“We believe that in the age of digital television it will not be sufficient for the BBC to offer only two mixed genre channels which are somehow supposed to meet the needs of everyone. That is not how audiences will want to receive television in the future. We need a more coherent portfolio of channels. However, as I’ve already said, people have an expectation of BBC channels in terms of quality which we have to meet. As we are inevitably constrained by money, this means we must limit the size of this portfolio.”
But there is another more important reason for limiting the number of channels we plan and that is the principle of universality. What universality means is making all our publicly funded services available in all homes. Universality has been one of the core principles of public service broadcasting in the past and should remain so in the digital age. It means that everyone regardless of race, creed or bank balance will have access to the BBC’s services. For BBC ONE in particular this challenge comes at a difficult time when, partly as a result of under-funding, the channel is not doing as well as it should.
As Chris Smith acknowledged in a recent interview in the New Statesman, we had very good Autumn and Winter schedules last year and we have some great programmes this autumn, including the adaptation of Kingsley Amis’ Take a Girl Like You; William Ivory’s new drama The Sins and Sir David Attenborough’s new series State of the Planet. We need more of that kind of popular, quality programming. I believe we now live in a competitive world where the average simply isn’t good enough. We need more of the very best.
BBC ONE needs to have a greater impact on people’s lives. It needs to be more modern, more in touch, more contemporary. It needs more programming that you simply cannot miss. While this may mean that some old faithfuls disappear and others move from the fringe of BBC ONE to peak time on BBC TWO, it does not mean we are banishing all current affairs, documentaries, religion and arts to other channels. Far from it. But programming in these genres, just as in drama and entertainment, needs to be more engaging, more exciting, more gripping if it is to be on BBC ONE.
We need more factual programmes like Walking with Dinosaurs, Fergal Keane’s Britain, Eyes of a Child or the Panorama Special on football hooliganism. More compelling drama like Warriors, Clocking Off or Wives and Daughters, more comedy like The Royle Family or The Vicar of Dibley and more investment in mainstream sport. Our aim is to make BBC ONE the gold standard of mainstream television. Now all this is going to cost and we plan a major injection of cash. More than half of the extra money to be spent on the BBC overall will go on improving and modernising BBC ONE and TWO, with most going onto BBC ONE.
In the multi-channel world the nine o’clock slot, the start of the post watershed schedule, is a lot tougher than ten. The move to ten o’clock also gives us the opportunity to expand in an area which is increasingly under threat on ITV – regional news and regional programming. The BBC’s early evening regional news is now beating ITV in all but one region in England, is winning comprehensively in Wales, is neck and neck here in Scotland and is closing the gap in Northern Ireland. This would have been unthinkable only five years ago but commercial pressures are inevitably taking their toll on the regional nature of ITV.
With ITV’s late regional news now relegated to 11.20pm we believe we have a real opportunity to provide a stronger regional news service at a more accessible time. So with the move of the nine o’clock news to ten we plan to double the length of our late regional news bulletins and improve their quality. Channel loyalty is comparatively weak; viewers are selective and watch certain programmes and not channels.
Multi channel fragmentation creates a passive audience that are rather passive in their demand for good quality television from broadcasters. Professor Martin Collins believes audiences are becoming less demanding for change in the services offered by the BBC. This was issue was brought forward by BBC’s own research: The Future of the BBC.8 “Public broadcasting needs to be well informed by the views and preferences of viewers and listeners, which could provide useful guidelines for government policy and broadcasters’ strategies.”
The danger is that all the pressure on terrestrial budgets and the effect of pre-emptive scheduling against satellite will reduce the quality and choice available to all of us. BBC’s identity is heavily embodied in its principles. Commercial television challenges these principles. The BBC may feel their scheduling may need to be adapted. “Over 20 years ago the BBC’s role, in the spirit of Lord Reith , was historically seen as being to act ‘as a kind of internal diplomatic service…representing…the best of British… to the British.'”
The arrival of cable and commercial television broke up the comfortable hegemony. The BBC is a committed body in offering viewers range and diversity. Guarantee to have factual programmes, as well as entertainment. Diversity means within each season the BBC will schedule and commission fresh and adventurous programmes as well as established stars and formats, regardless of the market. This way the BBC retains its identity. Eventually cable channels will stick to programmes that they know will bring mass audiences. This restricts their ability to be more experimental. Whereas the BBC is willing, it is the requirement that it carries out as a British broadcaster.
Whatever effect multi channel fragmentation may have on the identity of the BBC, the Government believes that in the long term there won’t be any justification for amendments of the duties and obligations of the public service broadcasting organisations. The BBC has a strong identity and will continue to occupy a unique position amongst television viewers. “The pro and anti BBC camps have been conducting a sterile debate, with one side arguing that the system should be dismantled, and the other side defending the status quo: with too little attention paid both to the genuine benefits which the existence of the BBC confers on broadcasting, and to the problems that the BBC will face in a fragmenting market.”
The identity of the BBC, as a public service broadcasting corporation, which has delivered to viewers a wide range of good quality television, should be preserved. It is this tradition which is an admirable concept to retain for the benefit of the public. It is therefore important that the BBC “flourish, under a financing system and corporate ethos that encourages self- confidence and freedom of expression.”12 However there should also be freedom for the competitors to provide their own range of programmes and services. This enables the BBC to be preserved whilst keeping the choice available. Yet this does not solve the problem of audience fragmentation. It does keep the BBC on its toes.
New television channels such as E4, have been able to get audiences by providing popular programming e.g. Big Brother. Cable channels are driven by commercial rather than public service principles. These cable channels such as Sky One, broadcast fewer current affairs, documentary, cultural and minority interest programmes. They “have no reason not to offer the programming that will maximise their profits.”13 “The increased number of available channels and reduced distribution costs have allowed operators to pursue greater market segmentation than has ever been possible for terrestrial television broadcasters.”
There are now many film channels, channels solely devoted to sports, and channels showing news, pop music, comedy, children’s programmes and nature documentaries. Such channels will produce good quality programmes and some will produce low cost poor programmes. Programmes will be geared towards what mass audiences want; it is against this background that the government have to determine the future objectives for public broadcasters. Another consequence of multi channel fragmentation is that it brings up the question of whether the viewers should be able to choose for themselves. The Peacock report was important in pointing this out:
“British broadcasting should move towards a sophisticated market system based on consumer sovereignty. That is a system which recognises that viewers and listeners are the best ultimate judges of their own interests, which they can best satisfy if they have the option of purchasing the broadcasting services they require from as many alternative sources of supply as possible.” However this assumes that audiences are informed enough to judge for themselves. This partly takes away and replaces what the BBC stands for. Its identity is destabilized because its existence becomes questionable due to so many channels being available. It also becomes harder to justify the license fee on which the BBC is funded by.
The BBC believes in a certain amount of risk taking and innovation, in fact it is part of their agenda. “Developments in broadcasting, especially the rapid emergence of new satellite and cable channels, are reducing the importance of these rationales.”16 However, it could also have an opposite effect and increase the importance of the principles that the BBC sustains, or arguably is failing to sustain by adhering to commercial tastes. The BBC has to carry on customising itself to these changes. The main principles of the BBC will always apply and yet somehow new changes must be introduced.