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First slice off the sacred cow

By Angela Harbutt
June 17th, 2009 at 6:30 pm | 13 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

Plans to break the BBC’s monopoly on the licence fee for the first time could help fund a new system of local and regional news on ITV, and support children’s programmes (Channel 4?), the government revealed in yesterday’s Digital Britain report.

Good or bad? Good that the first slice off the sacred cow’s hide has been taken at last. Bad if this stops or even slows the more radical overhaul of UK broadcasting.

I worked in TV for twenty years and am dismayed with the ever-increasing stranglehold on news that the BSKYB/BBC (a tax exile and a government agency) have acquired. I have been stunned by the shocking largess of the BBC, on its news budgets, its personality pay cheques, its £50,000 a year chauffeurs, and much much more.

Mostly I have been angered by how a state broadcaster should ever have acquired such a position of power that it now distorts every market so dramatically wherever it goes…

Radio– BBC Radio’s £450m annual budget has stunted radio growth.

Internet news – BBC spends more on websites (£150m) than all national newspapers put together.

Local news – BBC’s attempted (but foiled) launch of a £68m network of local news websites with video content would have killed off many local newspapers.

Magazine market – the state broadcaster it is the UK’s third largest magazine publisher.

It has become a sprawling, greedy leviathan. It is consumed with protecting its budgets and pressing ahead in every area of the market it can possibly reach with the sole aim of being number one, destroying all that stands in its way.

But with a collapsing commercial TV market, it is actually television where the BBC has failed so profoundly. The BBC has only ever thrived when it has top flight competition, constantly pushing it to new levels of excellence. As soon as the competition was dispensed with it was exposed for the unimaginative arrogant organisation that it is.

There will be those that point to the “quality output of the BBC”…. Blue Planet – and the never ending number of David Attenborough documentaries, Doctor Who etc . Yet the schedule is actually full of cheap light entertainment copies of commercial programmes, mindless day time TV, inane chat shows (I include Match of the Day in that btw) and timid news coverage. So much for “quality”.

And let us not forget that when ITV had a similarly protected position in UK broadcasting  it produced some of the best shows on TV; The Avengers, Inspector Morse, World In Action, The Sweeney, Cracker, Spitting Image, Rising Damp, The Prisoner, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, The New Statesman, Coronation Street ……. Hell, it was the poorly funded ITV News that picked up this year’s BAFTA award for best news coverage . How is that possible with the BBC news budget?

And let us not forget that when you take into account all of its commercial activity together with the our money, the BBC income is £4billion+ a year. Chew on that one.

But “top slicing” the BBC licence fee is NOT the way to go. The government has missed the point. Again. This was a half-arsed intervention.  Putting a sticking plaster on the problem by protecting those bits that the voters might complain about – local news, kids programmes etc.

We need a total overhaul of UK broadcasting. Sell off swathes of the BBC,  (Radio’s 1 and 2 value was c£500m alone back in 2007). And replace the TV licence fee with a a subscription fee so we can pay for the bits we want and save money on the bits we never watch.

So much more to say – too much space taken already. But let this be a start. Let’s lift the rose tinted glasses from our eyes and actually see not what the BBC once was , but what it has become. And whether there really can be a place for such a state-funded giant in the multi-channel, multi-media world we live in today.

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GUEST POST: Dominique Lazanski – Not so Flash Gordon drives digital disaster

By Julian Harris
June 17th, 2009 at 1:30 pm | 4 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

computeriiIn this age of stimulus packages and needless intervention it has become fashionable again to incorrectly look to the government to solve problems.  Such is the result of the Digital Britain report, released yesterday.  Filled with more regulation, increased state monitoring, and additional taxation on phone lines, Digital Britain is a convenient way to increase government control in an increasingly over-taxed and over-regulated economy.

As stated in its press release, the main goal of the Digital Britain report is for “Britain to sustain its position and grow as a leading digital economy and society.”  This may seem a reasonable goal for a wealthy nation, but cannot be achieved through subsidies.  In America, the internet boom and the subsequent rise of the digital economy happened as a result of privately competing telecom, website, and media production companies.  Internet broadband was laid down not with government money, but with private investment leading the way.   As a result the US is the leading digital economy in the world, while reports have shown that the UK is at least 18 months to 2 years behind the US in its broadband and internet technology.  No amount of government money will lessen that gap created by freely competing companies with an incentive to make a faster, cheaper, or better product.

People should refuse to pay a state surcharge on phone lines and refuse to pay a state department for permission to view televisual media.  Why should we support a failing government who wants to expand their own reach and political gain with futile promises to make the UK a better digital society?  It makes no sense when other countries grow their economies through private competition.  We all expect the imminent electoral demise of Brown’s Labour Party – let’s hope their plans to intervene in the digital market go the same way.

Dominique Lazanski is a digital strategist with ten years experience in silicon valley. She now lives in the UK and is not affiliated to any political party.

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