New Vision for BBC Outlined by Culture Secretary


LONDON: The unfreezing of the license fee, an emphasis on “distinctive” content and a more open commissioning process are among the key measures set out in a white paper on the future of the BBC published by John Whittingdale, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport.

The white paper comes ahead of the BBC’s current Royal Charter expiring this December. “The proposals that we are publishing today are the result of one of the largest and most open consultations ever conducted,” Whittingdale said. “The proposals that the government has set out in this white paper are about ensuring the BBC has a bold, strong and stable decade ahead. They will embolden the BBC to take risks, confidently and unashamedly to create the highest quality, distinctive content for all audiences. At its best, the BBC makes programs that are popular as well as individually and collectively unique—informing, educating and entertaining in a way which serves all nations, regions and communities in the U.K. The BBC can only be successful if it continues to create new and innovative content which breaks boundaries and sets new standards through its creativity, ambition and innovation.”

Separating the Charter Review process from the election cycle, the new Charter will run for 11 years, to 2027.

A new board is to be created to oversee the governance of the BBC, and the pubcaster will be responsible for appointing at least half of its members. Ofcom has been tapped as the external independent regulator of the BBC.

The white paper calls for the BBC board to investigate inefficiencies and staffing levels. Plus, greater transparency is being encouraged so that license-fee payers see how the BBC spends its budget. Viewers should also have transparency regarding talent being paid more than £450,000. Moreover, the National Audit Office will become the BBC’s financial auditor, scrutinizing spending and value for money.

The license fee is to be increased in line with inflation for five years from 2017-18. There will be a new regular process created to set the license fee every five years. The fee will also apply to those who don’t have a TV but who consume BBC content on an on-demand basis through the iPlayer. The pubcaster is also being allowed to pilot subscription offerings.

“There are additional opportunities for the BBC to maximize revenue for consumption of its services, and to explore options for providing content for which it could charge. The government supports the BBC continuing to develop such initiatives domestically as well as abroad. Indeed the BBC already offers commercial services for an additional charge in the U.K.: the exploitation of its archive via the commercial channel portfolio of the broadcaster UKTV which it jointly owns; the new BBC Store, which allows digital downloads of favorite BBC shows to be purchased; and the BBC has for many years supplemented its income through the sale of DVDs and VHS. The government is clear that the license fee should remain the bedrock of funding for the BBC, and there are no plans to replace it with a subscription model in the coming Charter period…. However, this should not prevent or deter the BBC from adapting to a world in which paying for ‘top-up’ services is becoming more commonplace. Elements of additional subscription revenue should, therefore, be considered and explored.”

The white paper continues: “Due to the BBC’s global reputation, international demand for its content is high. The government supports any initiatives to use the international demand for BBC content to maximize revenue, and to address the situation whereby international audiences are accessing content for free that is funded by U.K. license fee payers. The BBC is already considering the best way to monetize its content abroad, and whether an international subscription model could be developed to address these issues. BBC Worldwide has recently launched BBC Extra as a subscription service in the United States and will evaluate further markets. The government will support such initiatives, and enable the BBC to do what is needed to achieve the most value for license fee payers.”

To open up the commissioning process, the BBC’s in-house guarantee will be removed for all TV content, excluding news and news-related current affairs. “This will provide hundreds of millions of pounds of new opportunities for the independent sector, help drive efficiency savings and provide new creative opportunities for the BBC.”

The white paper also indicates “in-principle support” for the BBC’s plans to spin-off its in-house production into a new BBC Studios subsidiary, which would produce for other broadcasters as well.

Another measure outlined is the creation of a public-service fund that would “enhance plurality in the provision of public-service content.”

Commenting on the white paper, BBC Director-General Tony Hall said, “This white paper delivers a mandate for the strong, creative BBC the public believe in. A BBC that will be good for the creative industries—and most importantly of all, for Britain.

“There has been a big debate about the future of the BBC. Searching questions have been asked about its role and its place in the U.K. That’s right and healthy, and I welcome that debate. At the end, we have an 11-year Charter, a license fee guaranteed for 11 years, and an endorsement of the scale and scope of what the BBC does today. The white paper reaffirms our mission to inform, educate and entertain all audiences on television, on radio and online.”

Hall noted, however, that there are some points on which the BBC disagrees with the Government, notably on how the new board governing the pubcaster is to be appointed. “I do not believe that the appointments proposals for the new unitary board are yet right. We will continue to make the case to government. It is vital for the future of the BBC that its independence is fully preserved.”

A BBC statement continued: “While there are many things we strongly back and endorse in the White Paper, the current proposals for the unitary board require further consideration. In terms of the process, we think the chairman and deputy chairman should be appointed by the Government through an independent public appointments process. After that, we want a board that is the right size, with the right balance of skills and the right talents, appointed in the right way.”

Rona Fairhead, chairman of BBC Trust, stated: “We recognize that the Government has moved, but we need to debate these issues to ensure the arrangements for the board achieve the correct balance of independence, public oversight and operational effectiveness. We believe there is more than enough time to get this right, and we will continue to discuss this with the Government.”