Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Time Marches On...

Seem to have mislaid March. Not quite sure how that happened. It was full of stuff, I just seem not to have told you about it. Highlights were friends having a baby, seeing Richard Herring give his Hitler Moustache and the Northern Lights sort of glow slightly. I also attended a rather interesting conference about radio production, discovered the interesting, if currently slightly underpopulated, world of Audioboo and had a few sort of ideas.
Hardly seems 31 days worth though, does it? Must do better.

Friday, 5 March 2010

My Answers to the BBC Strategy Review Consultation

This is very long, but if you're bored enough to want to know what I think and feel, here it is in detail.
If you want to know the questions I'm responding to you'll have to do the thing yourself.

I agree with only two of the principles unreservedly- putting quality first and guaranteeing access to licence fee payers. Of course judgements of 'quality' are necessarily subjective, which makes the principle difficult to pin down.

Objective 2's talk "stopping things in some areas" is too vague to make it a useful principle and when coupled the concept of "value for money" in Objective 4 becomes a dangerous one, if misinterpreted to mean the BBC must produce only output aimed at larger audiences.
Together they set a disturbing precedent for the Corporation.
The BBC and the commercial broadcasters work as correctives to each other, thus my feeling is that while having a place as a broadcaster to audiences of 10 million and above the BBC has to recognise that with media fragmentation there are now many more people not listening to or viewing the big populist programmes and it has a vital role in supporting the 'niche' audiences which a straightforward commercial broadcaster, primarily governed by a need to make money, would resist.

For this reason I have to reject objectives 2 and 4.

Objective 5 is a meaningless open phrase, which can be interpreted as either cutting back or expanding areas of operation. It is 'management speech' which I find unhelpful. If, as I assume, it is a euphemistic phrase to cover cutting back on BBC services, it should be expressed more boldly and honestly. I think there is an argument for pulling back on some areas of operation which broadly replicate advertising funded broadcasting.

The BBC should

Reflect the diversity of voices of our country

Be the home for both intelligent broadcast and popular entertainment

Provide services which set standards for high quality output across the fragmenting digital market place.

Increase the accessibility of its wide ranging archive holdings and ensure the continued production of a similarly broad output in future.

Put the interests of its licence fee payers above the complaints of competitors.

TV Current Affairs output has been weakened. Panorama is a shadow of the programme it was. Tabloid, personality led and afraid to deal with issues of complexity.

I would also say that BBC One daytime programming is insufficiently distinguishable from its commercial competitors. However I appreciate the costs in producing quality TV for the smaller daytime audiences are considerable.
Given the problems commercial broadcasters claim to have at present, I'd suggest that if the BBC is overstretched financially then reducing daytime TV output might be a valid alternative. Does the BBC really have to be broadcasting across the whole day on two channels given that the majority of people accessing BBC output during normal working hours are using the radio, web, CBBC or CBeebies?

Children's Radio considers to be a disaster. Since the demise of the old Radio 5 it has been shunted around the schedule like an unwanted public service obligation. It occurs to me that some of the many, many hours Radio 5 Live Extra is broadcasting a loop of highlights could be put to better use allowing children a chance to learn the valuable skill of imaginative listening.
Its current shunting onto BBC Radio 7 at hours that force it to be consumed via iPlayer alone is an absurdity.

More authored drama on television. The growth of the series and serial as dominant forms of TV drama and the growth of a commissioning culture that seeks to smooth off the idiosyncrasies of writers has resulted in a surfeit of technically competent copyists of popular forms while stifling a range of interesting voices.
A single drama slot in the traditions of The Wednesday Play and Play for Today would go some way to restoring challenging TV drama as something the BBC produces rather than buys from HBO.

Children's TV now needs to reclaim some of its older viewers, if Blast and Switch are going so that there is a valid alternative for younger teens to the output of commercial broadcasters. Older teens have BBC THREE as well as E4 but the younger teens were taken out of CBBC's remit when Blast and Switch were introduced.

BBC ONE is adequate at present. The popular drama and comedy from Spooks and Doctor Who and QI to Outnumbered works well but I think both the Breakfast and Daytime schedules are insufficiently distinct from ITV1 and Channel 4 offerings.
Current Affairs is also poorly served on ONE, and the clash of BBC and ITN bulletins as 10PM is an unfortunate result of the confusion of market forces, public service and the dictates of watershed scheduling.
I also feel ONE should look at its late night film schedule, increasingly composed of fairly recent but often quite poor output. Audiences after 11pm at night are unlikely to be scared of older output which may often be of greater 'quality' (again that difficult word to measure). I don't know when I last saw a black and white film on BBC ONE, yet I regularly rent them on DVD and often go to see them at the cinema, it seems sad the BBC which gave me much of my cinematic education seems reluctant to do so for future generations.

BBC TWO has lost some of its identity since many of its natural evening programmes became BBC FOUR originated shows repeated there.
The saga of the poor treatment of the documentary film strand Storyville does not need to be rehearsed here. I welcome the pledge that distinctive comedy is to have a home on TWO again. The identity of TWO as a more adventurous comedy commissioner has been somewhat muddied by the shows shared with THREE and FOUR or 'promoted' to ONE. The confidence to schedule programmes in fixed positions would of course be welcomed. The recent development of the 'post Newsnight ' slot for comedies that weren't drawing audiences in their original timeslot speaks volumes for the crisis of confidence at TWO!

THREE is naturally a confused channel, it's the nature of the audience it covers! I find much of its factual output patronising, but I understand that these kind of Entertainment Features shows are considered to be the best way to reach a youth audience. The 'fanzine' shows built on the back of more mainstream show 'brands' are also somewhat formulaic, but some of the drama and comedy output is of an excellent standard.

BBC FOUR is sadly only about a third of a channel, most of the output is of an excellent quality and aimed squarely at viewers like me, but for financial reasons it all has to be repeated far too often. I wouldn't however want the station to have it's output re-merged into BBC TWO simply because now TWO's identity has shifted to exclude the majority of FOUR style programming I believe it will be nigh on impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

BBC PARLIAMENT broadcasts some occasionally interesting output and often fascinating archive material. Obviously the current content is often out of its control! I particularly enjoyed the broadcast of Stephen Fry's speech in defense of the BBC's core values some time ago. It's a rousing, heartfelt declaration of what's good about the Corporation that I hope staff at all levels at the BBC can take on board, particularly when feeling beleaguered by attacks from the commercial media sector! One of the Corporation's many valuable niche services.

Red Button content rarely works on my Digibox so I'm unable to judge it beyond that level.

The output of Radio 1 and 2 is depressingly personality led, anodyne and musically unadventurous. It is perhaps too like commercial radio if the BBC management's current argument that it should not be damaging radio competitors is to be taken seriously.

Radio 1 last had me as a regular listener when the Evening Sessions ended around 2002. My listening in the last 8 years has not encouraged me to return often since. I absolutely accept that Radio 1 has to continue to cater to its core audience of young pop music fans interested in celebrity culture and pop music and understand that change to that remit to attract listeners in their 30s and above would cause changes to the identity of the station that should be resisted.

Radio 1Xtra I have listened to less than half an hour of. It was unclear to me what its remit was beyond a broad perception it was to cover the catch all 'Music of a Black Origin' which the very chart orientated Radio 1 wasn't catering for. It's unclear to me if this distinction would be retained under the proposed changes to output which talk about forging closer links between 1 and 1Xtra. Cynically, I suspect that just means reducing the amount of unique output generated for 1Xtra.

I welcome the presence of popular culture documentaries and Mark Radcliffe's warm, intelligent programme in the evenings on Radio 2. However I turn to them only when other broadcasting offers no better alternative. I find the comedy output on Radio 2 distinctly uninspiring, having last found myself engaged by a 2 show when That Was Then, This Is Now aired in January 2008.
The BBC's management's pledge to better serve its existing older audience for Radio 2 seems wise. The channel does seem confused at present not knowing who it's talking too.

Radio 3 I listen to only occasionally, mainly for Early Music, some of its spoken word Arts coverage and occasional drama. I have no complaints about its output, when I listen to it I find it of the very highest quality, it is simply a station that I desire to listen too only occasionally.

Radio 4 is a station I've been a fan of since childhood, though I personally regret the increasing star-led homogeneity of its comedy output, the 11PM slots were once trumpeted as experimental though they rarely are now, and although find the consumers affairs output unlistenable I find the rest of it generally excellent.
I would suggest that the combativeness of the regular presenters of Today and Any Questions is less effective in generating useful discussion than the playful but direct approach of Eddie Mair on PM. Sometimes they make heat rather than light and they could learn a lot from his approach. Seasoned media operators know they have limited time on air, and often find a row serves them better than a calm debate.

Radio 5Live, I listen to only for football commentary, and have only the partisan debates about perceived bias that all fans have when an ill informed pundit talks unfavourably about their team.

5 Live Sports Extra, seems to primarily broadcast the same as 5 or extended looping trailers for what's coming up.
If the BBC does plan to reduce spending on sports rights this seems a white elephant for the brief periods it is in operation.
I must confess this may be because of my individual usage of media- when I want to follow more than one sports event at once I turn to the BBC Website text summaries if by a computer, or Sky Sports News if by a television. If I'm near neither, I've no access to a digital radio.

6 Music is the only music radio station I listen too regularly, being sufficiently intelligent, amusing, and diverse to keep me from using the Last.FM website to discover new music.

BBC Radio 7 remains an engaging station though its limited resources have meant that its previous distinct commissioning of new comedy is now greatly reduced and the library of cleared archive it has to draw on is too small and too often repeated. It has recently begun to draw more on BBC local output and independently produced new drama which can be acquired cheaply, but are regrettably not always to the standard of some of its other output. The unwelcome development of rapid repeats of Radio 4 output is also regrettable, it reduces the uniqueness of the station, making it just a way to extend a show's iPlayer life at times! I strongly suspect this is also driven by finances.
The talk of rebranding Radio 7 as Radio 4 Extra leads me to fear a further reduction of the station's distinctiveness under the new proposals.

BBC Asian Network, I have listened too only for several hours, hearing a few weeks of the soap opera Silver Street and some lively discussion and music programmes. Although I'm not Desi, I'm interested in a range of cultures and a wide variety of music. I can't really honestly judge the station on my limited listening, and I'm not its primary audience. I'm not aware of any similar station where I live (in Sheffield) which worries me if it is lost. Will only areas with very large Asian population have a regional alternative if the service goes?

The BBC World Service- I occasionally listen too, more after Radio 4 close down that by DAB or Digibox. I'm aware it's resources have been cut back, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has as much interest in it as the BBC itself. I welcome the work it does, reporting international news in a way no domestic service covers and doing the value work of spreading the best of the BBC and Britain to a huge and understandably diverse audience. The new station branding with a voice declaiming BBC is less easy on the ears than Lillibulero but that's the concern of a British late night listener more than it is the core audience's!

Local TV and Radio I consume very irregularly, their very soft magazine news output and playlists similar to Radio 2 daytime output don't draw me in and so I'm ill-placed to judge these services.

The BBC's web pages are, I find, invaluable for news, the iPlayer, Sports commentary and increasingly podcasts.
The ongoing release of archive collections is also a very welcome feature.
The various fora are occasionally useful but as is the nature of such beasts often ridiculous combative places, generating more heat than light like the Today programme at its worst!

Not exclusively.
I have to strongly object to number 5.

The event that brings large groups together, often excludes more people than it includes. There are large portions of the population for whom state occasions, major religious festivals and sporting occasions hold no interest. The BBC should always have room for reflecting our diversity. The big 'unifying' Christmas Day hits on BBC ONE are watched by a minority of the population. There are always more of us wanting to do, watch, read, or listen to something else. We are not a Monoculture.
If the BBC fixates on reaching mass audiences, it reduces its claim to speak for us all.
It is a difficult balance obviously- the BBC will always be attacked by rivals for being either too popular or too esoteric, but it must strive for that balance.
There are sometimes big events that the BBC must choose to ignore.

These proposed changes are symptomatic of what troubles me in the current management's vision of the BBC.
They are confused, and self-contradictory and play into the hands of those who oppose public service.

Firstly, they aim to make cuts to radio and new media while leaving television the medium that can most easily absorb cuts untouched.

Secondly they fly in the face of preparing the country for digital switch-over across media.

Thirdly, they have confused rationale behind them as publicly expressed (the rationale are so confusing one might suspect that there are other reasons behind those being publicly stated. The cause celebre of 6 Music, is a station which we're being told is both too niche and too like other offerings (it clearly fits neither Radio 1 or 2 demographics and prominent figures in both commercial radio and the music industry refute claims that the private sector can offer anything comparable).

Fourthly, the empty words 'doing less things better' does not tally with my vision of the BBC. Some of the things the BBC is doing very well indeed and cost-effectively are amongst those now under threat and are services I believe reflect what should be the Corporation's core ethos. The blandness of the statement allows a multitude of interpretations, dividing objectors into those who dislike one type of programming or another, offering a variety of alternative sacrificial lambs for the chop. The principle being espoused has no relation to the actions being proposed. If money needs to be spread more thinly, all the huge changes you're making to radio could be paid for by having News 24 carry on a bit longer in the morning or BBC ONE close down for an hour in the afternoon. A cynic might think a difficult decision like this has been avoided because of how it would play in the media, when 'fringe' interests in digital radio can be picked off individually.

Individually, these proposed cutbacks would deprive me of one of my favourite radio stations 6 Music and begin the process of destroying the unique identity of one of my other favourites, BBC Radio 7, but that is not my primary concern. Thoselosses are symptoms of what I believe to be a wrong headed approach to the Corporation's future.

I think the current review has naively gambled to court short-term popularity with politicians while neglecting to serve the greater good of the BBC and the public,

I would expect Digital TV and DAB radio transmission to be rolled out across the UK with a full range of channels to make switchover worthwhile rather than an exercise in selling radio bandwidth!
I would also expect that the analogue transmissions of radio and TV continue until there is sufficient take up of the receiving technology to make switch over practical. It's not enough that there are transmitters covering everywhere, you have to make people want the receivers! By cutting digital content you slow the take up of new services, transmission and content are connected!
I welcome the iPlayer, with the failure of Project Kangaroo expect to see further and further commercial challenges to this popular and core BBC service. It should be defended vociferously, as it is likely to be the next public service challenged for having a commercial impact.

The TV Heaven facility at NMeM and the BFI's Mediatheque building on it, have proven a desire for the general public as well as specialist researchers to have greater access to archive programming.
The BBC has done good work building on this with the online archive collections. It is regrettable that the useful accessible version of the BBC's INFAX catalogue was taken off line. Information is sometimes just as useful as the programme content itself.
Greater access to archive will almost certainly require dedicated broadcast channels (like 6 Music and Radio 7 ironically), and an expansion of the BBC's online presence (again I'm sure the irony won't escape you).
It will also require money. Rights don't come cheap. During a period of proposed cost-cutting and axeing and rebranding archive services I don't see how the laudable aim of making our broadcast heritage more accessible can be met.

Regrettably, there is no easy way of squaring this with "doing fewer things better".

I am not concerned about the BBC's value for money. I'm not sure why you think I am.
I am however concerned about the value for money of SKY packages, which is why I don't use them. It might at some point be worth spending some time drawing up some detailed price comparisons for the services. I doubt many newspapers would run them, but it would be instructive to those who could find media outlets that would print them.

Not all of them.

Pop is a ridiculous label for the diversity of Radio 1, Radio 2 and 6 Music's output, it assumes a homogeneity of output that simply isn't the case. I strongly disagree with this.

I am not a teenager and have not used Switch or Blast! but I am nervous about the dismissal of teenage programming as 'niche' and the Director-General's reassurance that teens can get their programming for C4 and E4. Everyone who ends up paying the license fee used to be a teenager and teenagers deserve a chance to find a part of the BBC that serves them.

There is a valid argument for the reduction of imported film and drama if alternative programming of similar quality can be made or bought from within the UK. In the fragmented TV market place it is pointless getting in a bidding war with Channel 4 or Five for output that will air to most viewers here regardless, if it is of decent quality.

Similarly, for the BBC to stop competing for some sports rights might help end the hyperinflation in that sector. However this may come into conflict with the avowed desire to screen major events expressed in the proposals.
Personally, I believe it may be time to relinquish all live TV Football for other providers to compete for. It could mean I'd be unable to watch it in my own home again, which I would personally regret, but I think the sacrifice worthwhile for the future of the BBC.

BBC local TV and radio seem to be already stretched to near breaking point so I think it wise not to attempt further expansion at present.

Focussing a website is an interesting challenge, they tend to sprawl by their nature. I'm not convinced the recent creation of a permanent website for every programme linked to its iPlayer page has been either useful or successful for example. If the BBC is under pressure to provide less to its web-users I think the website has to evolve reactively to its use. If services are to be lost it should be through a slow period of atrophy based on the use of the pages rather than a top-down decision of which areas should be axed. Responding to users is always the key to managing change.

I believe that having gone as far as it has from what it once was the Radio Times could be sold off. It might well benefit both parties if the corporation and magazine were publicly separated.

There will be in years to come increased calls to sell off the entirety of the BBC's commercial subsidiary BBC Worldwide.
That's far too big an argument to be bundled into this consultation, but if the Corporation is to thrive while facing commercial opposition it is a debate that will need to be addressed. Management will need to carefully prepare strategies, arguments and defences if it wishes to preserve this key asset.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

6 Music closure

I emailed the duty office when this was leaked last week and received information relating to the station's last review which was, of course, out of date, though the messages of praise for the station were pleasing, as, in the few years they've been on air, 6 Music and Radio 7 have joined Radio 4 as my stations of choice.

Now that the Director General has publicly stated his intentions can I ask that the Trust considers its role as representative of the BBC's audience and challenges his plans?

6 Music is the BBC's only music station to take the popular culture of the last 50 years seriously. Radio 2 and Radio 1 are dominated by personalities and cautious playlists in a way that closely replicates commercial stations. 6Music has no counterpart in the private sector because it is core public service broadcasting, it is, simply, as Radio 3 is to Classic FM.
The growth of the station is impressive given the take up and roll out of digital radio, its cost per listener is one of the smallest of the DAB stations.
The signal sent out by closing one of the BBC's unique assets and choosing to reduce the Corporation's presence in New Media, may please the opponents of the BBC as a public service provider of diverse output, but it would be a sad day for those of us who believe the survival of BBC and its high standards is vital if we are to maintain the health of our broadcasting sector.

Although I'm not a core user of the Asian Network, Blast or the BBC's websites I can see they too are about serving diverse audiences to a high standard, surely the BBC's number one objective in a fragmenting marketplace. I would argue daytime BBC One television actually serves the public far less effectively, and might be a more economic sacrifice if sacrifice must be seen to be made.

For over a decade I was a curator at what is now the National Media Museum and I've written extensively on the broadcasting of the last 60 years, and I worry about the political naivety displayed in the plans related today.
If the BBC is to continue to serve us then it has to prioritise the provision of output that is not replicated elsewhere. Please reject the short-termist thinking behind this decision that I honestly believe imperils the BBC's reputation and future.

Yours faithfully

Ian Potter

EDITED TO ADD- this was written before it became clear the preferred address for responses to the Digital Strategy was I sent it there as well, just for safety.