Entertainment & Arts

A 'high-risk' year for the future of the BBC

BBC's central London headquarters
Image caption The BBC new headquarters were opened in 2012

Tony Hall's speech on the future of the BBC had a simple message: "there may be trouble ahead."

The Director General's tone was akin to one of those in-flight messages from the captain warning of turbulence.

It was reassuring and calm, but the words were rather more troubling.

This was, he said, a "high-risk" year which could see the BBC "diminished' and "stuck in an analogue cul-de-sac".

There was a clear message to the BBC's staff - brace yourself - it could well get a bit ugly, the BBC may never be the same again.

The background to this is the confluence of two moments of high anxiety for the BBC: Charter Review and a General Election.

Election pressure

First, the election.

This is going to be an odd campaign. Never before have we had such a long run-up to a known polling day and rarely has the political landscape seemed so fluid.

The best that anyone can say is that it's going to be close.

In such times every word, every nuance of every report on the BBC can attract criticism.

Tony Hall was essentially warning his staff to don their hard hats: it is going to get rocky.

"Colossal scrutiny" was his phrase, but there was also that warning about "naked bullying".

He said: "There may be some - I hope only a few - who try to use the impending Charter Review to influence our coverage of politics in this most sensitive of political years.

"We will never let that happen."

New Charter

All of which takes us on to Charter Review.This is a process of negotiation with the government over the future size and shape of the BBC.

It usually takes place every 10 years and with the current charter due to expire in 2016, those talks will begin with whoever is in power after the election.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Tony Hall said the BBC would not yield to bullying

The timing is very uncomfortable for the BBC.

The fear that the charter will be a club to beat the broadcaster during the campaign opens up a whole debate about the independence and robustness of the BBC's coverage.

This speech, however, looked beyond the election. It was a statement of intent and a warning.

There have been calls from a number of MPs, newspapers and one or two former BBC employees to shrink the corporation.

The argument from newspapers and some rival broadcasters is that the BBC is too big, especially in the market for online news.

In the past the newspapers and the BBC largely occupied separate realms.

The switch to digital and the decline of print is making it harder and harder to make a profit from traditional news and the presence of a large licence fee news provider distributing enormous amounts of free content is seen as a barrier to those who want to encourage people to pay for their online news.

Great competition

This is the competitive landscape that dominates the debate in Britain, but the BBC is keen to point out that in comparison with the new players entering our TV market, it's a tiddler.

At the moment Sky is in terms of revenue, the biggest player in the UK market.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Downton Abbey is now made by a US-owned firm

The arrival of BT in pay-TV is a sign that businesses with very deep pockets are looking at this market.

There has been a startling takeover in recent months of Britain's independent producers by American companies.

Downton Abbey is now made by a firm owned by NBC/Universal.

But the really big players are also on the horizon.

Amazon, Google and Apple are all businesses looking at the TV market.

The average viewer in Britain spends just under four hours a day watching television, and capturing some of those 75 billion hours of TV viewing is going to be a key battleground for the technology giants.

Apple's revenue at the moment is around $182bn (£116bn) a year.

They have a lot of money to throw around.

Clear warning

That phrase "stuck in analogue cul-de-sac" was a clear warning that if the BBC is shrunk and kept small, then it won't have the means to maintain a presence in whatever new digital landscape emerges.

The problem is that no one is sure what the "digital landscape" will look like.

Ten years ago the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee went on a trip to the US to try to see what was coming.

It visited Fox, CBS, and Apple. The discussion with Apple centred around how to stop the illegal downloading of films to computers.

There is no mention in its report of the things that were around the corner and would transform media habits - smart phones, tablet computers and online video systems such as YouTube or the BBC's iPlayer.

One thing, though, does not change - the debate about the licence fee.

During each charter renewal process there are calls to have it scrapped and then at the end an agreement to keep it going.

However, the deal struck in 2006 did not last long.

Funding cut

In 2010 the new coalition government froze the licence fee and added on a shopping list of extra expenses, the roll-out of rural broadband, the BBC World Service, Welsh-speaking channel S4C, BBC Monitoring, even the subsidy of new local TV stations as well as a promise to cut funding to BBC online by 25%.

It was a 16% cut in funding in real terms.

A decade on, there will be another debate about the licence fee.

There is already an inquiry underway in to decriminalising the licence fee collection system.

The BBC suggests it may lead to around £200m being lost in unpaid licence fees.

Beyond that are other possibilities.

In 2010 the government said the BBC ought to pay for the over-75s' free licence fees.

That would be another £500m cut from the broadcaster's income and an amount that would grow every year.

It resisted it in 2010 and will continue to resist it.

This speech, then, was a little warm up to prepare us for the battle in the months to come.

Much of the campaign will be played out on the BBC's airwaves and the closer it is, the more likely there will be intense scrutiny of how events are portrayed and analysed.

But this was also a hint of the bigger issue for the BBC and the rest of the British media.

Where will media technology take us over the next 10 years and who will be in control of that technology?

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