By 2026 when the next BBC Charter runs out, how do you think the BBC should have changed?

DCMS BBC Charter Review 2015 Public Consultation front pageEvery five 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.

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 …

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  • 23×7

    The BBC needs protection from the ideological attacks of the Tory party. Right wingers can’t stand a highly successful global organisation that is funded entirely by the public. Yes sure it has some problems, what major organisation doesn’t, but it remains an essential component of British life and is a key engine for the arts in the UK.

  • Turgon

    The funding is a major problem. This is an organisation which is allowed to charge a fee of every television owning household. Unlike any utility failure to pay the fee is a criminal not a civil matter.

    On the Today programme a BBC executive was pointing out how successful the BBC was and likening it to Apple of Google. That has a bit of validity except one can own and use a computer without being required to pay Apple or Google.

    Th other issue is that despite being empowered by law to charge for its services and allowed to ensure criminalisation of defaulters even the poorest, it pays vast sums to its leading executives and “talent”.

    This is not a simple right left issue. There are significant concerns about the BBC’s whole structure and governance but most especially about its financing and ability to enforce that financing which should be noted by all.

  • 23×7

    Fund it out of general taxation then. Now that the last budget is asking the BBC to pay for political decisions maybe this is the correct future funding arrangement.

    I don’t want to pay for trident or military adventures in Syria yet failure to pay my tax will see me in court.

    Anyway the debate over funding is just another stick being used to bash the BBC by the right wing Murdoch supporters who can’t stand its success.

  • Turgon

    I agree general taxation seems reasonable. However, to describe anyone critical of as regressive a form of taxation as the licence fee (for taxation it effectively is) as a right wing Murdoch supporter is simply dishonest.

  • 23×7

    Then why do they not complain about one of the most regressive taxes of all, VAT? The Tories seem pretty happy to whack up VAT at every available opportunity. Clear hypocracy. There is a right wing anti BBC agenda at play here and to deny it is naive.

  • Sharpie

    The BBC is precious. I use the website as my main launch point into so many issues and to keep track of what is happening around the world, to watch documentaries, and to avoid ads. It’s not very interactive and sometimes that is fine because the quality of commentary BTL of most major newspapers is enough to stop reading them at all (online).

    I tune into 6 music everyday and watch all of our TV through the laptop linked to a screen. The iplayer function is brilliant. I went as far as getting a VPN for looking at other sites like RTE but don;t avail of it – its just not as good. Saying that you know it has its limits of impartiality – especially when you compare it to the way the same events are presented on RT and Al Jazeera.

    As to the future – who knows what would happen if the BBC was smaller. We have proved that we are totally willing to pay (handsomely) for specific services like music or pay per view. If the BBC went semi private – could it offer even better services through cross funding?

    With greater likely use of internet to deliver what they do I assume that the funding gap will open there in time. I rarely watch live broadcasts – (Augusta, Tour de France on mountain days, and Game of Thrones on Father in Law’s sky go) and it was sense of duty and appreciation of the whole service that led me to pay £145 for the pleasure of these events. I feel obliged to contribute to the overall costs of the entire service and feel it is strange that I can consume the entire BBC catalogue without being obliged to pay a license fee.

    As for the connection to Northern Ireland – we do have local content but there could be way more. The arts pieces are elitist or come all ye with nothing in between. The morning and midday talk pieces are always compelling – although if Stephen Nolan was sacked he would save the assembly millions in communications professionals who run around crapping themselves at 9.00 every morning.

    It would be great to have a Northern Ireland radical station – even if only digital. Radio Ulster is very limiting in what it can do – especially for more risky content like young peoples stuff, new music, incisive documentaries or cutting edge interviews with drug workers, paramilitaries, artists and muso’, and definitely it has to begin exploding myths about life outside of Belfast – somehow the BBC manages to fulfil every stereotype of people and interests in Ballymena, Fermanagh, North Down, Sperrins, Kilkeel or wherever. People by and large are not just muck savages in these places but you only hear about farmer fairs, smuggling, difficulties of transport access to school, or closing primary schools.

    All in all its fairly amazing.

  • Given that the licence fee exists, what government would move it to general taxation given that it would require even marginally raising tax rates (or forcing other government spending cuts) … and that would put the BBC at the annual/twice-annual beck and call of the chancellor, rather than only once every 5 years?

  • Turgon

    I have made no comment about VAT nor for that matter about fuel tax etc. However, just because those taxes are regressive does not mean that the licence fee is not regressive.

    Furthermore there is more choice in terms of buying things (and hence paying VAT) or driving (and hence paying fuel tax) than one has in terms of the licence fee. Once one buys a TV one has to give a postcode and then ends up being pursued for the fee often with aggressive threatening demands. That even if you never watch BBC.

    The idea that pointing out the problems with the licence fee makes on a right wing Murdoch supporter is a lie.

  • 23×7

    This is exactly the situation we have at present despite the independent funding arrangement.

  • 23×7

    I’d be delighted if the license fee was based on income to make it less regressive. The fact that you’ve raised it as a major issue, when it clearly isn’t, indicates you have fallen hook line and sinker for the hatchet job being performed by the Tories on the BBC.

    I have to pay for trident and military adventures in the Middle East that I don’t want and will be pursued aggressively should I withhold my tax.

  • Turgon

    The fact that you called me a right wing Murdoch supporter betrays you as a liar. Your attempts to row back from that are of no importance whilst you continue that lie. Indeed to continue the insults is simply man playing.

    It is also slightly pathetic to direct such man playing at me simply for pointing out the regressive nature of the licence fee.

  • chrisjones2

    The use of regressive / progressive in these cases is clearly ideologically driven I would prefer to see a huge switch away from income tax and onto VAT structured so it takes the poor completely out opf tax and taxes consumption , especially on luxury / damaging goods like alcohol and tobacco

  • Dan

    Until it was infested by left wing bias, it was ok. Now, they’ve destroyed it, there’s little trust in it, and the salaries they pay for meagre talent are obscene,
    Scrap the TV tax.

  • 23×7

    Maybe you could explain where I called you a right wing Murdoch supporter? Naive I’ll give you.

  • 23×7

    BS. I think you’ll find that the bbc in both the scottish referendum and last general election was anything but left wing.

  • Dan

    Time for your meds.
    You didn’t happen to catch former Labour minister Purnell on Newnight there. What’s he now, director of BBC strategy?

  • 23×7

    Don’t worry I understand that some people struggle to look at things objectivity.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Sell it to Murdoch: the BBC is a job creation scheme for Oxbridge humanities unemployables.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    After being outside of the UK for a number of years I can honestly say I cherish the BBC now.

    Watching mind-numbing Aussie TV is borderline terrifying (whilst curiously boring “WHAT?!!! MORE ADVERTS?!!!”)

    British comedy is streets ahead of other countries and the BBC certainly props this sector up.

    And that’s without going into the drama, documentaries and radio shows.
    Worth every penny in my book.

  • Turgon

    I am delighted you enjoy the BBC: that is great. I am sure you would be happy to pay for it. Why though should everyone be forced to pay for it if we have a TV even if we do not use or value the BBC highly enough to wish to watch it?

  • 23×7

    Another lazy argument. Why should we be forced to pay for trident and wars in the Middle East when most of us don’t want them. That’s the thing about tax, you get some things you like and some you don’t.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    That’s something I struggle with Turgon.

    I don’t strongly believe that the rest of the country should pay for my demand for re-runs of Red Dwarf or Bottom or whatever else I like.

    But then I’ve seen the alternative in some other countries and it worries me greatly that British TV could end up like American or Australian TV.

    And as 23×7 says we have to pay for things that we don’t necessarily agree with (note: I don’t pay much British tax at the moment given my ex-pat status so my foundation from which to preach is somewhat shaky, I accept this).

    For example I (hypothetically) am happy to pay tax for the NHS.
    I am not happy to pay for someone to sit around in their pyjamas and watch daytime (or particularly satellite) TV for decade after decade, I believe there should be a cut off point.

    So, I do struggle with this one at present.

  • Slater

    The BBC’s sense of entitlement is so colossal it is frightening.
    On top of that you have a set of certainties that would make an East German Communist Party member blush.
    The worst culprits are the BBC websites which have a secondary effect of destroying newspapers, given the £200m budget and 700 journalists they employ siphoning news from other sources.
    When the local press is entirely dead people may wake up and ask why did we give the BBC a near monopoly on news?
    It currently informs a frighteningly high proportion of people in Britain but when it becomes the only news source you can say goodbye to diversity.

  • 23×7

    More nonsense accusing the bbc of destroying print media when newspapers have been slowly dying for years because of the web.

  • Rose Lee

    Strange that the Tories, so keen on maintaining the union (with Scotland at least), should undermine two organisations which are distinctively British and national – the BBC and the NHS. Folly that the BBC – a national organisation – should have, in the 1970s – decided to expand into local radio. Total madness. Regional BBC fine – Scotland, N.Ireland, Wales. But 40 ‘local’ stations? All pumping out same stuff – phone-ins, music from playlist etc. Tiny audience figures. Waste of money.