Thursday, 13 February 2014

Michael Grade on shutting down BBC programming - again

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee are having a hearing about the future of the BBC - Michael Grade was asked to contribute testimony, along with former Director-Generals John Birt and Greg Dyke, and former Chairman Gavyn Davies. The Guardian has a quick summary of Grade's remarks from earlier in the week here (with a liveblog here), and the Register has a fuller account here - with the curious note that witness testimony has been embargoed. No one seems to be sure why. Grade has written an article for the Independent outlining how much he dislikes the BBC's current procedural structures.

(For the benefit of those just coming to this conversation - Grade had the show cancelled back in 1989, tried to stop it getting recommissioned in 2005, and more recently was soundly told off by Steven Moffat for cancelling it in the first place. There is quite a lot of bad blood here.)

It's a long article and yours truly won't go for a point-by-point rebuttal here, but here's a few comments.

"The BBC has an assured place in the modern history of Britain, and yet in one very damaging respect it is a slave to its history. When it started out and then developed, there were no studios. It had to design, build, own and operate its own...It is in the DNA of the BBC that “we can and must do everything ourselves”. It still seems to believe in owning real estate, studios, post production and, yes, programme making – it is as if the private sector did not exist. It goes on expanding in areas that require huge resources, yet more management, more HR departments, more spectrum, more channels, more, more, more....This cannot and must not continue if the BBC is to retain public support."

"Outsource all production processes and facilities (studios, post production, film and TV) to a private sector more than capable of absorbing the work (I declare my interest here as chairman of Pinewood and Shepperton studios). This will free up capital expenditure, resource management, headcount, investment capital and much more besides. The BBC must finally accept that it just doesn’t need to own and operate any of these facilities any longer. It seems to have survived when its transmitters were privatised against its wishes."

The same sort of logic that led to the scrapping of Television Centre, and quite skipping over the matter of why it's so much better for the private market to have production facilities. So here's what instituting that policy would have meant for Doctor Who (yes, finally) - no Upper Boat studio. No Roath Lock studio, either. No dedicated BBC facility for making Doctor Who, because those facilities were created and operated specifically for Doctor Who and its plethora of spin-offs (Totally Doctor Who, Torchwood, SJA, that sort of thing). The programme had gotten by in its first two years filming at older warehouses and suchlike, but the whole Welsh Drama setup that now provides studios for Casualty, Sherlock, Merlin, etc. etc. simply couldn't have happened with the facilities available in Wales back in 2005.

"The independent production sector now provides a huge proportion of BBC TV and radio programming, outside of news. It supports Channel 4’s entire output. What is the justification for the BBC continuing to run BBC in-house production any longer in areas such as drama, documentaries, light entertainment, comedy etc etc? No point at all...In-house production should remain exclusively for news and, maybe, just maybe, for current affairs strands such as Panorama."

So not just scrapping in-house production, scrapping BBC productions altogether. Outsourcing the whole operation to someone else. You might as well stop referring to anything as a BBC programme at that point - with all the talent working for private production companies, the BBC's only job would be to throw money at private corporations and hope they get some decent shows. This is quite honestly mindboggling. 

The ironic thing is that Doctor Who would be able to squeak under such a remit, as it's a "brand" these days and everyone would be clamouring to do it. Because it's so popular, it's made lots of money for the BBC to put back into other programmes. That all stops if some other production company is given permission to make Doctor Who - and which one would you care to give it to? Who'd be in charge of the merchandising, and the books, and that whole multitude of business arrangements that net the BBC a tidy sum every year and go some way towards actually making it self-sustaining? Would we end up with bidding wars where one channel bags the show one year, and a different one a few years down the line? Because that's the obvious reductio ad absurdum of this private competition lark - auctioning off the former public good to whoever offers the most. We're talking about selling off the commons here.

(Speaking of which, since the BBC does own quite a lot of assets in the way of production studios and such like, what are we going to do with them if they're not to be used for making television any more? Hold a fire sale? Probably sell them off to Pinewood for cheap - it'd be very handy, since Pinewood was recently refused permission to expand its premises. Grade was livid.)

And as for international...if we're going whole-hog on the competition angle, BBC America might as well close up shop now. The programme ought to make more money if you flogged it and Top Gear off to some American network, and those are the big guns that support the channel.

 "In addition, encouraging creative talent throughout Britain is another key purpose. In the old federal days of 16 ITV companies, Granada in the North-west, Yorkshire, Central in the Midlands etc, were hotbeds of local talent, places where writers, directors, performers and producers needed only a cheap bus ride to get a chance to express their talent. ITV today, like the BBC then, is pretty much a London consolidation. The opportunity for the BBC to travel in the opposite direction is one it should continue to embrace."

Which they've been doing in Wales, very visibly, with the Drama Village. It's put Cardiff on the map as a centre for tv, when private entities weren't bothering. What more could the BBC do to encourage creative talent across Britain? And how is the BBC going to nurture talent if their job is just to pay money to the independents?

"If, and only if the BBC is still in Little Caesar mode and reluctant to embrace the modern way of doing things, I would take the most important and most threatened public service channel, namely Channel 4, out of the advertising market entirely. It is going to struggle more and more to maintain its special minority remit in the face of increased competition and reducing ad spend."

"It should then be funded out of the total licence fee. It should retain its sovereignty – the last things it needs is the suffocating embrace of the institutionalised BBC – but in a series of, say, tri-annual settlements, be put into competition with the BBC for a share of the licence fee, based on quality criteria to be designed by, say, Ofcom. At a stroke, Channel 4’s future would be assured, all of the private-sector channels that are ad-supported would receive a boost, which would ensure sustained investment in original programmes (and improve the advertiser proposition), and, most important, the BBC would learn about the value of money. It would create a culture of transparency that no governance system could replicate, where the licence-fee monopoly is maintained."

In other words, pit the BBC and Channel 4 against each other for the license fee. If he's so confident that Channel 4's future would be "assured" by such a competition, then he obviously thinks that the BBC would lose out against any such competition. It's punishing one of the institutions that offers minority-interest programming by forcing them to compete for scarce monies with the other institution that offers minority-interest programming...and for what purpose?

Yours truly would link to BBC coverage about this, but perhaps due to conflict of interest, they're not talking about it. Instead they're rerunning a BBC4 programme of his next week about the World's Oldest Joke. Which is just about the definition of a minority-interest programme if ever I heard one.

To cheer us up after all that, here is some Mitch Benn.


PCJ said...

When is someone going to take a hit out on the guy, I mean seriously. Will his cultural vandalism never cease??

PCJ said...

One almost wonders if there is a hint of anti-welsh old-school racism in there. I note when mentioning old-school ITV, he only mentions parts of England...

PCJ said...

Dear Mr. Moffatt, I think we've found a new villain for Peter Capaldi's Doctor. Let's just call him "The Graduate."