BBC director-general Mark Thompson has given Westminster a message that public service broadcasting can support the commercial sector, but needn’t be bloated. Julian Clover reports.
There were two sides to Mark Thompson’s presentation to his audience at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre at Westminster on Tuesday. The BBC director-general’s message was that public service broadcasting was needed to provide a stopgap against the “market failure” of commercial organisations to support news, drama, comedy and learning. Thompson, perhaps chastened by savings needed following the licence fee settlement, also made it clear that the BBC would not necessarily enter every new area as it has often done so in the past. The location helped deliver the message to the current Commons committee into the future of public service broadcasting.
The slimming down of the BBC has resulted in staff reductions and the disposal of departments, such as the former BBC Transmission, Technology and Broadcast units into the private sector. Programme production costs are in line with those at ITV or Channel 4 and programmes are contracted out to the independent sector. Sometimes however one yearns for the BBC to be a little more bloated than it has become. Yes, really.
Thompson says there have been advantages in the integration in combining TV, radio and Web production into a single stream. The so-called 360-degree commissioning.
Thompson divided the provision of news between the public service output of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five and the commercial output of Sky News. “But BSkyB is not a PSB. For entirely justifiable business reasons, it has removed Sky News from cable and plans to remove it from Freeview homes. By 2012 it may only be available in around only half of UK households – and of course only in households with the income to pay for it.” A reference to Sky’s plan to withdraw Sky News from the Freeview DTT platform following its removal from Virgin Media’s cable network.
ITV, Channel 4 and Five all have public service obligations of varying degrees, but are just as overtly commercial as Sky News, perhaps more so at times. Particularly if you’re trying to find a news bulletin on the weekend.
In the reception room there were demonstrations of the technologies that the BBC had entered into in recent months. The BBC’s high definition coverage of the Wimbledon tennis championships was shown on a variety of screen sizes. There was also the recently launched TV on mobile service, another trial, and the now sleek looking iPlayer catch-up TV service. Thompson said he expected the public response to the iPlayer to be strong. The BBC certainly has enough technology to be getting on with.