it has no viewers for Strictly then it can't justify itself

So what is the solution? - Elstein recommends a public service (PSB) fund, presumably for news, current affairs and education, and a subscription fund for everything else, after all, HBO is alright making the best dramas in the world solely off subscription

But do you really want to relegate the BBC to 80-hours of programming a year? HBO has an incredible impact for it's size, but it's solely in top-quality drama, and it's American - and so has far more people to fund it, and more money to spend on shows - so if an American subscription channel only makes 80 hours a year, how much would a British one make? 40?

That's not a lot - it's a handful of series in a year, or about a full length James Bond marathon

The BBC would fundamentally change from iconic broadcaster to a news/politics channel and niche programming provider - is that what people really want?

An Ofcom survey (source 13) found that the vast majority of people supported the BBC, and the other opinions are all about the way it is funded, not its existence - supported by c.80% of the population

The licence fee on the other hand has it's opponents

following an ICM poll for their current affairs programme Panorama, which showed that 31% were in favour of the existing licence fee system, 36% said the BBC should be paid for by a subscription, and 31% wanted advertising to pay for the programmes
So we have a situation where people want the BBC, but do not want to fork out 140 quid a year for it - fair enough, it's expensive and bad value in my book, but if we have a situation where essentially 70% of people are opposing the licence fee then how many do you think will be subscribing? The people who want a subscription are, generally speaking, against having to pay for it themselves, so it seems unlikely they'll be subscribing themselves - so we've already reduced the BBC's budget to about 30%

So the question I must ask now is - can the BBC exist in the form we want it by shifting to a subscription? The answer is probably not - I don't understand Elstein's reasoning that people would subscribe for news, the Proms, and children's shows when there is a PSB fund - if it's going to provide public service AND subscription shows then you're still going to have to be able to provide PSB for free, while presumably subscription would be on a stand-alone channel - so the subscription package is nothing but another HBO...

The idea is that basically those roughly four-fifths of the population who still want the BBC, would still pay for it - that's twenty years of Ofcom research apparently, except, when it came to the crunch, would those people who so adore the BBC bother to pay for it? Would they actually willingly pay for it when they didn't have to? I'm willing to bet ideological support for Auntie would be gone in a decade or two

It says it will survive, no doubt it will, but in what form will it survive? Further research shows 70% don't actually fancy paying, so what will we be left with?

Elstein claims PSB is just stuff that the market can't provide but that is beneficial to society (e.g. the arts/politics) - but if people like the BBC - if they like it's lack of advertising, it's pervasive news content, it's production of comedy and drama, and it's presence in general, then removing the areas that attract the most people to the channel will relegate it to being a small broadcaster - if there's no Eastenders, no Dr. Who, no My Family (note: I watch none of these) on then why will people even turn over for the news or Question Time, when the commercial networks with these popular shows will advertise their own news and draw a bigger audience share, why will people care when the BBC ask a big question to the government?

As I've said, people seem to like the BBC - it's incredibly dominant in the British media, it's an icon - they just dislike paying so much for it - so basically people want to have their cake and eat it, while a significant few don't want the cake at all

A tricky situation indeed, I believe Ben Bradshaw is right (I'll try not to let that happen again) when he says that BBC news is better than anything on offer in America, or anywhere else for that matter - it is, American news is all 'action news' to chase ratings and horribly partisan, and while I believe the BBC has gone downhill in journalistic quality, it's funding has kept the British media in check - ITV and Five can't become American-style commercial channels, and I think that's a very good thing - I've seen the US networks, and they're mirrored in Australia, and they are dreadful - it makes you long for some decorum, I think the BBC protects the British people from rampant commercialisation, and I've yet to find a country with a better media establishment - HBO is the only example ever given of a decent US channel

Likewise with the radio industry, it is often said that Radio 1 should be commercial, as it plays commercial music

Except, why should people who like that sort of music have to listen the mindless commercial networks? People who say they would be improved by the removal of the dominant BBC are wrong - and they need some evidence to back it up, because I've yet to see a decent commercial radio set-up in America or Australia - it boils down to a fundamental choice, either you want to pay for it or you don't, I would rather help pay for some of my own media outlets then let them all be commercially funded - only society can make the decision whether to keep that idea, there's no right or wrong here

I think the main issue is funding - it is unjust to force a regressive tax on people, but if people want such a broadcaster what is the fairest way to pay for it?

Subscription: as we've just seen, would probably destroy the BBC as we know it

Public funds: would be more fairly distributed, although the poorest/unemployed amongst us wouldn't be paying for it at all - it would be a further drain on the government coffers, and it would have to be significantly smaller to justify this funding, it would lose its impact and probably end up similar to the Australian weakling, ABC

I think in the end it comes down to a toss-up between the compulsory telly tax, which is a rather unfair method, and an optional payment - which is fairer, but runs the risk of removing something that most of us support - I am happy to pitch in even though I don't care for Radio 3, Songs of Praise or Antiques Roadshow, because I accept that I get something else back - if all the people who agreed with this actually paid up voluntarily then maybe it could work and we'd all be happy, but the question is: will they? Maybe it is best that the BBC is in fact, all things to all men

If there's actually someone out there who can find a decent solution to this then they're a genius

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