BSKYB’s raid to secure 17.9% of ITV in an apparent attempt to crowd out any other potential investors is an unfortunate and timely reminder of where the real threat to plurality and diversity in British broadcasting comes from. Will Sky now use their position as the leading shareholder in ITV to ‘materially influence’ whether or not Sky News replaces ITN when their news contract comes up for renewal in 2008? Will Sky now try and scupper joint BBC / ITV plans to promote a freesat service to compliment Freeview?
Meanwhile, the crucial announcement of the BBC licence fee settlement is expected imminently. Rupert Murdoch and other prominent commercial interests have been keen to advocate the lowest possible fee increase on the grounds that commercial broadcasters have been facing ever-falling advertising revenues, and that in any event the BBC should be drastically limiting its ambitions.
The truth is that when it comes to total industry revenues, the BBC is an entirely less dominant player in the television world than it was in the 1990s. For example, Sky today controls 40 per cent of total television revenue, nearly twice that of the BBC at 23 per cent. The BBC also has a track record of delivery and innovation unsurpassed amongst our public services. Freeview is a classic public-private sector partnership which has made Government ambitions for digital switchover possible. The BBC’s online presence has underscored the absolutely key role of an impartial public service provider of news and information for a new generation. Most importantly, the last decade has arguably been a golden age of BBC programming, with quality output now consumed by a much broader section of the population than a generation ago. For example, one million people tuned into the groundbreaking ‘Civilisation’ in the 1970s, with six times that number watching ‘Plant Earth’ thirty years later.
The Office, Strictly Come Dancing, Bleak House, Doctor Who and The Apprentice all demonstrate that the BBC adage of ‘making the good popular and the popular good’ lives on in good health. Not surprisingly, independent DCMS research indicates that 75 per cent of the population are willing to pay more for existing and expanded BBC services over the life of the Charter.
Of course, the BBC is not the only provider of public service broadcasting UK, but it is primarily responsible for the fact that the UK’s creative sector of television content has the highest rate of investment per head of home-produced programming of any developed country, including the United States. It is also perhaps worth noting that the BBC is shedding 7,000 jobs to shift more resources into programming. It falls to that most eloquent defender of British values, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to make the final call on the licence fee in the upcoming weeks. Will he back what can perhaps be called the greatest British brand with costed promises to deliver digital switchover, quality programming, and a transfer of production to the north of the country, or will he give further comfort – and profit- to Rupert Murdoch?
John Grogan has been the Labour MP for Selby since 1997.