Samuel Brittan objects to a piece of high-minded special pleading for an ever rising BBC licence fee for an ever shrinking BBC. Quality programmes need a better defenceby Samuel Brittan / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Soldier on leave in 1915 (on seeing a young Oxford don in civvies): Tell me sir, what are you doing to defend the civilisation for which I am fighting?
Don: Don’t you understand? I am the civilisation you are defending.
The fly leaf to this booklet explains that it is the third in a series of public policy reports commissioned by the BBC. It is the work of Andrew Graham, of Balliol College, Oxford and Gavyn Davies, of Goldman Sachs, and looks with alarm at a future in which the viewer (and listener?) will be able to pay for whatever programmes he or she likes from a multitude of sources.
Some of the authors’ concerns are legitimate. For example, the main consumer electronics manufacturers supplying set-top boxes for digital television may well have to rely on proprietary technology devised by Murdoch companies. Economies of scale at this stage of the transmission process will make it difficult for other competitors to enter. So there is a potential monopoly problem.
Second, desirable though it is in enlarging freedom of choice, pay television will destroy a “public good” which broadcasting has created. Both the BBC and ITV permit viewer access without having to pay at the point of entry (the overheads being met by the licence fee or advertising), so there is no direct link between the amount of broadcasting “consumed” and the amount it costs to produce. This is one of the attributes of a public good: one person can have more without anyone else having less. In this context, it means more people may watch more “good” television than they otherwise would-or than they will under a pay television regime.
Instead of sticking to the monopoly dangers and public good problem, this booklet becomes a highminded appeal for taxpayer finance to support shared values and experiences, as the cement of democracy.
The whole point of liberal democracies is to find ways by which people with different values can live together. This is admittedly not possible without some common elements, if only a belief in toleration. So the authors’ argument cannot just be dismissed as paternalism. But the common experiences on which the authors dwell-such as last night’s match as a conversation opener-arise spontaneously rather than from planning by “the great and the good.”
The Peacock committee on the future of broadcasting, which reported in 1986, took the view that mass entertainment programmes could be provided commercially. But it advocated a Public Service Broadcasting Corporation which would subsidise minority programmes along the lines of the Arts Council.
The Peacock committee had no illusions that it could lay down the prerequisites for an open society. Its support of public subsidy for minority appeal programmes was based firmly on the logic of individual choice. There are activities which many citizens will desire to see financed, but not support personally. They may not particularly want to see a Shakespeare play or visit the local art gallery. Or they may want to, but not have the time or opportunity. There is a case for financing these activities in part collectively because, if left to voluntary contributions, they would fall victim to the “free rider problem”: left to himself or herself, any one citizen might be inclined to leave it to others to provide finance, reasoning that his or her contributions would make an infinitesimal difference.
As a member of the Peacock committee, I was fascinated to observe the reaction of the BBC establishment when it saw that we were inclined to accept the argument for supporting cultural programmes. The BBC protested that it did not want to be part of a high culture ghetto and that everything it did was “public service.”
One can see the value of the “we must do everything” line in maintaining public support for the licence fee. But it will be hopeless when the BBC becomes a minority outlet, as it is bound to eventually. If it is to have a future it must be at the high quality end of broadcasting. If it insists on doing everything, it will go the way of all dinosaurs.
The BBC’s share of the national television audience was 45 per cent last year. This is still high enough to maintain broadly-based public support for the licence fee. But as more channels become available, this share is bound to drop: of the 20 per cent of homes that now receive cable or satellite television, the BBC accounts for less than 30 per cent of total viewing. Maybe these households have a higher than average propensity to watch pay channels. On the other hand, the number and accessibility of alternative channels seems certain to rise. Pay-per-view has scarcely even started in Britain.
All that the authors can suggest in the face of this dilemma is ever more ingenious ways of increasing the licence fee, which now stands at ?91.50 and is indexed to the retail prices index (RPI). This automatic support for the real value of the fee was an important outcome of the Peacock committee, for which the public service lobby resolutely refuses to give it credit-doubtless because it used the language of market economics rather than the mandarin prose usual for such reports.
The authors seem to assume, without quite saying so, that a new licence fee formula-which would nearly maintain the Corporation’s share of total broadcasting revenue-would be able to stem the falling audience share.
This is a howler. Even if television owners are forced to pay more, this will in no way impel them to keep their sets tuned to BBC channels. Increasing the subsidy for the BBC is not like increasing the subsidy for widgets. The amount of time spent watching any channel is limited by the number of hours in a day and the number of these that a typical householder is prepared to spend glued in front of his or her set-already an amazing three or four hours if you believe the figures.
By far the best bet for the BBC in its quest for more revenue is the development of its commercial activities. These range from exploiting the potential revenue from the Corporation’s massive stores of broadcast material to joint ventures such as the Discovery satellite channel. This revenue source is given but a glancing and condescending mention by Graham and Davies.
If that does not prove enough, the most plausible way of supplementing the licence fee would be one of the intermediate formulas suggested by the authors. Under it the basic licence would not rise by more than the RPI, but there would be an add-on for digital sets. There would be some real buoyancy of revenue while the changeover was continuing-analogous to the BBC’s gain during the transfer from black and white to colour television.
A more important question is what the BBC would do with the extra revenue. If it simply wanted to maximise audience share, the simplest course would be to add more medium or low quality channels. This would increase the chances that a random pressing of the remote control buttons would result in a Corporation channel appearing on screen. Such a response would rightly be condemned as “not what was intended” by almost any government.
The high-minded lobby would hope that any extra resources would go into more and better arts, current affairs and drama programmes. So would I. But all the signs are that the BBC will be chiefly concerned to do what it can to maintain audiences without sacrificing political goodwill. Higher revenues would almost certainly go into mass entertainment. For all its talk of quality, the Corporation has been going visibly downmarket in the last few years.
Nevertheless, no likely changes in programme mix or revenue source will stop the squeeze on audience share. The BBC will have to reconcile itself to becoming a provider or purchaser of less popular programmes that commercial channels might not support. So why not start a dignified and stately retreat soon instead of waiting for the inevitable?
Meanwhile, it is characteristic of the myopia of much high-minded special pleading that the authors have no specific proposals for any aspect of broadcasting other than the BBC licence fee. They have no solution for the potential Murdoch television-top monopoly. Despite ritual abuse of the consumerism of the Peacock committee, they characteristically ignore its Arts Council of the Air proposal. Even the future of Channel 4, which is financed from advertising but has a special remit to provide minority programmes, is ignored. Quality programmes need better defenders. Broadcasting, Society and Policy in the Multimedia Age
Andrew Graham and Gavyn Davies
University of Luton Press 1997, ?5.95