Tony Hall has proposed a momentous change as part of his plan to take the BBC through charter renewal after next May’s general election. He has proposed that BBC production should be completely separated from BBC Broadcasting, and should lose its current guarantees of production work from BBC channels and commissioning editors.
Outside broadcasting, the response is a bit “so what?” But inside broadcasting, this has as many far-reaching implications as the proposal to charge university students a £9000 annual fee. It risks is ‘the end of the BBC as we know it’, and the ‘end of public service broadcasting’. Or, in Tony Hall’s words, it will be a ‘competition revolution’ that will enable BBC producers to make programming for rival broadcasters.
The current system guarantees 50% of broadcast production – TV and radio – to BBC in-house producers. Another 25% is guaranteed to independent production companies that are not owned or controlled by broadcasters. The remaining 25% is the ‘Window of Creative Competition’, or WOCC, open to commissions from all: BBC in-house production or any other supplier whatsoever. It’s a system that dates back to the 1990s campaigns for independent producer access to BBC commissions.
However, more recently, it has worked less well for two reasons. First, because the overwhelming majority of some genres, especially drama, is now produced by independent producers. In-house BBC drama now consists of Eastenders, Holby City, Casualty and little else. Second, the consolidation in the independent sector has blurred the boundaries between broadcaster and independent to such an extent that many of the BBC’s key suppliers now no longer qualify for the 25% independent quota, and so have to be included in the WOCC along with everything else. The WOCC has become so full of the productions of Shine, Hat Trick and Endemol that there is little left for either non-broadcaster independents or BBC in-house production.
So why not just propose a bigger WOCC? (This is getting perilously close to the inevitable stir-fry related humour so I will swiftly move on). Hall’s plan acknowledges that the nature of TV production has changed, and that the current system is holding back BBC production and the BBC as a producing organisation. The current system puts the BBC commissioning structure firmly in charge of what the organisation does. BBC commissioning decisions alone drive what BBC producers are able to do. They cannot offer their rejected ideas to other broadcasters like independents can and do. They cannot negotiate between TV channels for a better deal like independents can, unless it is between BBC channels. In effect, BBC producers are now stuck like independents were stuck in the 1980s when their only market was Channel 4. If an individual or a production team have a good idea that doesn’t fit what BBC commissioners want, then their only option is to try to leave the BBC and take the idea with them (which their contracts won’t allow).
The second reason is that the financing of TV production has changed. Most programmes are no longer 100% financed by the commissioning broadcaster. Instead there is other investment, made in the expectation of revenue from foreign sales or UK repeat sales or licencing of formats or spin-off events and marketing. In the case of BBC Production, this investment comes from BBC Worldwide, the entirely market-driven distribution arm of the BBC which receives no licence fee subsidy. Instead, it is meant to generate income to subsidise licence fee funded activities. So the market logic of BBC Worldwide sometimes conflicts with the public service vision of BBC broadcasting, especially when it comes to assessing whether a potential BBC commission will be a worthwhile investment for BBC Worldwide. Maintaining the Chinese walls (see how hard it is to resist wok gags?) between licence fee and market driven activities is often comes at the expense of public service aims.
Ironically, the logic of Hall’s proposal will mean that BBC Production will become part of BBC Worldwide. A freed-up BBC Production, able to make programmes for all and sundry, could no longer receive licence fee subsidy. But look at the plus points:
- It would enable many producers to negotiate differently with BBC commissioners, and with other broadcasters, by offering much more enticing deals, already involving the development funds and part-financing of BBC Worldwide.
- It would enable the payment of market rates to key talent, and profit participation, which has been one of the stumbling blocks of the existing system.
- It would enable the construction, within BBC Worldwide, of the semi-autonomous niche production units which have now disappeared from the current BBC. These niche operations are the prime source of good UK drama, and their virtual abolition within the BBC has led to the decline of BBC in-house drama. The BBC needs its own units like Hartswood, the small semi-family concern behind Sherlock.
All of this could and should happen once BBC Production becomes a part of BBC Worldwide. It would mean that production was separated from the increasingly complex and bureaucratic activity of broadcasting. Currently production is trapped in the world of plans, scheduling, marketing and compliance. In new Broadcasting House, it is even trapped in the physical space designed for these activities. New ideas are measured against these processes before they have received sufficient development, and that, above all, is why the very different atmosphere of many (but, be it noted, not all) independent companies and autonomous production units now brings about the fresh ideas in British TV.
Planning, scheduling, marketing and compliance have a vital role to play in broadcasting. Too many people dismiss them as ‘bureaucracy’, using the term negatively. However, they are key to the long process of making formats work, just as they are to the judgement of public taste and the maintenance of broadcasting at the heart of national life (as they say). But they do not sit well with the development of ideas and the intractable problems of getting real people to work together with the aim of creating something new. The BBC suffers inordinately from this problem, and Hall’s plan – if followed through thoroughly – may just be the way of solving the problem for the next decade.
JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. He leads the ADAPT project on the history of technologies in TV, funded by a €1.6 million grant from the European Research Council. He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and also oversees the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen. His publications can be found HERE.