The BBC Charter Renewal is Death by A Thousand Cuts for the Beeb

By James O Malley on at

Today is a big day for the BBC as the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has published a “whitepaper” that describes the government’s plans for the corporation. It’s all part of Charter Renewal - the legal process that enables the BBC to continue to exist, and needs renewing every few years.

It’s a big deal because for the past year the Beeb and the government have been playing a game to see who can scare the other the most - with the government whispering about dramatic plans to restrict BBC One from putting Strictly up against the X-Factor, and the BBC talking about how everything will be ruined if they do. The problem, of course, is that John Whittingdale doesn’t like the BBC. At all.

The good news is that it isn’t as doom-laden as some had feared - but it does propose some significant changes to the way the corporate currently operates. And these changes may not be all benign. In fact - do they add up to a larger plan? Here’s some of the highlights - and then my own conspiracy theory about why the changes are being made.

Celebrity Salaries Published

The most eye-catching announcement is no doubt that from now on the BBC will be obliged to publish salary details of everyone who earns over £450,000 at the Beeb. It won’t have to publish exact numbers but will give an indication of pay bands. So we’ll finally find out how much the likes of Gary Lineker and Graham Norton earn.

Closing the iPlayer Loophole

The whitepaper also talks of a desire to close the so-called iPlayer loophole, where you can watch BBC content using the BBC website or app, without having to pay a TV license. Apparently the government plans to pass a new law to make it bulletproof.

Curiously it also mentions wanting to make the iPlayer “portable” - so that it can be watched abroad, and so the BBC can verify that viewers have paid the license fee. This means viewers may soon need to add login information to watch programmes.

It also wants the BBC to get its content distributed more widely to other platforms where people view stuff. So not just relying on the iPlayer, but potentially piping into the likes of Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, too.

Cost-wise, the License Fee will continue to rise in line with inflation - which is good news for the corporation as during the last charter it was frozen for several years, meaning an effective cut in real terms. That meant less cash with which for the BBC to do what it does.

Opening Up to Competition

Under existing rules, the BBC must open up 25% of its schedules to shows made by independent production companies, like how Sherlock is made by Hartswood Films and not the BBC itself. Now Whittingdale wants to increase this to 100%, with only news and “news related current affairs” exempt. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the BBC will axe a tonne of popular shows, but merely that they will be made externally, such as how long running Question Time is actually made by Mentorn.

In tandem to this, Whittingdale wants to slice off BBC Studios, the Beeb’s own internal production arm, and have it as a wholly owned subsidiary of the BBC, so that it can compete on a more equal footing with independent producers. The thinking is that competition will increase the quality of programming.

There’s one other interesting upshot too: As BBC Studios would be a commercial operation, it would be able to compete to make shows broadcast by other networks. So one day we could conceivably see BBC produced shows premiering not on BBC One, but Netflix, for example.

Public Service Broadcasting Fund

The whitepaper also describes a new £20m/year fund for a three year trial of a “Public Service Content” fund. This cash won’t go direct to the BBC, but will instead be made available by the government for other organisations to bid on to get the cash to produce public service programming. The only proviso is that once it has been made is that it is free at the point of use - so broadcast on ITV, Channel 4 or 5, rather than hidden away behind a paywall on Sky.

In terms of what sorts of content, it will be up for telecoms regulator Ofcom to decide, but will likely mean stuff that isn’t commercially sustainable like kids’ shows (that’s what happens when you ban junk food advertising).

The Conspiracy Theory

So what does this all add up to? If you want to join me in a crazed conspiracy theory, it certainly appears as though the government is packaging up the Beeb ready for the big sell off, just as soon as it can muster the political will to do so (perhaps in two or three charter renewals time).

For example, the creation of BBC Studios and introducing competition across the whole of the BBC schedule is arguably analogous to the NHS reforms. While the NHS, like the BBC, remains free at the point of service, behind the scenes it has been restructured into units that could be more easily privatised in the future.

If we have a situation where the whole BBC schedule is up for grabs, and BBC Studios has no real advantages over other independents, then the argument could be made “what’s the point in the BBC owning its own TV production company?”. This wouldn’t be unprecedented either - the Dutch equivalent of the BBC and our very own Channel 4 are public broadcasters that just happen to have external companies make all of the programmes.

But what about when the time comes to get rid of the BBC as a broadcaster? The plans announced today point towards the government having given itself some options for the future. For example, if the iPlayer makes the switch to requiring everyone have login information, it means that if the Licenses Fee were to be pulled and instead the BBC forced to rely on subscription revenue, there would already be a login system in place to manage subscriptions.

For viewers, things would remain much the same - they would use the same login to access the same programmes. They’d just have to setup a direct debit with the BBC rather than the TV Licensing people. Of course - the difference would be that not everyone would be forced to pay. It’s set up to be a brilliant sleight of hand.

And by encouraging the BBC to get its content onto other platforms and not just the iPlayer? That’s handy for diminishing the importance of the iPlayer. “Why would I need to pay a license fee for the iPlayer when I have Netflix?”, people of the future can ask.

Should the BBC eventually be privatised there’s one massive question that the government will need to find an answer to: What about those programmes that are simply not commercially viable? Like news programmes and kids shows?

“A ha!”, the government will cry - that’s why there’s the Public Service Broadcasting fund. A privatised BBC will be able to bid for a slice of that cash just like anyone else. In time, this could see the BBC carved apart, transformed into essentially a British PBS, relying on tiny budgets to produce only public service programming.

Oh, and finally, what’s the significance of the salary publishing? While public support for the BBC remains high, one good way of eroding this might be to offer the tabloids a steady stream of stories about how much the top stars are being paid. Remember the fuss when Jonathan Ross was controversially paid £18m? It’ll be like that, but for every big name personality.

This is obviously just a bit of a conspiracy theory. But looking at today’s announcements, this certainly appears a plausible direction in which the slippery slope will point. The BBC will never be privatised in a “big bang” moment - people love it too much. But today does represent another step towards destruction as the government figures out how to chip away at the corporation. It won’t be a bullet to the head - it’ll be death by 1000 cuts.

Full Disclosure: I appear every week on the BBC Asian Network dispensing technology advice to listeners, and occasionally as a pundit on other programmes. The views expressed above are my own and not those of the BBC, who don't employ me.