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The BBC and the Future for Public Service Broadcasting

Tonight I'm at UQ yet again, for the second CCCS public lecture by visiting scholar Georgina Born (and you've got to admire my restraint in not titling this blog entry "Born Again"). This talk looks like it's going to be more generally about the lessons to be learnt from the BBC's history and present. She begins by noting the distance between executive rhetoric and the reality of work in public service broadcasters (PSB), but of course such contradictions characterise any complex organisation.

In Britain, the BBC began as a broadcasting monopoly in the 1920s - a new kind of institution using public, not commercial funding; politically independent, not state controlled; with the aim of universality (creating a national culture where popularity yields legitimacy, and aiming to develop a universal public sphere); culturally and socially embodying the ethos of public service, integrity, high editorial and cultural ambitions; aiming to inform opinion and develop or elevate ordinary tastes; and involving a form of content that mixes popular and high culture.

But this also raises problems: accusations of cultural elitism and homogeneity; London-centrism which fails to reflect the UK's diversity; the BBC's tethering to government through its ten-yearly Charter review process; the government's role in the setting of licence fees; the appointment of BBC Governors by the government; The BBC's possibly overcautious, deferential approach which may even lead to a propagandistic role in times of crisis; as well as the economic dimension of having to justify its licence funding in the face of an inevitably imperfect universal appeal which may leave out certain minorities.

After World War 2, new competition emerged in the form of ITV (introduced in 1955), which is overseen by the Independent TV Authority. In ITV, the BBC initially faced its own likeness, as ITV embodied a similar ethos as the BBC. Further, from 1984 additional competition arose in the form of Channel 4, which was funded by cross-subsidy from ITV programme profits and was also largely based on the commissioning of programmes from outside production companies, leading to the development of an independent production sector in Britain. However, from the late 1980s onwards things changed for Channel 4, moving it from an experimental and independent towards a more populist direction - but perhaps some of its experimental phase also died out naturally because of the limitations of these new avant-garde content formats in a TV context.

By the late 1980s, deregulation, the growth of satellite content, and later digital TV introduced further changes (especially also through the emergence of Rupert Murdoch's Sky broadcasting channel). There was increasing competition for revenues and a fragmentation of audiences and markets which shifted the balance of the broadcasting ecology from a focus on PSB to mainly commercially oriented approaches, along with a focus on the most commercially lucrative demographics (chiefly, young men).

What are some of the founding premises of broadcast and production organisations in Britain, then? Organisational conditions have a very profound effect on what such organisations can achieve. They need an ethic of ambition, independence, and integrity, as well as appropriate incentives in this direction, and of course the economic and employment conditions to suit such aims. These, then, tend to help to foster high quality and ambitious programming. However, in the 1990s, they fell apart for the BBC.

Similarly, founding premises can be established for understanding audiences and media cultures. The key error here is the neo-liberal idea of 'consumer sovereignty' - describing the rational consumer who knows what they want, and will pursue it. This is equated with multi-channel TV in the broadcasting environment, which is said to deliver maximum choice. Instead, however, we need to conceive of audience tastes as a sub-set of wider cultural processes and as cumulatively conditioned by what's made available for audiences to consume. This is a sociological fact, Georgina suggests. Therefore, then, low quality populist TV in Britain conditions audience tastes and expectations further in this direction, and alternative approaches which support creativity and ambition need to be provided - if necessary via regulation.

In 1987, John Birt was installed at the BBC as Deputy Director-General; he moved up to DG in 1993 and remained in this position until 2000. He saw the BBC as an exemplary experiment in bringing new forms of public management into the public sector. His legacy is a mixed one: he did save the BBC from the threat of privatisation in the last years of the Tory government, and did so under strong pressure by zealously implementing neo-liberal economic reforms. But this also drove the BBC in a populist direction and undermined the creative well-being of the BBC as an organisation. At the same time, though, this also presciently prepared the BBC for the digital age.

How did this take place? Taking an external focus, Birt instituted a 25% independent production quota (putting the BBC's in-house production in competition with outside producers); internally, the system of 'Producer Choice' drove an emphasis on efficiency and value for money by introducing an entrepreneurial ethos into the organisation (and ratings and other performance indicators became a primary target for producers). Further, a complete restructuring split the production and broadcast arms of the organisation, instituting a level playing field for in-house and external independent producers, while at the same time also introducing an extremely hierarchical, inflexible commissioning and schedule planning structure; and finally, there was significant growth of market research in the BBC, leading to a tendency to reproduce winning shows and producing 'what the audience wants' but also yielding interesting information for further channel (as opposed to programme) design.

An interesting technique in this context was the tariff-based programme funding model. Target demographics and ratings would be determined for specific programming timeslots, and these schedule slots would be mapped according to such aspects as well as budget and genre targets. Programmes would be mapped to such slots, and budgets set up - but this also closed down programming options for such slots considerably.

Further, there was significant growth in the BBC bureaucracy from 1993 or so onwards - especially in middle management, consultants, strategists, and similar roles. Corporate Centre costs reached around £80-90m p.a., or 24% of the annual budget (in spite of the 'efficiency' mantra), and a constant cycle of self-monitoring activities was introduced which led to a kind of 'institutionalised reflexivity' - displacing attention from the real core purposes of the BBC (quality, diversity, innovation, risk-taking in programmes and services).

The results of such processes included an increase in the casualisation of imployment, and a decrease of training and career progression; an outflow of talent away from the BBC; decreased loyalty, trust, and identification with the BBC ethic amongst producers, which led to a lowering of standards and a weakening of the organisaton's ethos (leading to the first-ever scandals at the BBC around the falsification of documents). Further, there was an increase in risk-averse, centralised commissioning of formulaic, generic programme ideas, and increased self-competition for good programme slots amongst programming sectors - ultimately resulting in lowest common denominator programming that is hardly different from the commercial sector.

BBC Drama serves as a useful case in point: its commissioning of programmes became centralised to an unprecedented extent, and popular series expanded to the detriment of the more 'risky' single plays (and thus of writers' and producers autonomy, leading to further talent outflow). Indeed, those talents lost would then offer back their services to the BBC at higher rates... Ultimately, this encourages little more than safe and formulaic drama series.

Further profound effects were felt in the area of journalism, which was similarly centralised to an unprecedented degree - including rolling the World Service into the universal newsgathering system, amalgamating TV and radio news production, adding layers of editorial supervision through the installation of 'super editors', decreasing the autonomy of programme editors and turning them into mere output editors, and making reporters serve multiple news outlets which led to them merely regurgitating copy and no longer going out to cover and investigate events.

Finally, the commercialism of the BBC also increased, especially via the commercial wing BBC Worldwide. New joint venture channels like BBC World, BBC Prime, and UK TV were developed, and the sale of programmes, rights, formats, and merchandise moved far more to the forefront in BBC decisionmaking. The 1994 White Paper The Future of the BBC instructed the BBC to be more commercial, and move more internationally into new media; the BBC complied, generating a furious reaction from its competitors. In turn, the government reacted by now requiring the BBC to justify all of its new services and operations, leading to public consultation after public consultation. In essence, then, political instructions led to BBC policies which led to competitors' hostility and further to government sanctions - this points to the overall incoherence of neo-liberal broadcasting policies.

This shows the central paradox of the BBC: to legitimise public funding it had to be popular, in ratings; at the same time, it has to be versatile and experimentative - it needs to do what the commercial side does, and much more. When the BBC is too popular, critics will say it is too commercial; when it focusses too much on what the commercials miss or ignore, it is attacked for being insufficiently popular and universal - it is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't.

The 2000-2004 BBC Director-General Greg Dyke rolled back many of Birt's reforms: consolidating the populist drift of BBC1 under Birt, championing in-house production, and focussing again on creative strength and popular output especially in sports; he also focusseed on the BBC's digital strengths, especially with the free-to-air DTV platform Freeview, which services the 40% of Britons who do not want U.S.-style pay-TV.

Dyke had reanimated the BBC's journalism area, and relayered it to provide more autonomy, and more original, risk-taking journalism. Andrew Gilligan was seen as emblematic of this cultural change: an unorthodox journalist with a print background. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, Gilligan released information from secret sources and criticised the government's actions, triggering the Hutton affair (which was compounded by lax oversight by his superiors at the BBC); this laid the BBC open to attacks by Downing Street, and ultimately, the BBC Governors asked top executives at the BBC to resign even though Gilligan's attacks were by and large justified.

From 2004 onwards, then, the BBC was again under new management, and Director-General Mark Thompson and Chairman Michael Grade are seen as more politically cautious - this is perhaps less obvious in journalism, and more so in BBC policies. There is a danger of political expediency here, which tries to preempt the government by offering it what it wants. At the same time, improved self-regulation is in train, separating the executive (DG, Board of Management) from its largely ineffective regulatory body, the Governors (who become the BBC Trust); however, government appointments to the Trust remain unreformed and without proper public oversight. There is a need for an oversight body which has real strength, however, and which needs to be able to investigate the internal BBC culture - it needs to be less concerned with what the audience wants (which is for the BBC to do its job well), and more with whether the BBC is in a fit state to do its job well. There are as yet no mechanisms to ensure optimal democratic representation in the oversight of the BBC.

Further worrying developments are that the BBC is offering to cut its in-house production to a maximum of 60% of all production (from 75%), which seriously erodes its production capacity and hands more production over to the commercial markets. A focus on producing cultural value is compromised by poor definitions of what cultural value entails. Further, the BBC is asked to cover the costs of digital switchover alone, without help from commercial broadcasters. Digital TV is seen as a way to ensure the UK's international primacy in ITC markets and the knowledge economy. It is also seen, wrongly, as a means of promoting universal Internet access, which is seen as mitigating social exclusion, political apathy, and the digital divide - a magic bullet. However, before 2003 some 40% of Britons did not want a U.S.-style pay-TV market.

Overall, then, the BBC's legitimacy stems from the strength of BBC TV, radio, BBCi (its quality of services), and from the BBC's perceived 'accountability'. These combine to uphold the public esteem of the organisation, which is undermined by press perspectives (which are frequently driven by the BBC's commercial and ideological antagonists). The BBC's market share and reach is under attack simply through the growth of competition within and across media forms and formats, which in turn influences political and government will; this affects funding, thus quality and scale of the BBC's operations - which returns us to the quality of service. Crucial in all of this is the BBC's institutionalised independence, which can be further strengthened constitutionally. There is a need for robust independence and protection from government bullying. Germany's broadcasting commission (Kommission zur Ermittlung des Finanzbedarfs der Rundfunkanstalten, KEF) is a useful model here: a fully independent body whose sole purpose is to monitor the PSBs and recommend the licence fee level; in the process it provides a buffer zone between government and PSBs. This may be necessary in Britain as well.

PSBs must take a role in orchestrating a benign media ecology - both nationally and internationally. While not all PSBs can be the BBC, only PSBs can be delegated by governments to analyse their own geo-social space and, on that basis, intervene creatively to optimise communicative democracy. In light of ethnic diversity, multiculturalism, and inequalities, their role is one of enabling those minorities that have been silenced and marginalised to speak in their own idiom and aesthetic, and to the majority. This fosters practices of toleration and politics of complex cultural dialogue through universal and niche channels. There is, then, a need to promote an awareness of the connection between such a rich communicative democracy and the well-being of national culture.

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there is also a podcast of her argument available (somewhere) on the website (she talked today at 8.30AM on Radio National).

This is what we need more of; considered, articulate, social democrats with a public spirt.

What we don't need is any more continental European Libertarians with a lack of cultural syntax.

Craig B

Hi Craig,

good call... The transcript and podcast of her Radio National appearance is here.

Axel Bruns