All entries for Sunday 09 March 2008

March 09, 2008

Should the TV License Fee be Topsliced?

Should the TV License Fee be Topsliced?

Can James Purnell, the culture secretary, really be serious when he talks, as he does, of top-slicing the BBC licence fee to spread the money among other broadcasters? Talking to him at last weekend's Fabian conference, he confirmed he was indeed. (Polly Toynbee)

The problem with top-slicing – and the concept of the Public Service Publisher – is that identifying a particular section of any channel’s programming as its ‘public service output’ ghettoises some sectors and liberates others from public service obligations, a Faustian bargain which allows the popular to get really popular in exchange for keeping the good really good. On the other hand, it’s clear that a return to a universal public service remit is unrealistic. (David Edgar: London Review of Books)

Andy Burnham UK Culture Secretary

Andy Burnham made UK Culture Secretary Jan 2008. 

An ex -Treasury clone 

James Purnell Ex Culture Secretary

James Purnell ex-culture Secretary and previously adviser to Blair 

Stephen Carter, the former Ofcom chief executive, who originally put up the idea of top slicing the BBC's licence income and who is now Gordon Brown's chief stragetist and key fixer. (Nicholas Jones Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom)

To complete this brief round up of the pusillanimous "New Labour" approach to commercialisation Nick Gosling reports on Purnell's choice of metaphor BBC as "Venture Capitalists" in case any visitors thought I am exaggerating: 

"We want the licence fee to act as venture capital for creative talent and nowhere is this clearer than in the BBC's investment in training and research and development." Well it was April Fools Day, but the confusing comment of James Purnell MP, minister for creative industries and tourism did not amuse union delegates and academic specialists at a conference on the new BBC Charter organised by the TUC, Federation of Entertainment Unions and the CPPF. (Nick Gosling Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom)

Under construction

Introduction

The debate about how to apportion the current and future so called TV Licence Fee is beginning to hot up. James Purnell has gone to be be replaced by another "New Labour" clone from the treasury Andy Burnham oddly only a couple of days after Polly Toynbee's original article.   One aspect of the debate is whether some of the licence fee should be awarded to commercial providers such as ITV / channel 4 who are meant to be providing some sort of public service broadcasting remit. Below I have searched some fora to see what the current state of debate in the digital public sphere is. Whilst this blog resolutely behind the BBC getting the full licence fee to provide the current levels and hopefully improved levels of service this doesn't mean for a moment that the BBC is above criticism. There is a separate debate to be had about how the BBC can be more in tune with its stakeholders and that must be carried on elsewhere. 

It should be remembered that New Labour has at least two reasons why it would like to curb the power of the BBC. They ran cap in hand to Rupert Murdoch before the 1997 general election to reassure him that New Labour wouldn't be against his media empire. Murdoch remember controls Sky TV who are very keen to emasculate the BBC. A view seemingly supported by Raymond snoddy of the Independent: 

The third bad idea, "top-slicing" of the licence fee, is far from dead, though it ought to be. Those with obvious self-interest, the commercial broadcasters who would like to get their hands on some of the BBC's money, will ensure it keeps running to the end. (Raymond Snoddy Independent: Monday, 21 January 2008)

The second reason is that the BBC stood up to Blair regarding the Iraq war. It eventually cost Greg Dyke his job. If you want more information on these issues Greg Dyke's book which describes some of the manoeuvering's around media policy are very educative! It is probably sensible to take these issues into account when considering New Labour's attitude to the BBC. Remember had New Labour had its way the BBC would have been severely curtailed in the digital world if Ondigital a fine commercial flop hadn't opened the door to Freeview. This fine effort from the "prestige" end of the Murdoch portfolio The Times had this to say in support of Burnham about "Topslicing", naturally it is totally unbiased and Mr. Murdoch didn't tell Hames to say this:

The challenge for Mr Burnham is to make it plain that he will be as radical as his predecessor. It is absolutely absurd that a modern party of the centre Left can accept what is effectively a poll tax on television sets, or acquiesce in the fantasy that the BBC is uniquely capable of creating material of the highest calibre. (Tim Hames Times online Jan 28th 2008)

Given that the New Labour clones including Tessa Jowell were hell bent on creating the UK as a Casino "Culture" having entirely failed to created any significant new manufacturing base in the North of England we can presumably expect the discourse of 'cultural industries'  to dominate the thinking about the BBC and carry on dumbing down culture. for those who think that is a an "elitist", "middle class" comment when it came to the Labour party making cutbacks  in culture a few years ago in Coventry including the music school and the Belgrade Theatre Theatre in Education it was Trade Unionists from factories like Rolls Royce who were the most ardent in attempting to defend a proud cultural heritage. 

This article from the Evening Standard is especially revealing as it shows the cosy cabalism which operates behind the myth of "transparency". The fact of the matter is there is heavy pressure on the Government and Ofcom to curtail the BBC, becuase unhampered by rabid commercialism it could be twice the force in the global media world than it is now:

But what are we to make of the relationship between Purnell and two very influential figures: Stephen Carter, the Prime Minister's strategy chief and principal adviser, who was previously chief executive of media regulator Ofcom, and Ed Richards, who succeed Carter at Ofcom and was previously a media adviser to Tony Blair. Richards even helped to draft the Communications Act, which Ofcom was set up to enforce. (Roy Greenslade Evening Standard 23/01/08)

Manchester Super Casino Plan

"Welcome to the Desert of the Real" Morpheus in the Matrix.

While this so-called "Supercasino" in Manchester was eventually stopped can anybody really trust anything that "New Labour" (?) say or do? It is clear they want to marketise culture as much as possible. Goobye Art and Quality..... Hello cultural industries. 

Comments From the Digital Public Sphere

I have kept the spelling of the original comments (even worse than mine on some occasions). 

Difficult to disagree with the comments from the Guardian Organgrinder blog below:

Top-slicing comeback is deeply depressing: Maggie Brown Media Guardian

Top-slicing - or giving a portion of the licence fee to broadcasters other than the BBC in return for public service content - is not the answer to television's problems. An alternative that does not entail undermining the BBC must be found

A politically insightful and thoughtful comment about continuing rightwing pressure to destroy the BBC. One might further  wish to enquire how far Murdoch Corporation etc are keen to see this kind of pressure:

It may be a paradox to rightwingers keen to inhabit their own parallel universe, but the digital age strengthens the case for the BBC.

We have already seen the crass dumbing down of commercial television since the advent of satellite and digital broadcasting. The only thing saving standards is the bulwark of the BBC and the fair, affordable and judicious TV licence.

The paranoia-racked Right thinks it works against their bizarre worldview, and set up loads of "blogs" in ever more desperate attempts to expose bias. Their predictable failure is the BBC's triumph. Their descent into obsessive madness proves that a public broadcaster is more relevant today than it ever was. It prevents the weird Right spewing its claptrap onto the airwaves without challenge (as happens on radio talkshows in the US). I'd pay treble to keep such a service.

To show how paranoid rightwingers are about the BBC, the governor Mark Thompson, posted a thoughtful blog on the BBC news site a week ago exploring issues surrpunding trust in the media (foolishly corroded in all sectors of television by cretinous "phone-ins"). Despite the clear evidence he posted that the BBC still enjoys far more trust than most other institutions, the comments below his piece are riddled with conservatives bleating about alleged bias (yet again again without any proof) and warning of some mythical revolt in viewer land!

Do I think the Guardian/Telegraph/Google/ Yahoo!/Times/Sky/Economist/TenAlps/Uncle Tom Cobbleigh should be allowed to pitch instead of just Channel 4 and ITV? Of course.

Do I think the licence fee should be top-sliced? No.

Why not? Because I have never believed in the pure economist theory that all markets are inevitably improved by competition. What has made BBC drama better is not necessarily public service competition here, but commercially-funded competition from the US. In areas where the BBC has enjoyed near monopoly positions - national speech radio, classical music production, non-commercial childrens' websites, worldwide online news, - one could argue that it has consistently produced better programmes than in the highly competetive areas - or at least programmes with greater public purpose. (Guardian Organgrinder comments)

From Polly Toynbee comments box the international perspective: 

If/when you live abroad (I live in Hong Kong) you realise that British people don't know they are born with regards to the BBC.
For 2 quid fifty pence a week per household, it is the best value entertainment in the world. It should be cherished. Imagine radio 4 with adverts, the BBC website directing you to things to buy, etc.
If I were Bill Gates, I would buy the BBC and keep it as it is to benefit the world. It is that good.

All these people talking up the demise of the BBC. Leave it alone. Out here in bangladesh if it weren't for the world service I'd have gone nuts by now. It still works and it still has great relevance. If it is getting weaker that only means that we need to revitalise it.

In hatred of Adverts 

From DigitaSpy

PLEASE, don't let this mean that the BBC will be forced to have the evil ADVERTS! Thats one of the main reasons why I like the BBC, the fact we fund it and that theres no adverts. I hate adverts!

Im sorry about that, ill just crawl under a rock now...

Marketising the media post 1990 broadcasting act leads to higher prices not lower, from DigitalSpy:

You know, i agree with you on that! (a first) Although it's not always the BBC that decides the fee it pays to the indies - it's the market ultimately. And the market price goes up and up and up the more the BBC is forced to use them.(My emphasis)

A more sophisticated contribution linked costs to the issue of Social Justice / Citizenship from DigitalSpy

But what about people that already struggle to pay the current £11.30 a month? Is it really fair to expect them to pay more?

One alternative may be to strip out some of the BBC's 'premium' services, like iPlayer & charge extra for that. Technically it'd be easier to enforce & people that can afford fast broadband should be able to afford, say an extra £10-15 a year.

An antipopulist contribution in support of weighty programming from the Toynbee box:  

Another problem is how often the more serious-minded BBC programs are jazzed up and undermined with populist techniques such as excessive use of CG, intrusive and inappropriate background music, dramatic reconstructions, focusing on controversial aspects of a subject and not the subject in the round, cutting out specialist/technical use of language by experts interviewed for programs. The BBC appears to have lost faith in making serious, weighty programs.

I agree - handing out the license fee to other broadcasters would be a disaster.

Arguments for advertising to make 'TV' "free" at the point of consumption model

This one is from the Organgrinder Comments Box

Pulic service causes? Surely the political trick of getting the BBC to pay for digital switchover (so OFCOM can sell the spectrum!) makes a mockery of this?

Copyright Payments? Does this mean I get all my digital media consumption free (both as in beer and speech)?

I don't think you've quite thought this idea through - so it may have been better to leave it "in the box" a bit longer.

The only viable model is the ad-funded one, as the cultural expectations for online digital media consumption, at the moment, is free at the point of delivery.

The more thought out arguments for topslicing (We would see the back of Big Brother :-) ) 

From Corin at DigitalSpy:

Channel 4 was set up by the Thatcher administration as an advertizing funded network, so quite simply, if they did not carry paid commercial messages, they would have no income.

As for wasting money on programs such as Big Brother, Channel 4 have to generate sufficient audiences of the appropriate demographics in order to attract the advertizers who pay the bills and since Big Brother is an extremely inexpensive method of filling hours of the network schedule, it is very cost effective, but as you quite rightly observe, devoid of cultural and educational benefit. It could be argued that if this pays for the other quality programing, then it is a necessary sacrifice however unpleasant.

Of course, if the were more creative and innovative producers of programming, they would be able to broadcast something of substance even though produced on a very limited budget, as did the BBC in the 1960s.

More thoughtful comment from DigitalSpy: 

ok i have not read all of peoples comments on this thread but all i say is i think it should be top sliced but we have to pay a bit more for the licence fee. so an extra £15 a year on top of what we pay now. in return ITV take £10 of that to produce a min amount of 10 hours of regional programmes and bring childrens tv back poss 15 hours of that too and a small dose of other things. while CH4 also does childrens tv and other things that are different like along the lines of BBC2 with wildlife etc
at the end of the day people whp pay for cable and sky tv should be able to pay extra for the licence fee too.

On Excess in the BBC (difficult not to be horrified in the case of Johnathan Ross now Stephen Fry...) 

How they use them & how they pay them is though.

Remember Jonathan Ross's £18m pay deal, or not pay deal because it's paying for his 'indie', of which he presumably is a shareholder & would share in any profits.

That's not necessarily a bad thing as long as the profits are not unreasonable & the BBC/licence payer benefits from that investment.

It's also not necessarily unreasonable for shareholders to profit. ITV's shareholders are probably mostly institutional investors (give or take Sky's chunk) & so 'shareholder profits' help pensions etc.
(My emphasis)

DigitalSpy on whether Topslicing might actually reduce market prices: 

Not really. Any market needs buyers & sellers & if it's a functional market, prices tend to equalise.


The BBC does decide some pricing, ie if it keeps paying it, prices will rise, if it stops paying it, prices should fall. If the BBC can't influence the price, then that sounds like cartel behaviour & price fixing, which would be illegal.

It can (or should be able to) influence prices, the main restriction it has is the quotas imposed on it, then any self-imposed restrictions created by cutting it's production facilities.

If it can no longer produce it's own content, then it has less choice where to source it & has to go to market, where it's buying power can have a bigger impact on the market & force prices up for all broadcasters..

Or potentially the opposite, but that's not necessarily in it's interests if it's 'competitive' & focused on ratings.

Both OFCOM & the BBC Trust are looking at the effect the BBC has on the market & topslicing
may be a way to damp cost increases. (My emphasis)

What the Commercial Broadcasters Think

According to this report from the Times on February 18th 2008 ITV & Sky have rejected Conservative Party proposals to share the BBC licence fee. One can resonably suppose they are not altruistic rather they feel that they would make less money that way. Rather by curtailing the activities to providing services that they don't want to they can forge ahead making profits, however in the case of ITV the path to profit looks rather a tortuous one:

A Conservative plan to make the BBC share the £3.4 billion proceeds of the licence fee has run into opposition from commercial broadcasters.

David Cameron has ordered a rethink of the proposals, which he was sent for final approval last month, after ITV and BSkyB made clear that they were unhappy at the prospect of being required to take public funds, The Times has learnt. 

Topslicing a Political Potato: Maybe?

Sadly the current New Labour has a way with it of taking Tory clothes which can only irritate quite a lot of people a lot of the time however it has managed to confuse everybody by presiding over rampant inflation in house prices and endangering recent first-time buyers with the prospect of negative equity. Lets hope they don't follow the current Tory policy of supporting the topslicing of the BBC Licence Fee.

At midday today 31st of March rather than April 1st) the Tory party came out with a position on topslicing the licence fee. The timing makes this seem like a serious policy being tested out in the run up to the May elections and also in a year when there is an election for the Mayor of London.   

Cameron and James Hunt Topslicing plan

David Cameron here supporting his shadow Minister of Culture James Hunt in a call for the topslicing of the BBC Licence fee in the name of "diversity".

James Hunt came out with a blatantly flawed statement in the published paper in support of this which commented:

"When Channel 4, ITV and Sky are at their best they raise the bar for the BBC. Without them, the BBC will atrophy," (BBC online news)

"In order to avoid crowding out innovation in the Internet, publicly funded public service broadcasters should be wary of assuming there is a wide-ranging role for public service Internet activity," it said. (Daily Mail online 31st March).

The report said the BBC had used its brand to create a "massively strong - and controversial - online presence", with BBC Online now the most visited British website.
"The real danger is that a dominant online presence by a state broadcaster will crowd out the innovation that a market will naturally encourage," it added. (Daily Mirror online ibid)

Now this is fairly clearly a ridiculous thing to be saying. The BBC creates - despite furious complaints about mispending  of the license fee - one of the most popular websites, not just in Britain but in the World. Apparently it has something in the order of over 17 million users. 

Now in an age of hundreds of millions of web users this certainly seems successful but then there are thousands of other innovative sites out there most of which are commercial. The fact that the BBC has so many users tells us both about the quality of the content and the service and about the desire for very large numbers of users to have a service which is based upon the notions of citizenship before consumption which is what public service broadcasting is all about!

If the Tories want to go about crtiticsing success in a highly competitive media world then just carry on being out in the electoral desert because you clearly haven't changed your neo-liberal spots. The main problems is currently getting the Not so New but decidedly tarnished Labour party to change theirs! The Tories have no real evidence to back up their absurd statement the y more quickly they withdraw it the better. Even ITV don't want licence fee money Michael Grade wants to make the money slumming it, although it seems an unlikely prospect in the long-term.  

The fact is that the BBC is remarkably open as this open invitation to contribute to redesigning the home page to meet the needs of a remarkably diverse target audience  shows:

Reboot Logo

Blast from the past

Monochrome TV Licence holders are fading away

Monochrome Telly

Webliography

Nicholas Jones Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom

BBC Trust Speech at Oxford Media Convention by Michael Lyons Chair of the Trust January 2008

Link to a forum on this topic run by DigitalSpy 

Link to Guardian 'Organgrinder' forum on topslicing  

The Register: BBC: Death by a thousand top-slices (I confess I haven't really looked at the Register before but on this article and links it looks well worth keeping an eye on)  

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian on Topslicing  In terms of the digital public sphere this has a huge number of comments on it many of which make excellent points. It is a very useful source of arguments although there are a fw silly unthought out contributions (presumably from Murdoch supporters!)

Business Times on Topslicing Jan 2008. (Beware paper from the Murdoch Stable) 

Evening Standard on the Licence Fee 

Raymond Snoddy Independent: Monday, 21 January 2008

BBC News on Topslicing threat in 2005

Media Watch UK 

A proper academic response to the clumsy marketisation ideas of Ofcom in 2004 from Sylvia Harvey

David Edgar: London Review of Books

For more on this blog on public service broadcasting


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