David Gordon talks to Christopher Bland, the new chairman of the BBC. Do we need public service broadcasting?by David Gordon / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Christopher Bland’s surname is misleading. Robust, Blunt, even A-Touch-Bullying would be more accurate. His appointment as chairman of the BBC, taking over from Duke Hussey in April, has been widely welcomed. He is patently going to be a doughty defender of the BBC’s independence from politicians-many of whom, on the Tory side, he has known since university (where he fenced). His friends are slightly in awe of his abrasive manner and his nonsense-curtailing “Bollocks!” He is rich, having made two piles of money-from a printing company and then from London Weekend Television. He is an entity. Bland becomes chairman as the BBC’s internal drama script changes from “battle for survival against the political regulators” to “fighting the competitive struggle in the marketplace.” The BBC has a new ten-year charter which takes it up to 2006 without any changes to its basic shape: the two television channels, all the radio, a guaranteed licence fee (which has to be negotiated every three years), the right to engage in commercial activities. The BBC saw off Thatcherite slash-burn-and-advertise threats, thanks to supportive ministers, director-general John Birt’s reforms (and the squeals caused thereby), and extensive lobbying. So the BBC remains intact, but is now worried that it will be diminished by market forces. Its share of the national television audience has fallen from 50 per cent in 1989 to 42 per cent now-and to 28 per cent in homes with cable and satellite. While the BBC can expect the licence fee to remain static in real terms, ITV’s revenue can be boosted when advertising times are good, and BSkyB’s revenues are on a steep upward curve as it has set out to buy paying audiences with movies and sports. Rupert Murdoch offered the most money for the Olympics. Luckily for the BBC, the Olympic committee decided to take the lower (by $500m) bid from Europe’s public broadcasters. British politicians are now bidding for popularity by keeping the most popular sports out of pay-per-view or satellite-channel exclusivity. Some see his business acumen as Bland’s virtue. Will he find a way to capitalise on the BBC’s assets to generate extra money? Will he take the BBC into small public-service niches? How hands-on will he be? Interviewed by David Gordon, a former chief executive of The Economist and until recently chief executive at ITN, Bland gives some blunt answers.
Q What trends in the media industry are going…