Cutting spending: the BBC warning


12:00 pm - March 5th 2010

by Chris Dillow    


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The BBC’s proposal to cut 6Music and the Asian Network is, I fear, a portent of coming cuts in government spending – because it shows that when a top-down organization makes cuts, it does so on the basis of power, not efficiency.

Put it this way. If the BBC were to restructure itself according to public service broadcasting principles it would abolish BBC3 (£115m a year for a pile of crap), privatize Radio 1 and possibly Radio 2 , and stop paying huge salaries for “talent” – though the fact that Anne Robinson gets £3m a year suggests this word is used very elastically.

So, why does it leave all these alone and target instead two radio stations which seem to fulfil the public service remit by offering things which the commercial sector probably wouldn’t?

The answer is simple. Mark Thompson is a bully. And bullies respect not principles, but power. Radios 1 and 2 and BBC3 have large staffs and bureaucracies, and (mistakenly?) popular presenters, so they have lots of lobbying power. 6Music and the Asian Network have much less. Thompson would rather upset Lauren Laverne than Chris Moyles or Steve Wright.

And herein lie two paradoxes. One is that the areas of the BBC that should be cut in many cases the areas that are hardest to cut politically. This is because bloated bureaucracies fight like hell to save themselves, with the result that cuts fall upon departments that do their jobs well rather than spend time in office politics.

Secondly, the areas of the BBC that are most vulnerable to cuts are often those with smaller audiences, as these have less public support. But in many cases, a small audience is evidence that the BBC is fulfilling its public service remit, because it’s doing something that the private sector – motivated by the desire for large audiences – wouldn’t.

Which brings me to my concern. The BBC’s cuts could be the bastard model for government spending cuts. These too might be determined not by genuine efficiency, but by what bullying bosses feel they can get away with most easily.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments


1. Flowerpower

I agree with this bit:

If the BBC were to restructure itself according to public service broadcasting principles it would abolish BBC3 (£115m a year for a pile of crap), privatize Radio 1 and possibly Radio 2 , and stop paying huge salaries for “talent” –

But I’m not sure of this bit:

The answer is simple. Mark Thompson is a bully. And bullies respect not principles, but power.

You may be right. But I think the Trust rather than just Thompson’s executive committee was responsible for identifying which services should go.

Chris,

I actually agree with your value judgements here, but they are value judgements. If you cut Radio 1 and BBC 3, what does the BBC do that is targetted at younger people? Yes they might be crap, but is our judgement here based on the fact we are not young?

The problem is with the concept of the BBC’s purpose – public service means different things to different people, and until it is better defined this problem will remain. You do hear people saying the BBC is there to provide things no-one else would provide, but that is not its mission. Channel 4 was set up to do that specifically; the BBC therefore does not have that particular purpose.

The public service remit is not to offer “things which the commercial sector probably wouldn’t”. If that were the case, the BBC would have minority sports channels etc. Instead, it correctly fills market gaps where either lots of people gain or where a significant part of culture would lose without broadcast. If more people actually listened to 6Music frequently, it’s likely that it wouldn’t be in the firing line. But most people who profess support probably use the internet or their own personal collections more than 6Music because the genre is so fragmented nowadays.

4. Gaf the Horse

Agree wholeheartedly with the article, apart from the comment about BBC3 being “a pile of crap”. Don’t forget that for every “Snog, Marry, Avoid” or “Hotter Than My Teenage Daughter” there is “Torchwood”, “Gavin and Stacey”, “Being Human”, “Monkey Dust” or “The Mighty Boosh”. It is entirely possible that none of these would have been commissioned or would have struggled to find their audience if they had been no BBC3 to try them out on.
Now I’m not for one second suggesting that BBC3 is awash with quality, but to say that it is all crap is maybe a bit one sided.
Mind you if you asked me to choose between BBC3 or 6 Music then I’d obviously pick 6 Music anyday 🙂

5. Shatterface

‘I actually agree with your value judgements here, but they are value judgements. If you cut Radio 1 and BBC 3, what does the BBC do that is targetted at younger people? Yes they might be crap, but is our judgement here based on the fact we are not young?’

I’m probably older that the BBC3 demographic but they’ve made fantastic programmes like ‘Being Human’ which wouldn’t sit comfortably on BBC1 or 2: not popular enough for BBC1, not arty enough for 2.

Am I right in thinking that “Live From Studio 5” is ostensibly part of Channel 5’s “public service” content, for which they get a subsidy? Lets get some perspective here!

7. Charlieman

@2 Watchman: “If you cut Radio 1 and BBC 3, what does the BBC do that is targetted at younger people? Yes they might be crap, but is our judgement here based on the fact we are not young?”

There is an element of truth to that point, but does the quality of some of the programmes meet the threshold that we expect from the BBC? Does the BBC run the risk of devaluing its brand (and losing licence payer respect) by broadcasting crap?

I suspect that there is some tolerance of Radio 1 by licence payers owing to the more adult evening content. Feed the kids rubbish most of the time and deliver something more meaningful when you get the opportunity. Attract youngsters to the BBC brand and provide more stimulating offerings than Radio 1 elsewhere. They are reasonable strategies. That is why I find the threat to BBC 6 Music so misguided.

My problem with BBC3 is that it was designed as a “youth identity” station. The content would be repeats of youth orientated programmes from BBC1 and 2, a bit of not serious documentary and light entertainment and new comedy. This schedule was intended to draw the youngsters who watch Jeremy Kyle, Deal or No Deal and bizarre cooking shows in the daytime, using repeats and cheaply made new content.

The repeats aren’t exclusively “youth”. My mate Ken who is in his 70s enjoys Dr Who and Top Gear (note the preponderance of male pattern baldness in the live audience to understand that programme). Enjoyment of comedy is not a generational attribute; there have been good programmes on BBC3 but too many fail the funny test. The assumptions on which BBC3 was created never added up.

On the positive side, the BBC could sort out its branding out. BBC4 should become BBC3, delivering a varied content of intelligent arts, sport, music and history programmes. There’s a distant corollary with Radio 3 that creates some of its best output when it stretches itself beyond classical music. A new BBC4 could be created as a TV correspondent to Radio 4; but I am not sure that we need it.

I’ve not be reading Liberal Conspiracy long, but every article I’ve read so far could have been published by Times, or maybe the FT. Neo-liberal conspiracy? Right of centre-conspiracy?

If everything popular is scrapped on the BBC, the licence fee wouldn’t last long. I happen to think that Radios 1 and 2 are doing things that couldn’t be done by the commercials. Does the poster actually listen? Or perhaps just trusting the posters on ConservativeHome? I also don’t believe in this new Murdoch/Cameron ethos of “letting the commercial sector have a chance” by cutting back or chopping popular BBC activities. Let the commercial sector offer something better, then we’ll see.

I agree that BBC3 is an experiment that hasn’t fully justified itself. The point is that a public service broadcaster is able to experiment in a way that others wouldn’t. Likewise 6 Music can risk playing unsigned bands and introduce obscure music to its audience. By now it must have over one million listeners, pretty good when not many people have DAB radios; it could go a lot higher.

Where is the country going with DAB by the way? If we intend to keep it and provide a suitable platform for small commercial stations, we’d better keep some basic content. Getting rid of 6 Music and Asian Network doesn’t leave that much; we need to reach a critical mass to attract DAB buyers to make it attractive for the commercial stations.

I’ve long been familiar with the case the BBC regularly makes for its two popular radio channels and the dumbing down of its TV content – Eastenders was the most popular TV programme during the Xmas period.

But then I’m also familiar with the £18m contract with Jonathan Ross and the ridiculous salaries paid to BBC executives.

As reported, these high salaries are necessary “so the BBC can stay competitive”. Of course, it’s a pity that the BBC has to pay such high salaries that it can’t afford to produce good TV programmes any longer. The consequence is that I’ve stopped watching TV and haven’t renewed my licence fee since last year.

Remember those times of great BBCTV comedy series like Fawlty Towers?

“Cleese said he was paid £6,000 for an entire series work on Fawlty Towers, including writing, performing and filming.”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/may/06/television-john-cleese

Why does this discussion focus on cutting frontline stuff and not management? How many layers of management has the BBC introduced over the years and how necessary are they?

Before cutting programming and channels I would like to see evidence that a review across the BBC had been carried out, not just slashing a few channels because of some impression they have about them. After all, nobody seems to even want to mention Radio 3 though few people listen to it. Is it because of the kind of people in the auidience?

11. Matt Munro

@ 9 As reported, these high salaries are necessary “so the BBC can stay competitive”.

Competitive with what/who though ? Independent broadcasters need to attract viewers in order to retain and increase advertising revenue, which they use to make programmes which attract viewers and so on. They are all competing for the same advertisng revenue.

The BBC has the licencse fee, so is funded even if (in theory) no one is watching. The BBC is trying to have it’s cake and eat it, behaving as if it were in the private sector when justifying paying “talent” and senior staff, but being funded like an arm of the civil service.

I’ve never understood why, for example, even people like newsreaders use taxis rather than driving their own cars to work. Even in the cash rich world of premiership football, players drive themselves to work, or en masse, travel by coach.

Try this:

“The figures showed that the BBC’s 50 highest-paid executives earned as much as £13.6million last year, with 27 paid more than the Prime Minister.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/5649513/Mark-Thompson-defends-high-BBC-salaries-and-lavish-expense-accounts.html

Pity about the poor quality TV though. I’ve given up watching TV nowadays and refuse to renew my TV licence fee.


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  1. andrew

    Liberal Conspiracy » Cutting spending: the BBC warning: About the author: Chris Dillow is a regular contributor to… http://bit.ly/brGHLQ

  2. Ross Lawson

    http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/03/05/cutting-spending-the-bbc-warning/ #savebbc6music





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