It’s a strange experience for UK natives to spend time in the USA, which has a world-famous media industry, and begin to recognise just how huge a profile the BBC has. It’s never quite clear why that is, although a straw poll suggests the most prominent international arm of the organisation is its news coverage. No matter whether you’re into Blackadder re-runs or natural history documentaries, though, change might be afoot, because there’s a real chance that the BBC may soon not work the way it always has.
What may not be obvious from the western side of the Atlantic is that the BBC does a very, very large amount things other than news. There are five or six national TV channels, depending how you count a channel, plus a vast web presence, national and local talk and music radio, and a network of eighteen local TV news studios. That’s on top of involvement in seven commercial UKTV channels under the BBC Studios mantle, thirteen international channels covering various regions and languages, and the work it does internationally with PBS in the USA.
There’s a limit, after all, to what you can do from shared offices.
Change is afoot
The BBC also isn’t the only UK media organisation that is government-owned; Channel 4, while advertising-funded, is an indirect part of the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is sort of where the rot starts. It’s never that convincing when governments have a department of, or person responsible for, “digital,” is it? It’s been decades since that title implied more or less anything that even touches technology. The staggering vagueness of the departmental title doesn’t inspire confidence, and neither does the fact that it is currently run by a politician whose experience in the media industry extends to being sanctioned for appearing on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here when she should have been in the halls of government doing her job.
So, given its popularity, and the dubious political machinations which influence the way it’s run, there’s no surprise in finding that proposed changes to the BBC’s century-old funding model are raising question. In April this year, the UK government released a white paper which, in the broadest possible terms, proposed requiring the BBC to put out a lot more of its production to competitive tender, to an extent that has been described as creeping privatisation via the diversion public funds, derived from a licence fee that is absolutely a tax, to private enterprise. It seems like a simple change, but the practical effects of it are likely to be far-reaching.
These organisations are massive hirers of warm bodies and a massive purchasers of hardware, creating a large group of people likely to leap to the conclusion that almost any sort of change is to be sternly resisted. That’s certainly a leap enthusiastically made by the Federation of Entertainment Unions, made up of collective bargaining organisations which represent writers, actors, journalists and technical crew. As we’ve seen, the BBC has a lot of fans outside the UK too, and a lot of them are just as likely to scowl at the prospect of meddling with something that’s more or less globally renowned.
And yes, there’s a caveat to all this. Consider that the media most likely to be exported by any country is likely to be, more or less by definition, the best it has to offer. The global reputation of American single-camera drama is so all-consuming that many countries don’t even stock it in the “world cinema” section, but at the same time, one of the specific reasons the BBC is popular is because if how it compares to mainstream television news in the USA. We see the best of everyone’s work on the international stage.
As a result, many of our American colleagues who hold the BBC in high regard will not have witnessed the desperate nightly scramble to fill Look East’s local news slot, which, at this time of year, typically results in minutely-detailed coverage of every ear of barley which stands on the arable farms of south-east England. Nor will they have found themselves mired in the corporation’s staggeringly vast web presence, or listened to local radio output that essentially recapitulates local commercial options, just sans ads.
The mediocrity of much of the BBC’s output gives oxygen to the argument that its existence stifles competition in certain markets, particularly news. The claim is that it’s effectively impossible to compete meaningfully with such a vast incumbent, especially when it lacks a profit motive, though people do compete. Perhaps with this in mind, in a broader, more global twenty-first century, it’s been suggested that the BBC should retrench with the idea of doing fewer things better. Objections, predictably, centre around the idea that change risks the things the BBC does successfully – not only current affairs, but also its globally-respected natural history output and the more thought-provoking dramas.
Somehow, neither the BBC nor Channel 4 have ever succumbed to becoming the sort of state broadcaster that authoritarian regimes have sometimes created, and the international profile of the BBC is testament to a century spent building a glowing reputation. If that reputation is to persist for another century, let’s just say that the situation is likely to require more nuanced consideration than anyone in a position of authority is likely to give it.