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January 27, 2008
BBC: Moving to a Multicasting Environment and Creating a Vibrant Digital Public Sphere for the 21st Century
Sir Michael Lyons: Chair of the BBC Trust
The best and bravest brains in media policy need to think outside of the top-slicing box. Britain once again needs to lead the civilised world into a new media era, to protect the creation of valuable but vulnerable programming and creative artists.(Maggie Brown Media Guardian)
The development of the content of the BBC Online which I generally consider to be an excellent public resource has not been without its controversial side. This has particularly come from firstly: those who had no concept of how the web could be developed and how that development could be influenced by strong Broadcasting institutions with their roots in 'old media'; secondly those who have a strong vested interest in the BBC failing such as News Corporation.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the future of what was once called broad-casting (the production of a limited amount of content targeted at large to very large audiences has largely been a thing of the past for several years. There will of course always be occasional events which comfortably generate local audiences of more than 10 million at the time but these will become increasingly rare. Massive stories about Royalty, England in a World Cup Final (if it ever happens again), probably the upcoming Olympics in certain finals if there is a national interest (oh and Dr. Who! ):
The Doctor Who Special on Christmas Day won a 50% share of the total television audience, averaging over 12 million viewers and peaking at 13.8 million. These are the Doctor's best viewing figures since the Tom Baker days of 1979. (Caroline Thompson operating officer for the BBC Jan 2008)
It is many years since the BBC was promoting a heavyhanded patrician Broadcasting policy largely dominated by a Reithian discourse that was often accused of being elitist. This posting starts to explore the history of BBC online and the policies that have underpinned it. It also looks briefly at the enemies of the BBC in the populist broadcasting / multicasting domain as well examining the pusilanimous attitude of New Labour in the face of the populist freemarketeers such as Sky and its ilk circling around an increasingly embattled BBC which is doing an excellent job. This blog takes the position that many people don't know what they've got 'til its gone'! As far as I'm concerned everybody who is taking out a subscription to Sky is banging a nail into the future of high quality British multicasting.
The Development of BBC Online
25 April 2006:
Ashley Highfield, the BBC director of new media and technology, also announced proposals to put the corporation's entire programme catalogue online for the first time from tomorrow in written archive form, as an "experimental prototype", and rebrand MyBBCPlayer as BBC iPlayer. (ibid)
It was announced that all future BBC digital output and services around three concepts -
Mr Highfield said the share concept would allow users to "create your own space and to build bbc.co.uk around you", encouraging them to launch ther own blogs and post home videos on the site. (My emphasis)
At the heart of the play concept is MyBBCPlayer, which will allow the public to download and view BBC programming online and was today rebranded as BBC iPlayer. (My emphasis)
The find concept relates to next-generation search and unlocking the BBC archive. From tomorrow internet users will for the first time be able to search for details of the corporation's entire programme catalogue as far back as 1937. (My emphasis)
Is it "All About Audiences"?
So, as far the Trust is concerned this is not a debate about the interests of broadcasters. In our view it's not even about the interests of the BBC, narrowly defined. It is – or it ought to be – a debate about the interests of audiences.(My emphasis: Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, to the IPPR Oxford Media Convention 17 January 2008)
I would go further and in doing so seek to expand the remit of the debate into broadcasting into that of cultural policy in general. As with other policy environments and discources this raises the issue of citizenship. Just as there is a concept of social citizenship so there is a concept of cultural citizenship.
It seems the 'New' Labour government can't keep its hands off the BBC for a moment and there is already another round of examining the public servivce broadcasting (multicasting) systems in this country. At the heart of this is the continuing attempt to remove some of the BBC's rights to the whole of the licence fee which is often simply described as "another tax" by the more simple minded. Rather than being this it is a licence fee which runs a core element of what can be described as cultural citizenship which ensures that there is a good system of representation at the heart of the British nation, a system which isn't controlled by government but which has accountability.
This blog argues that it isn't "all about audiences" rather it is all about the creation and maintenance of a system of citizenship which has public service broadcasting / multicasting at its very heart. Those citizens are also the audiences. My concern is the construction and discourse which turns a citizen into an 'audience' and is something which will be discussed in greater depth on this blog. Here I wish to underscore the point that as the World moves towards an increasingly digitised and fragmented mediascape a core concept about media which needs to be maintained is that of citizenship.
The Changing Media Environment
Many people have a stronger sense of themselves as individuals rather than as parts of communities. Minorities are becoming more confident about asserting their needs. Britain is becoming much more culturally diverse. We see increasing numbers of people who identify with multiple communities – social, cultural or geographical. There's a rising demand for personalisation and customisation – for services crafted just for you. (Sir Michael Lyons ibid)
Lyons then proceeds to make the following key points:
- The BBC cannot cherry pick its audiences as commercial broadcasters can. Because of the way it is funded, and because its Public Purposes mean that it has to engage with everyone in the UK, the BBC has to find ways to reach all its audiences in all their complexity. (My emphasis)
- This doesn't mean that every programme or piece of online content has to satisfy every individual licence fee payer – although some kinds of BBC output should appeal to very large sections of the audience. (My emphasis)
- But it does mean that every audience member must find enough they value from the BBC to justify the licence fee and to provide the means by which the BBC can engage with them in order to deliver its Public Purposes. (My emphasis)
I think it will be useful to start to unpack these ideas bearing in mind that I prefer the concept of the cultural citizen to that of "the audience".
...every audience member must find enough they value from the BBC
Firstly let us substitute the concept of cultural citizen from the nebulous one of "audience". I have no doubt in my mind that every single citizen in this country - and also many global citizens have gained enormous value from the BBC, even if after the time they have left school they never watch listen to or access BBC content again.
The embedded values and the links with education alone and the educational broadcasting alone have provided enormous added value to the country as a whole. Those who are mentally tied to quantitative research methods or "metrics", as the trendy term seems to be, will conveniently ignore all this embedded value which has significantly contributed to the general Social / Political / Economic / Cultural (SPEC) environment that is Britain today.
Secondly let us look at the notion of "every audience member...". Well I think this is certainly an arguable point. There is a national grid for electricity, there is a legal obligation for all houses to attached to the telephone system should the citizen require it, there is a nationally levied road tax which all vehicle owners MUST pay however little they use their vehicle. There is an NHS system which is always available to all even if some people never get have accidents and die peacefully in their sleep without a day's illness or if they decide to continually go private. All of these things are aspects of contemporary citizenship and all of them rightly allow for individual agency.
Given the importance of creating and maintaining a multicasting system which provides information etc in as unbiased a fashion as possible which can act as a core part of every single citizens training as a citizen the notion of Public Service Broadcasting / Multicasting is fundamental to our way of life and everybody who is working should be contributing towards this. In return for this we should be expecting high quality rather than the dumbing down which has been a feature of populist media otherwise known as 'lowest common denominator'.
The Dangers of "Topslicing" the BBC Licence Fee
Sarkozy with a 'supermodel'. Oddly just as New Labour wants to dumb down the BBC as much as possible man of the Right in France Sarkozy wants a "French BBC"
One of the biggest dangers to the future of Public Service Multicasting and the future of the BBC as a powerful global player able to stand up the bullying of the 'Media Moguls' such as Rupert Murdoch and News International is the concept of 'topslicing' the BBC. This was something when the pusillanimous Tessa Jowell was the Culture Minister and is currently still being threatened. Given that this week we have already lost the culture minister with the resignation of Peter Hain citizens should be extremly dubious about the abilities of government ministers to be able to control this area.
Given that New Labour caved into Murdoch in their bid for power in 1997 everything that this governement do in relation to media and the BBC must be treated with an enormous amount of scepticism. Already the BBC has become the third most used site in the UK which is an extraordinary success story yet there is still whingeing in the wings about the license fee. The fact of the matter is that in terms of content and quality the BBC is topping the world league because to compare the use of Google or Yahoo is to compare using a TV company with a phone directory not an entirely adeqaute comparison:
The BBC website is number three in the UK. The two companies above us - Google and MSN - and the two companies below us, Yahoo! and eBay, are all the American giants. How we can adapt to that and operate on a global scale while still being predominantly funded through the UK licence, that's an issue for us.(Ashley Highfield)
From the perspective of public service multicasting Highfield's comments would be well served by some decent quality qualitative research into the length of use as well as frequency of access to the BBC website citizens make. It is something which can also be partially achieved through the BBCs own Analytics figures which I'm sure it has.
What is topslicing?
It is as Lyons elaborates below:
...the suggestion that a part of each licence fee should go to a body that would use the money to subsidise public service content from broadcasters other than the BBC.
Firstly let us as with the term "audience" analyse the underlying discourse that the BBC is dragged into here and seek to change it. Subsidise means to assist or to keep down the price of a commodity (Chambers dictionary defintion).
Well the notion of 'topslicing' uncoincidently emerged from the Jowell era after the BBC got into trouble with the government over Iraq. Please note that all the bad things that were expected to happen after the invasion happened have happened and there were no "weapons of mass destruction". However in the wider political context topslicing must be seen as a method of disciplining the BBC by government. For this reason alone it is right to oppose it.
"Topslicing" is more than this though. Throughout the period of 'New' Labour there has been a continual undermining of the BBC and the Public Service Broadcasting ethos. This has been very much because of the pressure applied on the BBC since the 1990 Broadcasting Act under the Conservatives and which New Labour have followed in their love affair with Rupert Murdoch. There will be more on the relationships with Murdoch and Greg Dyke's revelations after his resignation elsewhere in the blog.
Thankfully the Guardian's media correspondent Maggie Brown has made the point loud and clear when it comes to topslicing:
What no one raised at the Oxford media summit is that the top-slicing idea, which may see the cutting down and undermining of the BBC, is quite at odds with international developments.
Just across the channel, French president Nicolas Sarkozy is not only besotted with Carla Bruni. He is also a huge fan of the BBC. So much so that he plans to end the French public service channels' partial dependence on advertising and turn them purely non-commercial
Why Give Licence Fee Subsidies to Commercial Enterprises?
The reality is that as the new mediascape continues to develop there is less and less need for ITV and Channel 4. This is proven by the decline in audiences, advertising increasingly moving online a corresponding crash in revenue for old media and in the case of ITV the crashing of the share price. A recent survey suggested that actually ITV had been doing alright on advertising revenue expressing surprise at the slump in the stock market value In this latter case the market is 'pricing in' the future estimates of ITV advertising earnings. In an era which in media terms is driven by the equation:
What you want, where you want it , when you want it
Do we need these traditional old media companies?
There is no need for all these traditional broadcasters. Personally I never use either ITV and very rarely Channel 4 (this was my favourite channel until the early 1990s when it became increasingly dumbed down). In the latter case this is to access the excellent John Snow and his team. I occasionally use Film 4. Increasingly audiences are migrating online. There are plenty of opportunities for commercial broadcasters to thrive there if they are any good. As it is they will have to compete with the BBC and increasingly the best quality Newspapers which themselves are increasing moving towards a multimedia environment. Indeed it is worth reminding readers that in a BBC made game on the rise of video-gaming made around 3 years ago David Puttnam commented that perhaps between 2015-2020 TV as we know it will have largely disappeared.
When I research articles for this blog I never seem to get good links coming up from the search engines from ITV or Channel 4. Most of the articles are researched down to the current Google listing of page twenty and occasionally even beyond this. The BBC frequently comes up. Whilst this finding can only be taken at more of an anecdotal level it points to the fact that when it comes to doing serious work on the web the BBC along with the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Economist, The Daily Telegraph score far more hits and I link into them far more frequently. As this is now a large film and media studies blog this might be taken as indicative that worthwhile content is not being provided by the commercial broadcasters and that their web presence is weak. If they can't find commercially viable audiences at a global level to pay their overpriced salaries then I certainly don't expect to subsidise them. It is a competitive commercial market and that is that!
My own suspicion is that the era for these companies is largely over and that they will probably disappear perhaps to be replaced by a plethora of more adaptive multimedia companies online. The ITV is a dinosaur best forgotten unless Michael Grade can use its past content creatively while turning it around to face the multicasting age. It should be able to contend with players such as Murdoch but it will have to do so without government support, however it should also have its remit to provide public service broadcasting / multicasting removed. Let it be an honest provider of pap within the regulatory regime of the moment. Its shareholders and those working for it in the past had an easy time of it as the other half of a duopoly. Let them work for their money and convince shareholders that they are a better bet than Google or Myspace. Personally I wouldn't want my pension invested with them at the moment.
Why is the BBC Different? Cultural Citizenship & The Public Sphere
The BBC is different because it sets a benchmark by which all other multimedia multicasting companies MUST meet or beat. The BBC isn't perfect and never will be, but by setting the benchmark for standards which effectively have become those of cultural citizenship in the contemporary era it gives us all a foundation upon which to demand improvements in content and comment upon issues such as over or under representation of specific groups or issues. This in short should be the central axis around which any public sphere (Habermas) should revolve and evolve. These are the standards by which we as citizens and therefore license fee payers should be judging the BBC and the content of its developing multicasting environment.
The notion of a genuinely interactive public sphere linked to access to knowledge and information and tied to a concept of citizenship is entirely antipathetic to commercial broadcasting models. Left liberalism has been so anti the patrician notion of the BBC that it has left the door wide open to rampant commercialism and as a result anybody foolish enough to try and change channels from BBC News 24 has to undergo a barrage of repeats of Big Brother or some other rubbishy "reality TV" show: thank you left liberal populists and your neo-con allies in News Corporation!
The notion of having a vital and influential public sphere means that a public service broadcasting institution should have far more independence than it does at present from the government of the day. There is no doubt that the BBC has to go cap in hand to the government of the day when a spending review and an updating of the licensing fee is sought. This is not to say that Parliament should not have some say in how this sort of instituion is run. A standing select committee for this and other cultural policy matters should be an important role, however this should be entirely divorced from matters of funding.
Funding through an automatically inflation-linked licence fee year on year should be the basic funding formula for the BBC however it should be able to access more funding when there is a specific case such as upgrading technologies on a national basis, such as instituting Freeview or BBC On-line for example.
This doesn't mean that every programme or piece of online content has to satisfy every individual licence fee payer
The second point that Lyons made in relation to the role of the BBC overlaps with my comments above. With the notion of fragmenting audiences and overlapping identities being very much the order of the day, let alone issues of personal preference and taste this is clearly a pertinent comment. We live in a media rich world which is getting richer by the day and offers extraordinary diversity. Pleasing all of the people all of the time is neither possible nor desirable providing most of the people most of the time with diversity combined with good quality is achievable.
Providing a plethora of content and also an environment in which content can be at least partially created by users is fundamental to the future of media and in this sense the programme suggested by the BBC has been very perceptive in its notions of how to interact with new media trends. The problem is that the very cultural heritage which we as citizens have already paid for as citizens is so rich and of such good quality and continues to be that the commercial operators cry foul! They persuaded the government to reduce the power and effectiveness of online opportunities such as the BBC iPlayer. It is this that is anti-democratic and is a clear case of government acting in the interests of a minority but powerful commercial group against the interests of those people who voted it in in the first place.
Of course this links into the first point made by Lyons:
the BBC has to find ways to reach all its audiences in all their complexity
Strange then isn't it that the government acts to curtail the BBC in an area of its key strength and advantage over crass commercialism. It is a case of citizens and audiences not getting the quality they deserve and have paid for already rather it is a case of commerce restricting access to increase its own bottom lines.
What is the BBC hoping to develop?
The Proposed Media City Salford
The advent of the networking model of society which is symbolised by the development of the internet is increasingly effecting how we envisage new ways of working and communicating in the contemporary world. Here an extract from a recent speech by Caroline Thompson shows just how far the notion of a networking society is reaching into core institutions:
Instead of the old hub and spoke arrangement, where London is the hub and the regions are the spokes, the BBC of the 21st Century will be based on a fully networked model. A model that will harness the power of human networks, tapping into a pool of creative energy across the country.(My Empahsisis: Caroline Thompson Chief Operating Officer the BBC Friday 11 January 2008
The move of the BBC headquarters to Salford is an important move and underpins in a physical and rooted way the virtual possibilities of media which is imnportant. Nevertheless it is recognised that new media is fundamental to the future of the BBC:
This will include the central Future Media team that leads the development of the BBC's offering across the internet, digital TV and mobiles, and also the Media Research & Innovation team. These are two of our most important businesses and, together with Future Media colleagues supporting programme-making areas based in Salford...The Director of FM&T, Ashley Highfield, believes this is a chance to reinvent Future Media and how the BBC goes about creating it. (My Emphasis, Caroline Thompson)
Rolling Out Web 3.0?
Currently Ashley Highfield is currently thinking beyond the Web 2.0 model already being developed and already more based upon audience interactivity to a Web 3.0 model:
The web 3.0 world puts a layer on top of that you could call editorial. It says this is probably what you were actually looking at. It says we the BBC know who you are. We've built up a good relationship with you through CRM. We know you were looking for a cop show from the '60s well here's a really good one that we know you - because we know something about you - will enjoy. (Ashley Highfield)
Thus far I have examined the notion of topslicing as yet another attack on the BBC from a government which isn't worthy of including the name 'Labour' in its title as it kowtows to the media moguls. I have also placed the debates about where the BBC should be going in the context of cultural citizenship. It is a concept that must be made central to the agenda of any serious media policy debate for it is this that will help to make Britain both competitive and a beacon of civilisation in less than ideal world. I have also examined somke of the thinking currently within the BBC and suggested that cultural citizenship is a term which should replace audiences. Issues of representation should always be at the heart of media debates and the BBC should seek to represent those aspects of life which more commercial media organisations are not prepared to risk. More funding of challenging films and programmes and increasing levels of access to older materials on the BBC are important aspects of developing a media manifesto for Britian's future.
From Ken Loach's ironically titled It's a Free World 2007. We can do without this 'free for all' in media. Citizenship comes first!
The Trouble With Trust: Building Confidence In Institutions:Mark Thompson Tuesday 15 January 2008