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BBC gets more than expected

The UK government has released its white paper. A BBC for the future: a broadcaster of distinction, laying out its intentions for the broadcaster through the next decade and beyond.

The rumour mill had been active for a long time, more so since the unveiling of the paper was delayed, but the tactic seems to have worked. Allow or encourage worst case scenarios to take hold in the public imagination, and the changes that are then imposed seem anodyne in comparison. Viewed from a distance, the changes proposed are pragmatic, leave government some room for manoeuvre, but will mostly be welcomed – pretty much an outcome that nobody expected.

The paper was destined to walk a tightrope: government telling an organisation what to do, when that organisation’s charter guarantees independence from political interference, is something of an oxymoron.

As the dust settles around the white paper’s release, it’s that oxymoron that seems to remain the biggest area of disagreement between the government and BBC.

The BBC Trust will be replaced by a new board with a different name, a different make-up (part of which will guarantee representatives from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). The BBC and government disagree about how the make-up of the board will be should be determined and how the members should be appointed.

The general intention is for better representation of the community the broadcaster is paid to serve (the UK). Over the last decade the BBC has been forced to be less London-centric, a process begun in earnest five years ago with the relocation of a significant amount of the broadcaster’s production activity to Manchester.

How good that new studio investment will now prove is open to debate with a requirement that from next year the BBC must allow independent producers to tender for all programming except news. The general opinion is that the BBC’s drama output has improved since the corporation was forced to make 50% of its drama output via independent producers. That period of time has coincided with the UK’s other major FTA broadcaster, ITV, stepping up its game considerably. The success of period drama Downton Abbey for ITV encouraged a serious look at the BBC’s commissioning processes (and, less predictably, a significant increase in demand for butlers in China).

The white paper proposed a range of requirements that will be popular with the public, such as requiring the publication of salaries above GBP450,000 (cNZ$900,000). It also proposed that popularity shouldn’t be “the primary measure of success”, which will be a relief not only for the BBC but also for its competitors.

‘Distinct’ or ‘distinctive’ are the key words in the paper, as the government appears to have confirmed the BBC’s right to do what it’s always done – make programmes that commercial broadcasters won’t or don’t.

The BBC has always been funded by a licence fee, a model which older readers will recall was also the case in NZ until 1999. The UK licence fee, which has been frozen since 2010, will again rise in line with inflation, and legislative tweaks will require users of the BBC’s iPlayer service (ondemand programming) to pay the licence fee. There’s been a considerable drop in licence fee income in the UK with people claiming to use only online broadcast services and, therefore, exemption from the requirement to pay the licence fee.

Among the ideas that will be broadly welcomed by the production community and general public, if not within the BBC itself, Government has proposed one of those unworkable requirements that the BBC give consideration to its non-commercial position when acquiring material other broadcasters might also buy. It’s a sensible idea (only the seller benefits from a bidding war between the BBC and ITV) but is so vague it leaves the door open to criticism of pretty much any acquisition the BBC makes. It’s also a bit of a slap in the face for a broadcaster that pioneered certain types of programming and built audiences which commercial broadcasters have then been able to exploit – period drama Downton Abbey for ITV being an obvious example.

The full white paper, A BBC for the future: a broadcaster of distinction, is available to read online.

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