The Future of Broadcasting: Why the BBC will continue to be an important innovator.

By Toby James 

Early last month, Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, proposed changes to the way the BBC operates with regard to production of television programmes.

The BBC has always been at the forefront of broadcast innovation. This throne has been somewhat usurped lately by the sheer number of other companies producing or broadcasting television, be it Sky’s grasp over sports, Endemol and Freemantle Media’s ubiquity in production or UKTV’s innovative way of broadcasting BBC and other external content by category, there is now more choice in television than ever.

The BBC has always made its own television programmes. This seems fairly obvious; most of us would assume that programmes shown by a certain broadcaster were made by that broadcaster. The BBC currently has a system in place to ensure that half of all programmes shown are made by the BBC. This means that up to half of the programmes shown on the BBC are made for the BBC, not by the BBC.

The director general’s new proposals would see an end to this system. The quota would be removed, and a larger percentage of the programmes shown on the BBC could be made by external production companies.

This move has, unsurprisingly, been welcomed by independent television companies looking to get an opportunity to produce programmes for broadcast on the BBC. The move should allow start-up television companies more opportunities to get their work noticed, both by the public and by other broadcasters. At a first glance, this would seem to diminish the BBC’s production capacity, yet there is one key element of these proposals that I have as yet neglected to mention.

Under this new system, the BBC would be able to produce programmes for rival broadcasters.

This is arguably the most significant change proposed by Hall, yet there is already a lot of overlap between British television channels.

ITN produces the news for ITV, but also for Channel 4 and Channel 5. Some of the non-made-in-house programmes shown on the BBC are made by ITV, or at least ITV owned companies, for example, University Challenge, which is made by Granada.

Channel 4 does not make any of its own programmes. Everything shown on Channel 4 is bought in, and we could soon be seeing BBC-made programmes among the ranks.

This may seem like a distinct change to what we recognise as the BBC’s ethos; a public service broadcaster that we pay for, making programmes for other channels? Isn’t that a waste of our licence fee? Shouldn’t these other channels produce their own programmes, rather than relying on the BBC? Arguably, yes.

It is easy to see how this decision could inflame public relations with the BBC, a broadcaster disliked by the right-wing for being an inherently socialist idea, and disliked by the left for perceived right-wing leanings among the executives.

Many people will not feel comfortable paying for the BBC to produce programmes for other broadcasters, yet it must be noted that outside of the UK they always have.

They sell their own programmes to foreign broadcasters, and indeed to other domestic broadcasters: UKTV’s Dave is riddled with repeats of BBC Top Gear and various comedies, yet in the UK all these programmes have been shown first on the BBC.

No longer will this be the case.

The programmes will not be given to the other broadcasters free, of course, and with a broadcast-behemoth like the BBC now vying for a place in other broadcasters’ schedules the benefits to competition within the sector are obvious.

The effects on the quality and style of programming on all channels remains to be seen, but it is likely that diversity within channels will increase, with each channel having contributions from multiple programme makers, including BBC contributions to other broadcasters, and those broadcasters contributing to BBC programming.

Conversely, this could lead to less diversity between channels. If they are all making programmes for each other, then their individual styles will start to be seen on other channels, and the channels could all become much more similar.

Of course there are a lot of television channels, and it seems that the effects of these proposals on similarity will surely be negated by the sheer volume of channels available, even without some sort of subscription, there are several hundred channels to choose between.

It is still unknown whether these proposals will actually be implemented, and as the production of programmes for other broadcasters would require an amendment to the BBC’s royal charter, which runs until the end of 2016, if they do become part of the BBC’s modus operandi, it will not be until 2017 at the earliest.

If the proposals are accepted, they could signal a significant change in the UK’s broadcast landscape, by levelling the playing field for both established broadcasters, and newer start-up production companies. This has the potential to make the broadcast sector’s output more exciting, and once again it could be the BBC at the forefront of broadcast innovation.

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