The marketisation of BBC radio is a recipe for creative disaster

21 July 2018

9:00 AM

21 July 2018

9:00 AM

There’s been a lot of fuss and many column inches written about levels of pay at the BBC, as revealed in its latest Annual Report. Who gets too much? Why are women presenters still paid less than their male counterparts? What can be done to create more equality at the BBC? But all this controversy about money and gender is a red herring, diverting attention away from what we should be far more concerned about.

Quietly, without fanfare, the BBC has been changing the way it makes and delivers its programmes. As the report also reveals, BBC Worldwide, set up in the 1990s as the ‘commercial’ wing of the BBC, with the aim of building the BBC’s ‘brands, audiences, commercial returns and reputation across the world’, but always remaining distinctly separate from production, has been merged with BBC Studios. This corporate sub-organisation was set up last year to bring all production, whether television or radio, under one unifying umbrella, Desert Island Discs treated the same as Blue Planet, Dead Ringers as Strictly.

It was then an easy step to integrate, very soon afterwards, Studios with Worldwide, bringing together, as the report states, ‘programme production, sales and distribution in a single commercial organisation’. In practice, the distinction between publicly funded and commercial production at the BBC is no longer so clearly defined. That long-held principle, established by licence-fee funding, of freedom from commercial considerations when deciding what programmes to make, has been jettisoned. The impetus behind production will now always be cost and audience figures; originality and social programming will be under constant challenge.

Whoever comes up with the cheaper bid will win the commission. Even long-running favourites such as Just a Minute, at present produced in-house, will be challenged next time the series comes up for recommissioning to produce a bid that’s more ‘distinctive’ and ‘risk-taking’ than its ‘commercial’ rivals, and above all less expensive. The programme will still be billed as a BBC Studios production but it might well have been made by a small company whose aim is profit rather than to inform, educate or entertain taxpayers.

BBC Studios are already committed to buying in much more programming. By 2022, for instance, 60 per cent of BBC radio broadcasts will have to be produced by external, independent producers. At present, as stated in the report, Radio 4 broadcasts 18.4 per cent of independently made programmes, while Radio 3 broadcasts 15.7 per cent and Radio 2, 24.5 per cent (and rising fast). Slots like Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show or Our Tune will be up for grabs. Even the semi-sacred In Our Time will have to be opened up to the cheapest bidder. In a decade or so that percentage could creep up to 100 per cent, leaving the BBC as primarily a distributor rather than a content creator. BBC Studios will become a euphemism.

The director-general, Tony Hall, argues in the report that merging Studios and Worldwide is ‘the best way of ensuring that the BBC can safeguard the future of British content and continue to play its crucial role in supporting the success of the UK’s creative economy’. He, or rather the BBC, is very worried about the ‘changing habits’ of young audiences and the fierce competition from independent production rivals, particularly ‘a small number of US giants with extraordinary creative and financial firepower’ (such as Netflix or, in the case of radio, Audible, an Amazon company).

Maybe he’s right, but exposing production to the mercies of the market is a recipe for creative disaster. Instead of becoming known for its excellence (by and large) as a programme producer, the BBC will have a smaller in-house team who will be under pressure to reduce costs to secure the commissions. Quantity might not change very much, but quality could well suffer (as has already been seen on TV).

It should be said that familiar and much-loved programmes such as Composer of the Week, In the Studio and The Reunion have been produced by independent producers for years, and very successfully. Surely, anything that keeps pace with change, and ensures that a massive bureaucracy like the BBC adapts to the new digital climate is welcome? By freeing up BBC production and allowing it to compete on the open market money could be earned to feed back into programme-making. The report, though, is not reassuring. Podcasts, ‘award-winning… bespoke, entertaining and revealing for a wide audience including the new generation who increasingly listen online’, are included under the heading ‘We create cutting-edge content’, but there’s nothing about radio, as if cutting-edge and Radio 4 (or any other of the stations) can’t possibly belong together.

Above all, will the commitment to 600 hours of ‘original’ radio drama and readings on Radio 4 (with a target of 25 new productions on 3) be protected in such a ‘monetised’ climate? Would, for example, Ulysses be commissioned by the new BBC Studios for broadcast in a single day on Radio 4?

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