There has been a lot of speculation surrounding the fate of the BBC over the past year. All of which came to a head with the release of the White Papers last week.
Stars at the 2016 BAFTAs, which took place just a few days before, came out in unanimous support of the Beeb, condemning Government proposals to curb the broadcasters remit, restrict programming schedules and swap the license fee for an alternative funding model. So much so, in fact, that the BBC edited out sections of some speeches to avoid breaching its impartiality requirements – and appearing too partial to itself!
So what has all the fuss been about? The White Papers contain the Government’s final say on the position of BBC and sets out the Royal Charter for the next eleven years. The Royal Charter fixes the license fee level, which in turn determines the broadcaster’s spending remit and, therefore, impacts the quality and scale of content it can provide. It also provides the constitutional basis of the BBC – so it’s pretty important stuff!
It is preceded by a Green Paper, which was released last year. This is an early draft, offering us a preliminary guide on what the Government has in store and giving them a chance to gauge public opinion and backtrack if necessary. At the time, culture secretary John Whittingdale called the current license fee settlement ‘regressive’ and suggested that it could, one day in the not too distant future, be replaced by a subscription model. As you can imagine, the BBC did not take to this too happily and there has been a lot of debate and uncertainty ever since.
So what have been the outcomes? Firstly, on the crucial matter of funding, ‘the license fee remains the most appropriate model for the next charter period’ and will rise in line with inflation. So that’s a win for the BBC! They will, however, also be looking into subscription options for ‘additional services’ not yet on offer and these will be considered in the next review process. Meanwhile, the iPlayer loophole will be closed, which is another positive step for the broadcaster (though less good news for anyone wishing to access BBC TV content without a license…)
Secondly, on the subject of programming, there were major concerns that the White Paper would force the BBC to reschedule certain shows to off-peak hours in order to avoid competition with commercial rivals. So Strictly Come Dancing would no longer take place on Saturday evenings when it clashes with The X Factor on ITV, for example. Unsurprisingly, this could have a damaging effect on some of the channels’ most popular shows. Fortunately for BBC bosses, it was not a requirement of the papers – so that’s another win! Though they did advise the BBC to ‘carefully consider any negative impacts’ on other broadcasters, suggesting a slightly more subtle warning.
Another issue of contention surrounded the way that the broadcaster is governed. The new charter will do away with the BBC Trust, replacing it with a new board of 12 to 14 members responsible for governing the BBC in the public interest. Of these members, six will be appointed by the Government, including the chair and deputy chair. This is not so good news for the BBC. The involvement of government members in the running of the BBC has been something many have fought against and there is concern that it could threaten the very independence the 93-year-old company was built on. Time will tell!
There is plenty more to read in the white papers, including diversity promises and transparency over the wages of top talent. While the general consensus appears to be that it’s not as bad as it could have been, there are some important rulings that could see fundamental changes in the way the Beeb is run and the content it produces. Along with the ongoing threats of privatisation to Channel 4 (partial rather than full for now), we could see a very different broadcasting landscape in the years to come.