“A New Idea For How The BBC Could Work” …Not

February 22, 2009

I’d wish I’d been to Beeb Camp 2 last week, as from all the posts I’ve read it sounded fascinating. I really should have been there.

It inspired Jason Da Ponte to write this: (“BeebCamp gave me a new idea for how the BBC could work”):

Each year you pay your license fee to the BBC in exchange for programming that you own and control the destiny of. YOU decide what gets made because YOU decide which ideas, programmes, themes, seasons, etc you want to invest in. This could be done via an online marketplace that let’s you manage the money in your account and that links you to what other people are doing with the money in their accounts.

Incidentally I work with Jason. I think he’s great (he understands the BBC’s complaints system a lot better than I do) so my reply is not intended as a criticism of him personally.

I read “the Wisdom of the Crowd” a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. While I didn’t understand the stuff in it about economics the insights about narrow group think in institutions was spot on (and certainly seemed true to some of the situations I’ve been in at the BBC).

There’s certainly a lot to be said for collaberating more, inside and outside the BBC. Collaberating with different audiences to make content is a good idea.

But I draw the line when it comes to the money.

You can’t apply those ideas to the BBC at the point where the money is spent. Because:

1. Markets are very bad ways of commissioning public service content. Just compare the free market system in the US to what the BBC produces.

One of the abiding arguments for the BBC is market failure. The market will not deliver Radio 3, Radio 4 or even the range and depth of BBC ONE (as we can increasingly see in the plight of ITV).

2. This is because people don’t always know what they want. They know what they like and usually want more of the same. They sometimes say they want innovation or creativity (usually they just mean fewer repeats). Would they prepared to spend their money on promises of innovation, technical or editorial?

If we knew every programme had an eager audience before it was made, would we ever have another ‘flop’?

Says Jason. In fact, some of the BBC’s biggest sucesses of recent years have not been popular or critically esteemed when they started. If a focus group with commissioning power had been deciding whether The Office should have a second series they would have said no. Doing a second series was one of those creative decisions which Commissioning people who are paid to make those judgements are good at.

3. People don’t always know what they need. Some research done by OFCOM some years ago revealed that audineces thought Eastenders was more public service than arts programmes.

“Public service” often means “what I like”. Expecting audiences to have a sophisticated understanding of the BBC’s public purposes so they can build them into their money choices is I think unrealistic.

4. Jason’s idea is really just a complicated version of subscription, a kind of micro-subscription. Underneath it is the argument you sometimes hear from people who say “I only like Radio 4 and Radio 3 so why can’t I just pay for that?”.

The answer is “because there probably aren’t enough of you to fork out the millions of pounds to keep them on the air”. Under Jason’s scheme and in particular Jonas Klevhag’s comment that this be done at the channel level (which definitely is subscription) Radio 3 would go out of business and Radio 4 would be severly depleted before it even got going.

5. Subscription leads to a series of niche services with nothing in common, and the BBC is not a niche broadcaster, it’s a mass broadcaster/content creator.

The BBC is driven by a strange, but ultimately very creative tension between audiences, policy makers, creatives and commissioners (and increasingly technologists). If one group gets all the power then the result would be blander, more atomised and wouldn’t deliver a full range of services.

If MPs decided how the licence fee was spent there’d be no Eastenders. If audiences did there’d be no BBC Parliament. If Commissioning Editors decided on their own without thinking about anyone else the BBC would probably resemble a poor quality Channel 4. If creatives did on their own you’d get a high number of badly thought through ideas scattered across fragmented schedules, few of them with much impact. If technologists did on their own it would all work perfectly but be incomprensible to anyone who didn’t know how to write code.

The BBC exists to bring things people didn’t know they wanted to mass audiences.

Radio 4 gets more money than it probably would as a subscription service. That forces it to be constantly looking outside itself, to be accessible to as many people as possible.

Because the person who may not listen to it pays for some of it in their licence fee, Radio 4 is forced to try and appeal to them while at the same time retain the quality and values that it already has. This is a tricky job (Mark Damazer‘s doing it brilliantly), but absolutely what makes the BBC the BBC. (“Making good things popular and popular things good”).

The BBC is for everyone not just a series of niche groups. The brilliance of the Licence Fee is that it forces this to happen.

6. This system sounds hideously complicated to me. The commissioning system at the BBC is labyrinthine enough without adding an added layer of dysfunction.

Let’s apply Jason’s idea to his own field of expertise: mobile. Would enough people think mobile important enough to place their money on it? What if the BBC decided that spending more money on mobile was a prority but audiences didn’t understand it and disagreed? Would it be better for them (and everyone else) if they had commissioning power over what the BBC did on mobile?

Call me old fashioned, but I think it’s better if Jason and his colleagues do it.


4 Responses to ““A New Idea For How The BBC Could Work” …Not”

  1. Jamie Tetlow Says:

    Spot on Nick, couldn’t agree more. There’s such a tendency to try and apply these reformatted-for-the-digital-age business models to content creation at the BBC and people quickly loose sight of what makes the BBC so strong. Trying to change the existing process of creation would not only be disruptive but, more importantly, detrimental. It’s the sometimes completely befuddling process of commissioning, making and broadcasting that has allowed the BBC to have tremendous creative success but, also, to learn from some awful mistakes (you don’t get much more web 2.0 product cycle like than that). The role of those working at the digital end should, at first, be to look at this existing mass of content and use the digital means at their disposal to cut, slice, describe, enhance, open, distribute and link so that new forms of story telling emerge on top. That way the existing output becomes so much greater than the sum of its parts.

  2. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Thanks Jamie.

    I’m not against getting licence fee payers to feel they own the BBC more or have a bigger, better stake in it. I’d like the BBC to be something everyone does together.

    But micropayments make me nervous.

  3. John Temperley Says:

    I welcome the on-going debate about how best the BBC should serve both it’s license payers and the UK as a whole.

    Nick is quite correct to highlight the ‘special relationship’ which the license fee forces between viewers & listeners, policy makers, creatives, commissioners and technologists.

    I have long being a fan of the Beeb, way before I knew why – as a kid in the sixties watching Blue Peter, Dixon of Dock Green, Dr Finlay, and listening to Children’s Favourites and watching the moralistic Dixon of Dock Green just prior to what we now see know to be racially-suspect Black & White Minstrel Show.

    Kenny Everett, Sir Patrick Moore, Sir David Attenborough, Frank Bough, Parky, Wossy and Bland. They are all what make the Beeb what it is.

    Keep it commin’


  4. […] BeebCamp 3…hint hint ; ) Read more here: BBC Internet Blog Phillip Trippenbach’s blog Nick Reynolds’ blog Photo’s on Flickr social media […]

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