ten years the BBC’s Charter is renewed (though the licence fee can end up being renegotiated more frequently!) and the government of the day along with the broadcaster take the opportunity to examine what direction the BBC is currently heading and decide whether to change the course or trim the sails. five
One approach is to decide on the purpose and scope of the BBC and then set an appropriate licence fee (or determine an alternative revenue raising method) to fund it.
The alternative 2015 approach has been to set the level of the licence fee first – involving the Chancellor of the Exchequer negotiating directly with the BBC’s Director General in the days before last week’s budget – and then start to debate what the BBC can most usefully do with that pot of funding. Audiences have very definitely not been at the heart of these licence fee negotiation.
The BBC Executive have argued that the licence fee settlement gives them stability for the five years of the next charter (which begins on 1 January 2017). However, if the Charter Review recommends cutting the scope of the BBC they shouldn’t be surprised when the licence fee is resized despite the early agreement.
The Department for Culture Media and Sport published a Green Paper today which sets out its Charter Review public consultation on the size, scope and purpose of the BBC along with the funding and governance models.
Ofcom’s Communications Market Report is published each summer and the next one is due out in early August. Flicking through my copy of last year’s document, here are a few of its statistics and findings:
- 97% of NI homes have a TV; half of homes (53%) have a high definition TV.
- People in NI spend an average of 4.0 hours a day watching TV. That’s only marginally lower than Scotland and Wales, but higher than England.
- Two-thirds of NI homes (67%) have pay TV (ie, Sky, Virgin Cable or a service like BT Vision) on which they watch BBC channels alongside many, many more from commercial broadcasters. The licence fee is often dwarfed by the cost of the pay TV packages. More than half of NI households have Sky.
- Viewing of the five main public service broadcasting channels (BBC One, BBC Two, ITV/UTV. Channel 4, Channel 5) has been falling across the UK for some time, and looking across the UK it fell to its lowest level in NI in recent years. The main five channels accounted for just under half (49%) of the overall share of viewing in NI. Though if RTE channels were included this figure might not look quote so poor.
- In 2014, 64% of NI adults said that TV was their main source of news. I’d predict that figure will have fallen in this year’s report.
- Just under half of NI adults said in 2014 that they had watched TV or video online – that includes YouTube, TV catch-up services like iPlayer, as well as streaming services like Netflix. That figure is now bound to have increased.
Despite the proliferation of video and TV on small screens, the box in the corner of the room is still the screen that flickers the longest in most households.
Just as the concept of a TV channel survived the introduction of the TV remote, it is continuing to survive – if not thrive – in the advent of streaming services that offer box-set binging and a film to suit your mood, and catch-up services for all the main channels that allow you not to have to arrange your life around the transmission of your favourite programmes. But a channel requires a range of shows to draw an audience: scrapping everything that is populist will harm the visibility and attractiveness of more niche offerings.
The licence fee contributes £3.7 billion towards the running costs of the BBC, so around £100 million comes from Northern Ireland households.
As the owners and prime funders of the BBC, do we get value for money for the licence fee paid in Northern Ireland? Does the BBC use its size and resources wisely in how it contributes to the local creative economy? The next two series of Line of Duty are currently filming in and around Belfast, and a third series The Fall has been commissioned, but are there a steady stream of children’s programmes, history documentaries, comedy shows and current affairs investigations coming out of Northern Ireland?
One question asked a lot recently is what the BBC could – or should – cut? Perhaps the question should be reframed. What should the BBC be doing more of?
The BBC currently has six public purposes and one focuses on digital literacy (educating the public about emerging communications technologies). It’s an area that would be easy to cut but instead is probably vital to growing the UK economy and preparing children and students for work.
The BBC should be better at connecting with its audiences. Part of that involves better representation of different communities across BBC services, locally and nationally. Do we see everywhere in NI represented on-screen on BBC Northern Ireland, the local radio services and online? Rural and urban? West and east of the Bann? All accents? All languages? All ages? All traditions and minorities? And how is Northern Ireland portrayed in network news and network drama, entertainment and factual output? Why are news reports about empty high streets or tooth decay or the latest pop sensation not randomly filmed in Northern Ireland every now and again? Northern Ireland businesses and academics are experts on many topics. [Ed – Anyone else having visions of David McCann talking about Australian politics on the Today programme …] Civil disturbance and political panics are not the only excuse to include NI voices and locations in news reports.
The BBC should be trying to commission more programmes from independent producers in the commercial sector rather than making so much in-house. Reform of currently limited WoCC (Window of Creative Competition) seems to be underway. There’s also the potential for the BBC to spin off its production arm and to compete for work for other channels as well as the BBC, though the competition and market impacts of this would be substantial.
Locally, Radio Ulster remains the most popular BBC radio service. But our licence fee helps run UK-wide network stations like Radio 1, 1 Extra, 2, 3, 4, 4 Extra, 5 Live, 6 Music and Asian Network. How well do they serve NI audiences? [Some answers in the BBC Trust’s recent review of some of these services, and the local Audience Council NI’s submission to the consultation.]
Shouldn’t there be more collaboration between channels – between local, regional and national – and more reuse of high quality programmes made locally but suitable for a wider audience? And what about more frequent sign-posting across channels and services to educate listeners and viewers about other content they may not yet have stumbled over?
Having served on Audience Council NI for five years (2007-2012) and sought out the views of local licence fee payers to bring issues to the heart of the BBC – to the BBC’s Chair and Trustees – to help set their priorities, I’ve some appreciation of audience views locally and nationally.
As an Audience Council we harped on about representation and portrayal as well as network investment to sustainably boost the local creative sector for many years.
We highlighted the absurdity that anyone buying a DAB radio in the north west would only be able to tune into Radio Ulster and couldn’t receive Radio Foyle on DAB … and many years later, this has finally been resolved.
In the wake of British and Irish financial woes and the important role of businesses in rebuilding the economy, we asked why there wasn’t a Business Editor for NI that could bring a focus to economic matters … and Jim Fitzpatrick at first and more recently John Campbell have served that role well.
The government’s Green Paper contains rich evidence about much of what is good about the BBC. The consultation also asks searching questions that could change the nature, shape and governance of the BBC, and overturn its current funding model. (One problem with a means tested licence fee would be the administration cost.) Fundamentally, audience voices need to be heard during the Charter Review, just as audience voices need to be heard day to day as the broadcasting oil-tanker is steered.
Twenty years ago the BBC offered 2 TV channels, CEEFAX and no website. Today it offers 9 TV channels, a website, a Red Button service, and provides audio description on 20-30% of programmes on BBC One, Two, Three, Four, CBeebies and CBBC. And while its local radio stations have remained relatively static, there’s been the addition of five digital-only radio stations.
By 2026 when the next BBC Charter runs out – or perhaps in 2021 after the next General Election when there’s an opportunity to tinker with the licence fee – how do you think the BBC should have changed? Personally, I hope Eastenders has been replaced with a nightly episode of Doctor Who …
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.