Monday, June 13, 2011

Cutting The Beeb Down To Size

I recently found myself in a vast empty office building near Manchester, as one of the first guests of a new BBC empire. The signs weren’t up, painters were still glossing the skirting boards, men in overalls were wandering round with clipboards, and a few early staff arrivals were looking for the Costa Coffee shop. Everything smelt new and optimistic.

It’s an impressive development: towering glassfronted buildings and a fully equipped studio complex overlook the calming waters of Salford Quays. Several BBC departments are moving there, including Sport, Children’s, and a chunk of news output including Radio 5 Live and the BBC Breakfast programme. It’s a nice gesture by a London-centric organisation, although it probably won’t make much difference to us independent producers isolated in the North East.

The building was freezing, not just because it was in Manchester, but because noone had yet worked out how to turn down the air-conditioning. For the cluster of young, ambitious creatives it must be an exciting new world. Yet amongst the new arrivals I met there was talk of only one thing: the cuts. ‘Delivering Quality First’ is the catchphrase – how can the BBC maintain its programme quality whilst slashing 20% of its budget?

Nobody knows how this target will be achieved: advice has been solicited from all and sundry, and decisions are expected soon. Over the last few days, media pages have buzzed with rumour and yesterday the new Chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, hinted that some sports coverage and maybe a whole television channel might be at risk. We already know that over 1,000 jobs are vulnerable within News, so two Salford departments could be losing staff even before they’ve unpacked their suitcases.

According to Lord Patten, the World Service is safe. So that’s a relief then: people in India will still get their BBC programmes, even if we can’t watch Match of the Day.

The thing about Delivering Quality First is that it’s hard to define “quality”. Is it entertainment for millions of families to enjoy on a Saturday night? Or a concert on Radio Three, heard by just a couple of thousand? The influence and volubility of the Radio 3 audience is in inverse proportion to its size, so it would be a very brave executive that tries to cut so much as a single cello from a BBC orchestra.

The thing that I find strange is the way this exercise has been undertaken. Despite the cuts, the BBC has a guaranteed income of many billions for the next six years. With such a level of risk-free financial security, most business leaders would start with a blank sheet of paper and first work out what sort of service its customers would expect for the money, and then cost and deliver it. The current strategy is to ask how the existing BBC can deliver the best of what it already does, more cheaply.

Rather than “Should we be keeping BBC 4 as well as BBC 2”, wouldn’t it have made more sense to ask: “What is the public’s demand for factual programmes, and how best can we meet it?” I find it odd that we have daytime programmes with miniscule budgets on two separate channels, and yet thousands of great programmes lie unrepeated in the BBC Archive – I know which I’d rather watch on a wet afternoon. I also don’t understand why the BBC spends hundreds of millions on a separate channel for 16 to 24 year olds, most of whom don’t see the relevance of television in their tweeting, texting lives.

Consensus will be impossible. I just hope that, when the white smoke comes from White City, and the decisions are announced, the BBC remembers that it’s a broadcaster for the whole nation. Whatever cuts it makes, it must continue its commitment to the North: starting with that empty building in Salford.

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