The BBC is likely to be told to stop chasing audience figures and return to public service broadcasting in the largest shake up of its remit in a generation. The government is beginning consultations on how to scale back the corporation and rethink its funding structure in order to return the BBC to its original principles.
There are concerns throughout the Conservative government that the public broadcaster has become too large, crowding smaller players out of the marketplace. Last week the Chancellor George Osborne said that the BBC was “imperial in its ambitions”, while Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has previously referred to the corporation as “bloated.”
Consequently, the government has produced a Green Paper, due to be published on Thursday, containing a number of proposals for consideration which together would constitute wholescale reform, the Sunday Times has reported.
Included in the proposals is a rethink of the license fee which takes in consideration of alternate models such as a household tax, subscription fee, or a means tested licence. The BBC website is also under fire as it is believed to represent a disproportionate challenge to local media, while the future of BBC News is also being examined.
The Sunday Times cites two examples in which the BBC was able to kill of competition due to its sheer size: “In 1983 a commercial station called TV-am won the franchise to bring breakfast television to British viewers for the first time,” the paper says. “The BBC rolled out a rival so fast that it beat TV-am to air. In 1997 it launched a rolling news channel, then called BBC News 24, as a competitor to Sky. It later contributed to the closure of a third entrant to the market, the ITV News Channel.”
“I think the likeliest thing to go is the BBC News Channel,” says David Elstein, a former head of programming at Sky and former Channel 5 chief executive. “It should never have been launched.
“BBC Two is effectively repeats only until seven o’clock at night. BBC Four is heavily dominated by repeats. It’s only an evening channel anyway. It’s not beyond the wit of man to see how they could merge.”
He added: “One of the things that Tony Hall talked about last week was reducing ten layers of management to seven or less. It’s inconceivable to me that two years into his reign Tony Hall should still not have dealt with the ten layers of management.”
The BBC Trust is also under scrutiny as it currently acts as both cheerleader and regulator for the corporation, a role which government has said “doesn’t work”. Ofcom may be invited to take over scrutiny of the corporation’s output, in line with all other forms of media.
And the green paper examines whether money could be saved by commissioning more programs from independent makers, or by privatising BBC production facilities.
An official at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said: “It’s a root-and-branch look at everything the BBC does. It will cover funding, governance, its news content, its creative output, how much independent production companies do.
“You can expect it to look at impartiality but also at [the] BBC news impact on the wider landscape in terms of local newspapers.
“Everyone accepts that the BBC Trust model doesn’t work so it needs to change. The green paper will ask whether you set up an independent office of the BBC or something that’s already there like Ofcom.
“The BBC has a mission statement. The green paper will open a public discussion and ask: is this the right thing for the BBC to be doing in terms of purpose and mission.”
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is said to be behind proposals for reform, believing that the BBC should focus more on producing quality programs than on chasing audiences. A source close to Cameron said: “The prime minister’s goal is protecting quality. He used to work for ITV. He thinks the purpose of the BBC is to ensure that you push up quality.
“The prime minister’s view is that channels like Sky Atlantic are showing a lot of very great quality dramas from America and wants to see the BBC compete in that space. That’s not saying all you should do is broadcast operas in German. You do need quality programming that is concerned with entertainment as well.”
It’s a line that the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale also holds. He has previously criticised the BBC as being “bloated with too many managers,” and is now understood to have told friends and colleagues that the BBC’s oft-repeated claim that it must attract nine out of ten television viewers is “not in the charter”.
Whittingdale has appointed a panel of nine industry experts to examine the BBC’s output and structure in advance of the charter renewal. The advisers include Dawn Airey, the former boss of Channel 5, who has long been suggesting that the BBC re-think its output and the way it charges for it. In 2009 she said: “Perhaps the BBC should go back to having a couple of big broadcast channels, a couple of radio stations with a clearly defined remit and a reduced licence fee to support that.”
The shakeup has drawn support from across the political spectrum, despite the left’s historic support for the BBC as a public service broadcaster.
Responding to Osborne’s description of the BBC as “imperial”, Jason Cowley, editor of New Statesman, last week asked: “Why does the BBC website operate as if it is in competition with national newspapers and magazines, which are subject to the cold realities of the market?
“I value the BBC but it is only right that it be forced to justify its purpose and overhaul its practices. It ought to do much less, and to do what it does better.”
Osborne, wrote Cowley, “is correct to question the ‘imperial’ ambitions of the BBC and demand that it spend the licence fee with more care”.