The debate on the BBC’s forthcoming charter renewal has taken a while to gain momentum. It seemed like the corporation was loath to enter the painful discussion of how the licence fee might be sustained in an era of iPlayer viewing and when criminal sanctions are likely to be removed for non-payers.
But now director general Tony Hall has seized the initiative by launching a bold and dramatic proposal. He has not confronted the vexed issue of the funding directly but in a clever political move has neatly changed the terms of debate by focusing instead on the core activity of programmes, how they are made and how that might be done differently.
In a significant speech at City University on July 10, Lord Hall summarised his message as “compete or compare”. The most eye-catching suggestion was the way that both the contribution of independent producers and also of BBC in-house producers might be reconfigured.
The quotas begin
Historically almost all BBC programmes, with the exception of films and a few imports, were made inside the corporation. The 1980s and the birth of Channel 4 saw the emergence of a whole new industry in the UK of small independent producers, commonly known as the “indies”. In 1990 in response to effective lobbying, the BBC agreed to a quota system whereby 25% of its output (excluding news) had to be bought in from these new entrepreneurs. (Of course some were staffed by recent BBC employees who resigned and conveniently benefited from sweetheart deals.)
The system worked well overall and by the last charter period it was extended so that a further 25% was identified as a “window of creative competition,” whereby commissioners were free to take from whoever can make the best programmes, both insiders and outsiders. But still the remaining 50% was guaranteed to BBC in-house production.
Now Lord Hall is suggesting a radical departure. All BBC commissioning should be free to accept programmes from outside if they choose. But before the indie producers pop the champagne, there is a crucial provision. As a quid pro quo, BBC in-house production departments should be able to offer their wares anywhere they can pitch them.
So we could see BBC productions competing with independents to have their programmes transmitted on Channel 4, ITV, Channel 5 or anywhere else. Hall stresses that it all depends on achieving a genuinely level playing field. But if this can be achieved, he says he is willing to go as far as removing the overall in-house guarantee for the whole of BBC production.
This all appears like exciting and bracing competition. It could extend scope and opportunities for indie producers and viewers, or it could be a cold wind that could logically see the BBC reduced to a commissioning entity like Channel 4.
There are obviously still swathes of detail that would need to be worked out, but there are certainly some interesting implications. For one thing, Hall has cleverly gathered up the considerable vocal lobbying power of the independent sector behind him in the forthcoming battle over funding the BBC, in which politicians are already positioning themselves. Indies are a key player in the UK’s much discussed creative industries explosion. If the enticing prospect of being able to pitch to the whole of BBC output is being offered, it will very much be in the interests of the independent sector for the corporation to be as well resourced as possible.
We also need to have a clear understanding about how the competitive market would work. While commissioning indies once meant a few chums in a basement bouncing around ideas, the industry now includes huge players who represent a totally different kind of independent. Not only has there been a consolidation into so-called “super-indies,” some have morphed into global media organisations on the scale of the BBC itself.
For example, Shine and Endemol have recently merged with 21st Century Fox and Apollo Global Management. Tony Hall has rightly questioned whether such producers should be given guarantees or protections and is making a distinction between them and those emerging young indies still requiring encouragement and support to grow their talents.
Finally, what about those working in-house? For a start the commissioning and production arms of the corporation will need to be further separated. BBC production may also need to free itself of considerable overheads to make it competitive with outsiders.
Successful independents also often go on to make big commercial gains from rights and distribution. Danny Cohen, director of television, has already hinted that ways may need to be found to translate such benefits for insiders. Otherwise, now that the staff security blanket is potentially being removed, is there still a point of remaining within the corporation? The best and brightest may take their chance and leave. Whatever happens these are interesting times for programme makers.