What's gone wrong at the BBC?
08 December 2015 -
The British stalwart has a long-standing history of great television, bringing to the screens everything from Only Fools and Horses to Match of the Day. But with cash drying up for the BBC, many have started to question the ability of those in charge to lead the corporation in a modern world that is radically different to when it received its first royal charter in 1926
With the removal of the youth TV channel BBC Three set for next February and the loss of popular talent show The Voice to competitor ITV, the public broadcaster has been roundly criticised by viewers, politicians and journalists alike for failing to invest in its programming appropriately. In the first of a two part series, we will focus on its strategic and management errors, and how this has led to the questions over its future being raised.
Since its first royal charter was signed on December 31 1926, the British Broadcasting Corporation has nurtured an almost endless number of national treasures, from David Attenborough and Bruce Forsyth to Only Fools and Horses and Match of the Day – all based on its mantra of “educating, entertaining and informing”.
However, the future strategy of the BBC’s programming seems uncertain. Last week, many viewers voiced their displeasure on social media about the broadcaster losing the rights to The Voice, after it was poached by ITV for a “substantial” sum according to industry sources. First broadcast in 2012, the reality TV show currently hosted by Emma Willis and Marvin Humes attracted an average of 6.31million viewers for this year’s finale and ranks as one of the BBC’s most popular shows.
A large part of the problem is the BBC’s desire to tighten its belts.
Despite the license fee seemingly intact for at least the next five years after an agreement was reached with the Treasury earlier this year, the corporation has been tasked with saving an estimated £750million by 2020, almost a fifth of its current annual income, to shoulder the cost of free television licences for people aged over 75. This includes a £12m cut to the TV budget. The cuts are also being forced by a drop in income due to what is called the ‘iPlayer loophole’ which means people can watch catch-up services online without paying the annual licence fee.
Not just struggling to keep hold of popular formats, the BBC is seemingly struggling to compete for the production of new and original dramas from emerging companies. Netflix was allowed to outbid the corporation in a reported £100m deal for Peter Morgan’s royal epic The Crown, which documents the Queen’s life since 1947, and is according to former executive Danny Cohen a “classic BBC subject”. The Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing are safe from the cuts, and the BBC has stated the saved costs will be reinvested into new drama and entertainment shows. But, the corporation’s strategy feels very ambiguous and muddled, especially given its abandonment of BBC Three to an online-only service, but with an agreement to place some of its programmes onto BBC One and BBC Two.
The rising costs of sports content has also seen many of the “crown jewel” sporting events leave the BBC for satellite competitors Sky Sports and, more recently, BT Sport. With a £35m spending cut on major sporting events, the Beeb has lost the rights to air the Olympics from 2022 – despite their coverage of London 2012 drawing the attention of over 90% of the UK population. The organisation even gave up its rights to broadcast the 2016 Open Golf Tournament, despite having a year left on its £7m-a-year rights contract, which has since been snapped up by Sky.
Since 1999, the BBC have stopped broadcasting Test cricket, the Derby, England football internationals, the Paralympics and even part of the Lakeside world darts championship. Only the Tennis at Wimbledon, the FA Cup final and Grand National remain, but for how long?
While competing against cash-flush rivals puts the BBC in a difficult position to compete, the organisation’s worldwide brand, access to a whole nation of viewers and stellar track record for broadcasting the biggest events should be a strong basis for keeping sport on its channels. With the continued demise of its popular programming, the 25 million license fee payers will ask questions of what exactly it is receiving for its money, and potentially reopening the debate for the license fee to be removed.
PRIORITIES OUT OF PLACE?
As Director-General Tony Hall admitted, the BBC’s license fee funding gives it a unique advantage in being able to take creative risks and focus on solely providing the services which the British public want. However, a number of critics have pointed to the organisation’s increased focus on savings and its expensive moving of operations to Salford.
Actor and comedian John Sessions recently criticised BBC "management culture" as "completely out of hand". "I wish the executives would stop building buildings," he said while promoting his new one-off BBC Two drama, We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story. "It makes me very cross because we have to try to do our job under much more pressure than we should have to deal with. I don't want to sound like some whinging old luvvie, but the management culture at the BBC has become so pervasive and so money-monopolising that we are all doing these things on ridiculous schedules."
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen also pointed to its bloated management structure as a significant drain on its resources, especially its content. He said: “The BBC have got their priorities wrong. I am not surprised they are clinging to the licence fee because I don’t think the management would last two minutes in the private sector with that sort of structure.”
The BBC has 129 press officers, compared with 35 at ITV and 27 at Channel 4, while it also had 305 staff in finance, 2,034 in technology, and 2,089 other ‘support function staff,’ according to a report last year. And with the BBC adding 31 senior managers on six-figure salaries, the public broadcaster employs at least 74 bosses who earn more than the Prime Minister’s salary of £142,500, the report states.
A BBC spokesman said: "We have cut senior manager numbers and costs by a third as part of our work to save £150m from the total paybill. BBC North has allowed us to get closer to our audiences and has had a huge impact both economically and culturally. The relocation was done on time and under budget and BBC North is one of the BBC's most efficient centres delivering around £168m cumulative savings to date."
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