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The demand that the BBC remain ‘distinctive’ may be its death knell

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The demand that the BBC remain ‘distinctive’ may be its death knell

A heady mix of anticipatory outrage and eventual relief met the UK government’s White Paper on the future of the BBC. But both reactions miss the time bomb that will ultimately determine the corporation’s future.

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s proposals do little in the longer-term to fortify the BBC against a rabidly competitive, global media market where the attractions of its public service ethos, and creative “distinctiveness”, can no longer be assumed. Whittingdale told Parliament he had “no wish to hobble” the BBC. But this White Paper might herald a diminished, market failure BBC nonetheless.

There was doubtless relief at BBC HQ at the decision to keep the licence fee for 11 years, and to protect it against inflation for five years. The spectre of limited subscription, or a government administered household levy, has been dispelled for the time being.

But there is continued outrage over the proposed changes in BBC governance. Time perhaps to explore the gaps in both responses. The outrage first.

Yes – the BBC will have a new unitary board with a least six government appointees. But the Corporation has survived such political interference before. In 1986, for example, an irritated Margaret Thatcher imposed Marmaduke Hussey as BBC chairman. He promptly forced out then director-general, Alasdair Milne. Tussling with power is the cost of doing broadcasting business. Just ask Greg Dyke.

Yes – the BBC will now be regulated by Ofcom, and scrutinised by the National Audit Office. But Ofcom’s light-touch has not turned ITV or Channel 4 into state broadcasters. And the BBC’s embrace of the NAO’s report on its failed Digital Media Initiative suggests the Corporation does now understand cost-effectiveness.

And yes – the BBC will be required to identify its highest-paid stars. But the argument that disclosure will create a “talent poacher’s charter” ignores the fact that deep pockets in showbiz get what they want regardless. Ask Jeremy Clarkson.

These regulatory changes may respond to the cries for transparency and accountability that followed the Savile and McAlpine affairs but they do little to suggest that the BBC is going to lose its independence overnight, if at all.

Distinctiveness

There is deeper jeopardy, however, in the decision to predicate the BBC’s future funding on “distinctiveness”. It’s a touchstone word for the Culture Secretary, and has been used to vilify shows such as The Voice. “Distinctiveness” may end up being policed by Ofcom. It’s likely to expose the BBC to a dangerous and ironic double-bind where, increasingly, the need to promote its value to the public while sustaining the breadth of public service that legitimises the universality of its financing will become harder to sustain.

The immediate problem is that the BBC’s audience is falling, and ageing. In 1996, a third of the UK population watched the Corporation’s shop window, BBC1. In 2016 that figure is a fifth. Mainstream broadcasting in general is losing ground to multi-channel and online offerings that attract nearly 50% of viewers. Many pay directly for what they watch, and many of them are young.

The BBC’s response has been to defend its statutory funding model by equating public service with the specific attractions of its crown jewels. Wolf Hall is a reason for sustaining the BBC because it wins BAFTAS, says director-general Tony Hall. Countryfile, executive producer Bill Lyons told The Guardian this week, could only be made in a BBC public service environment.

But the BBC’s emerging problem is that it is no longer the only supplier of “crown jewels”. Digital platforms give audiences near unrestricted access to a world of content. Young viewers are as likely to watch Netflix’s House of Cards or Sky’s Game of Thrones as they are the BBC’s The Night Manager or The Great British Bake Off. To make matters worse, the BBC’s crown jewels are up for grabs. It’s been outbid for most of its sport; the stars of Top Gear have been snapped up by Amazon; big money predators are circling Bake Off.

Looking to the future

A globally convergent media market which fragments audiences makes life difficult for a BBC predicated on a cultural and financial consensus. Rival providers are colonising territory that once defined the BBC: consider Sky Arts. And the BBC itself will have to fight to finance the high profile shows that connect with an audience that is also paying for content elsewhere.

There was relief that Whittingdale shied away from top-slicing the BBC’s £3.7 billion annual income to fund rival producers. And rumours he would dictate scheduling or circumscribe the scope of the BBC to level the commercial playing-field turned out to be largely unfounded.

But as competition and fragmentation intensify, that word “distinctiveness” will haunt the BBC, and very likely circumscribe it anyway. Will it encourage the BBC to privilege distinctive, potentially costly, high profile shows that take on Netflix and Amazon at their own content-on-demand game?

Or will it mean distinct from? Will public financing be used to deliver what a rapidly developing market chooses not to; a “market failure” BBC offering residual areas of public service – and maybe Bake Off if it can afford it – in a climate of diminishing returns?

Hitherto, the BBC has tried to do both. And rather successfully. But the money is running out: it now has to spend over £600m on licences for over-75s. And younger consumers are drifting. A decision which way to jump if the BBC is to avoid being a pale all-things-to-all-people is fast approaching. It will need to decide whether to be a limited provider of high-impact content that competes globally online, and attracts direct subscription, or a market-failure broadcaster pursuing a tradition of public service for a declining audience. Either way, the familiar BBC risks being diminished and the funding on which it relies risks losing support.

Amid the outrage and relief, the real challenge in this White Paper lies not in what it does say – regulation, transparency and short-term continuity – but in what it does not. How its new board will secure a future for the BBC is far from certain.