Loughborough University &
Goldsmiths, University of London
The current struggle over the future of the BBC is part of a wider battle for the preservation of public spaces that provide essential resources for personal development, unexpected encounters, shared conviviality, and the mutual recognition at the heart of democratic life. They were the result of a social settlement, forged in social struggle, that created a contemporary commons, paid for out of taxation, outside the market system, and free at the point of use. These spaces are rapidly disappearing. Libraries are closing. Museums are urged to charge for entry. Access to large areas of cities is conditional on the goodwill of private owners. The Green Belt is whittled away by developers. As the most readily accessible and comprehensive public space the BBC is a primary target for the extension of commercial enclosure. This is not a new situation.
Britain was the first major European country to introduce commercial television, in the mid -1950s, and since then there have been repeated attempts to expand the space available to private operators.
In the summer of 1986, the eminent economist, Professor Alan Peacock, presented his Report on Financing the BBC to Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government. He had been asked to look into the possibility of introducing advertising or sponsorship as an alternative or supplement to the licence fee. Despite his strong support for a market led broadcasting system he concluded that there was a continuing need for public funding for productions “supported by people in their capacity as citizens and voters but unlikely to be commercially self -supporting in the view of broadcasting entrepreneurs”
Questions of citizenship have been at the centre of arguments over the BBC from the outset. The Corporation’s founding years coincided with the final extension of the female vote, sparking debate about the cultural resources needed to support full social and political participation. The dominant position emphasized the need to assemble the nation around symbols of unity that transcended class and region and to disseminate the knowledge and sensibilities of accredited experts and cultural guardians. Other voices insisted on actively engaging with inequalities and divisions and celebrating the energy and creativity of vernacular culture. The Peacock Report sided with the first conception.
The licence fee was to stay (for the moment) but the BBC was to restrict itself to “programmes of a public service kind” as a “supplement” to commercial provision. The Committee’s definition of public service covered not only the well-established list of ‘serious’ programming – news, documentary and current affairs, education, high quality arts coverage, and “critical and controversial programmes” on the economy,” politics, ideology, philosophy and religion” – but also experiments in “entertainment or popular programming that viewers might not have demanded unprompted.”
This was not what Mrs Thatcher or the captains of commercial television hoped to hear. They wanted the BBC placed firmly in a clearly circumscribed box marked ‘worthy’, leaving them free to dominate popular programming unchallenged. They have spent the last three decades pursuing this project , welcoming successive cuts to the BBC’s funding and complaining whenever it develops programmes, like the Great British Bake-Off, that engage with currents in popular culture in unexpected ways. The public consultation document (Green Paper) on the BBC’s Charter renewal, published in July, is the latest officially sanctioned opportunity for the Corporation’s opponents to challenge its present purposes, its scale and scope, and its funding. On page 23 the Paper revisits the case for curbing the BBC, arguing that “Given the vast choice that audiences now have there is an argument that the BBC might become more focused on a narrower, core set of services”.
This argument confronts a Corporation that remains at the centre of national cultural life. Despite the persistent squeeze on revenues and increasing competition from new entrants to the television market, the BBC has maintained its position as the country’s premiere broadcasting service, increasing its share of the audience in multi-channel homes from 29.5% to 33.1% in the decade between 2004 and 2014. Over the same period, the share going to ITV has held steady at 22%, but BskyB’s share has dropped from 10.6% to 8.2%. The BBC also operates the UK’s most popular web site, with a unique audience of 40 million, placing it third behind Google (with 46 million) and Facebook (with 41 million) , with Sky, the only other UK broadcaster to make the top ten, commanding 28 million.
At first glance, these figures seem to support the commercial operators’ claim that the BBC is crowding them out of the market. The latest statistics produced by the communications regulator, Ofcom, however, do not show an industry in crisis. Between 2009 and 2014, the share of total television revenues going to subscription services rose from 42% to 45.3% and the share attributable to net advertising revenues, increased from 28.3% to 29.0%. Earlier this year, ITV reported a 23% increase in half year profits and Sky announced a 6% increase in pre-tax profits over the previous year. These figures undercut the argument trailed in the Green Paper, that the BBC is obstructing its commercial competitors. They are making profits. The question is how much more profit is enough? In contrast, since 2009 the BBC’s share of income attributable to television has dropped from 23% to 20.6%.
The problem for the commercial operators is not revenues but costs. In an effort to boost subscriptions both Sky and BT have invested heavily in securing the rights to live football. According to Enders Analysis, they will jointly spend £1,736 million in 2016/17 but are still only likely to reach 5% of the television audience in the season. In contrast, the BBC’s Annual Report show that for almost the same sum spent on television content (£1,786 million), in an average week the Corporation’s programs were reaching 85% of the viewing population. Value for money by any measure.
There are problems too with another major plank in the present attacks on the BBC. The Green Paper raises the long standing issue of whether the BBC’s ability to promote its output across its range of channels constitutes unfair competition since commercial operators have to pay the market rate to advertise their programs. This argument ignores the present ownership structure of commercial television. The newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, the major shareholder in BskyB, provide ample space for free publicity in articles and reviews. Beyond that, the Sky holdings are part of one of the world’s leading media conglomerates whose interests include the Twenty First Century Fox film studio, the Fox television network, and the Endemol Shine program making complex, source of a number of the most successful shows on British television, including the BBC’s Great British Bake Off, made by Love Productions, in which Sky has a 70% stake. One of Sky’s main competitors, Virgin Media, is now owned by Liberty Global, a major player in the US cable industry, who also have a 6.4% stake in ITV, while Channel 5 is controlled by another major US conglomerate, Viacom, owners of Paramount Pictures and the MTV and Nickelodeon channels. Having interests across a range of media sectors allows conglomerates to maximise the benefits of cross promotion and refashioning successful productions for other media but it tends not to foster creative risk taking or diversity. In 2014, the BBC spent almost half (46%) of its programme budget on new commissions as opposed to returning programs. Channel 5 spent 38%, and ITV only 15%.
The fact that a number of the major players in British commercial television are owned by or allied to major communications conglomerates based in the United States, also prompts questions about how far they are willing and able to speak to the full diversity and complexity of national conditions in Britain.
Looking across the emerging communications landscape in Britain there is a strong argument in favour of the BBC becoming more rather than less central to national cultural provision. There are good reasons for this
The licence fee giving access to the full range of BBC television, radio and web services currently costs £12.13 a month (frozen until 2017). The basic Sky package costs £20.00 rising to £37.00 if the movie channels are added, with the full service, including all the movie and sports channels, costing £75.75. Whether the present earmarked tax is the best way to fiancé the BBC merits sustained debate, but at a time of widening income gaps and savage welfare cuts, it is essential to maintain a comprehensive publicly funded broadcasting service free at the point of use. The alternative is deepening social and cultural division and exclusion. An ageing population presents particular challenges.
The over 55s currently make up 36% of the adult population over 16, but account for 48.5% of adult television viewing .Ofcom figures however show that they are the group least likely to be making the transition to tablets and smart phones that the Green Paper sees as the future of television access. This exclusion is further compounded among the elderly poor. For them, free terrestrial television is likely to remain their major, and for some, their only, point of access to a diverse range of programming.
There are of course free services funded by advertising, but these present problems of another kind.
The way commercial products and services are sold on screen is currently being transformed. Spot ads, confined to the ad breaks, have been joined by a proliferating range of strategies that integrate promotional appeals into programming. Sponsorship is increasing. Product placement is now permitted. Advertisers are moving into program production. This is particularly marked on the internet where the regulations governing established television services do not apply, but where the new services being developed by the Net majors, led by YouTube and Amazon, are attracting increasing numbers of young viewers. The result is a visual field increasingly saturated with brands, logos, and product appeals which privileges voices speaking to viewers in their role as consumers seeking personal pleasures and gains through market choices, while restricting the space available to voices addressing them as citizens, with responsibilities for the quality of collective life. Maintaining an advertising free space at the heart of national life at this moment in time presents an unprecedented opportunity to remake public culture and redefine citizenship for the digital age utilizing the two key features of the internet, its support of networking and interactivity.
The BBC has already embarked on a range of collaborations with other public institutions, from the Open University to the British Museum and the British Library. At one level these initiatives pursue the Corporation’s historic mission of disseminating expert knowledge more widely, some go beyond it to invite listeners and viewers to become active collaborators and co-creators. The current Listening Project for example, is collecting everyday conversations for broadcast on BBC radio and deposit in the national oral archive. By providing a fuller, more diverse, record of what people living now thought and cared about it contributes to cultivating the recognition, empathy, and sense of shared fate essential to the practice of citizenship.
Public institutions and citizens’ organisations are digitalizing their archives and putting them on-line. The BBC is well placed to develop an accessible public search system that avoids Google’s advertising based business model. Its website is already the only significant alternative to the commercial sites of the Net majors, and its programme making presence opens the possibility of developing ways of integrating what appears on screen and what is accessible behind it in ways that forge new and surprising connections.
The idea of the BBC as an extended public space has been part of the Corporation’s internal debate about its future role for some time, but in its recent manifesto for change, British, Bold and Creative, it has moved to centre stage. The key proposal is for an Ideas Service with the BBC providing a platform for collaboration with “the country’s most respected arts, culture and intellectual institutions”, aggregating content from multiple sources, working “across broadcast and on line”, giving audiences “content to share, curate and mutate”, and encouraging participation in citizen science and other collective projects. As the document concedes, “Today, it is perhaps, more concept that product”, but as a potential basis for a new digital commons that offers a genuine alternative to the progressive commercial enclosure of both television and the internet, it merits sustained debate.
There are major issues that need to be addressed. Audiences and users will be invited to provide information about themselves so the service can be personalised, but in a political context where the security agencies are demanding unrestricted access to on-line footprints, how will the Ideas Service avoid becoming an adjunct of the surveillance state? For an institution with a core responsibility to cultivate a culture of inclusive, participatory citizenship this is particularly problematic. Secondly, although users will be invited to become active participants and originators the document is adamant that there is no intention to allow “professional content to be overwhelmed by user generated content” and that the Ideas Service will be built around “strong curation”. So how will the balance between distribution and co-creation, top –down and bottom-up, paternalism and participation be managed? Thirdly, whose ideas or forms of cultural expression will be excluded from the Ideas Service? Where will the boundary be set and on what grounds?
These and other practical issues will need to be carefully worked through but this new open vision of the BBC’s future will fiercely opposed with critics presenting it as yet another instance of the Corporation’s cultural imperialism Despite their present buoyancy the established commercial television operators face increasing challenges from services being developed by the internet majors, particularly in the battle for younger viewers. At the same time, the surveillance business model that underpins the economics of the ‘free’ commercial internet is itself coming under increasing pressure from the adoption of ad blocking software. Since the British government has no effective control over YouTube or Amazon, lobbying to shrink the BBC is the most immediate way they can bolster the chances of UK based broadcasters increasing viewers and revenues. Their arguments are specious and must be challenged.
Opposition to commercial enclosure weaves its way through British history in an unbroken thread, from the peasant crowds that tore down the privately erected fences around land previously held in common, to the mass trespass on Kinder Scout to defend the right to roam. We are now witnessing a renewed and concerted assault on public space and public resources. The battle for the BBC has to be seen in this context. It is not simply a struggle to defend an institution. It is an opportunity to rethink the ways we use digital technologies to defend and extend public space by reimagining public service broadcasting as the pivot of an inclusive digital commons that guarantees and extends the cultural rights of citizenship.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Discover Society, https://discoversociety.org/2015/09/01/the-battle-for-the-bbc-and-struggle-for-public-space/
1. “The politicians and the BBC: What price independence?” in John Mair et al (eds), The BBC Today: Future Uncertain, Abramis, 2015, p80.