Saturday, February 28, 2015

What Will Become of the BBC?

Those of you who keep track of news regarding the British Broadcasting Corporation (better known as the BBC) have probably already read about the report issued by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee (a  Select Committees of the House of Commons that oversees the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, a department that deals with culture, sport, and some aspects of media in the United Kingdom). In its report the Culture, Media and Sport Committee insisted that the licence fee (the payment required by British subjects to receive television broadcasts) should eventually be abolished and that failure to pay the fee should be decriminalised. The committee also suggested that the BBC Trust, the governing body of the BBC, should be replaced by an independent Public Service Broadcasting Commission. The report also called for a smaller BBC with a more narrow focus.

The report has received a good deal of criticism, even from one person who provided evidence for the report. Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, said of the report, "The ultimate aim of this report appears to be a smaller, poorer, less publicly attuned BBC which will simply be filling in the spaces left by commercial competitors, rather than a thriving and dynamic institution which serves its audiences and operates in the public interest." and "It seems to be aimed more at appeasing the BBC's competitors than promoting the interests of consumers and citizens."

Given the sheer size of the report (it is 164 pages) and much of what it recommends, I imagine many of my fellow American fans of the BBC may be concerned for its future. I rather suspect that there is little reason for any of us to be overly concerned at this moment. The report is simply a set of recommendations that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport can simply choose to ignore. Ultimately any changes to the BBC will only come when its charter goes into effect on midnight, January 1 2017. In the meantime there will be another General Election, not to mention a lot of lobbying on the behalf of the BBC and its supporters. To steal part of a line from Shakespeare's Macbeth, in some respects the the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee's report is simply,  a lot of "...sound and fury, signifying nothing." In the end, it has no real power to make changes to the BBC.

Indeed, the BBC's charter is renewed every ten years, and every time it comes up for renewal there are those who demand massive changes to the Corporation. In the end there is generally very little change and even the licence fee remains in place. Even if the licence fee was abolished and replaced with a levy on all household, much as Germany has, I suspect it would only be the nature of the BBC's funding that would change. The BBC would continue much as it always has.

Of course, while I do not think the BBC is under any really threat of being reduced from what is and has been for the past many years, that is not to say that I don't think the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee is a bit misguided. Namely, I think that in calling for a smaller, more narrowly focused BBC they are wrong. First, I think there is a need for a public broadcaster whose primary purpose, at least in theory, is broadcasting in the public interest rather than turning a profit. Second, like many fans of the BBC I have to question if the Corporation could continue with much of its programming if it was reduced in size. Would the BBC be able to continue to produce such shows as Doctor Who, Call the Midwife, Wolf Hall, and others if it was smaller? The BBC produces some of the best programming in the world. It is the reason many of their shows have large, loyal followings not only in the United Kingdom, but around the globe. This is not only good for the BBC, but for the whole of Britain. Shows such as Doctor Who and Call the Midwife not only bring in money to the United Kingdom, but also help promote the image of the United Kingdom worldwide. 

Of course, ITV (Britain's oldest commercial network) also produces some great shows, but I have to wonder if they would continue to do so if they did not have the BBC to compete with. Because the BBC set such a high bar for television in Britain before ITV was even launched in 1955, ITV was forced to create fine TV shows in order to compete. As a result British television has been much richer than that of other countries. I should not have to point out that even many American viewers believe that on the whole British television shows are better than those produced in the United States.

Whatever the renewal of the BBC's charter entails, it seems to me that one thing is certain. It should insure that the BBC not only remains an important part of British life, but one of the most respected broadcasting organisations in the world. It should insure that the BBC can continue to produce shows that are not only enjoyed and appreciated in the United Kingdom, but around the world as well. Anything less and Britain, not to mention the world, will have lost a very valuable resource.

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