John McCormick Talk..

Life Without the BBC?

A cartoon of a dapper Lord Reith leaning on BBC House set John’s tone for his talk. Reith’s 1922 mission statement for the new BBC Company was to ‘Inform, Educate and Entertain’ guiding the activities of the Company.  By 1927 the Company evolved into the British Broadcasting Corporation under a Royal Charter setting out the arrangements of governance.  The Charter review is underway over the next two to three years or so; time is then needed to allow for any legislation to be passed to allow the new Charter to operate from 2027.  In addition, the TV licence fee settlement is to be reviewed next year.  What concerns John, and indeed, the BBC, is that the whole future of the BBC lies is the hands of a government, many of whose supporters which dislike the current TV Licence model.  They see it as a form of tax and undermining the market place concept.

After setting the scene, John went onto give a brief history of the BBC in Scotland which ended with the story behind the BBC Scotland HQ move to Pacific Quay.  He then gave members an overview of the way broadcasting has changed and continues to change, how the TV Licence funds are shared across the Union, how demographics and technology are changing audience and viewing characteristics and the emergence of subscription channels which challenge the traditional licence fee and advertising source of funds for broadcasting.  In short, it became clear many challenges face the BBC as it approaches its Centenary Year. Hence the somewhat sinister tone of John’s title Life Without the BBC.

Studios were quickly established in Scotland after the BBC was established.  The first in Glasgow at 202 Bath Street and then one shortly after in Queen Street, Edinburgh.  About a decade later better facilities were required and BBC Scotland acquired North Park House opposite the Botanics.  Reith himself signed off the deal in 1935.  John observed that the West End location was accidental.  Nonetheless, it proved fortuitous as there was scope to expand down Hamilton Drive and served BBC Scotland well for many decades.  However, a report in 1993 suggested that the days of North Park House facilities were numbered as modernising and transforming them into a digital operation was out of the question.

The search was on to find a site for a new HQ.  By 1996 a potential site had been identified at Pacific Quay.  However, the then Chairman of BBC, Christopher Bland said to John ‘get a bridge across the Clyde!’ before he’d support the move.  John never explained how he managed to swing it with the City Fathers but he did!  Hence the Clyde is now graced by the iconic ‘Squinty Bridge’.  Overall, the new HQ took 10 years to come to fruition.  Or, as John sees it, the ‘factory’ at the heart of BBC Scotland’s output.

The BBC was a monopoly until the 1950s when ITV was established and formed a duopoly.  ITV, of course, having its own monopoly on advertising.  The duopoly ticked over more or less happily for a number of decades.  However, with the arrival of satellite communications in the 1980s, broadcasting was hit by a plethora of channels.  In short, it was the beginning of the end for national boundaries in broadcasting.  John wondered out loud, ‘what did the Nigerians in Lagos make of Balamory?’  The key point for John was that international competition had arrived.  Since then there has been evolution with companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime starting to stream programmes for a monthly subscription.  In 2015 Netflix and Amazon had 4m and 1.2m subscribers respectively but by 2020, those figures had increased to 15m and 9.5m.  Their broadband technology allows people to watch videos on demand.  In Scotland, Netflix commands streaming with 49% of the share of the market followed by Amazon Prime at 26% and more companies such as Disney and Apple are seeking to squeeze into this competitive market.

In terms of viewing characteristics, John indicated that almost half of 16 to 34 year olds do not regularly watch traditional channels and that the average Briton’s viewing time has decreased by 30% in the last decade.  A trend the National Audit Office believes poses a financial risk to the willingness of people to pay the licence fee.  Scotland has the highest proportion of heavy consumers of TV in the UK (ie 2 hours+ a day), they also the highest proportion of low consumers (ie less than 1 hour a day).  In addition, with respect to the fairness and balance of BBC’s broadcasting, Scotland had the lowest proportion of positive scores and highest proportion of negatives scores in the Union according to research.  Ask people how BBC reflects and represents their nation and Scottish viewers feel that BBC’s representation and portrayal is about 10% behind English viewers.  The lowest of any of the nations.  Given that Ofcom expect the BBC to reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all nations and regions, these findings are a challenge.  A matter of concern because it raises the issue whether the BBC satisfactorily supports a creative economy across the UK.

In the last financial year approx. £3.5bn was collected in Licence Fees of which some 90% is spent on programmes; ie tv 66%; radio 17%; world service 6%.  However, when looking at the spend in Scotland, it is 15% less than is collected in TV Licence fees.  Spend in both Northern Ireland and Wales, exceeds what is collected, a bone of contention.

Here John returned to the underlying reason for having a TV licence at all.  It exists to guarantee universal access to BBC programmes and services.  Indeed, BBC’s Director of Policy recently observed that this principle is considered more important than the mechanism to achieve it.  An issue very much at the forefront of arguments for the retention of the TV Licence system.  Here John revealed research undertaken by the BBC and Ofcom last year on alternative ways of raising funds for BBC; ie through a licence fee, advertising or a subscription.  The findings suggest that the Licence Fee is still the most favoured way of raising revenue.  However, there are still significant minorities who feel that advertising or subscriptions would be satisfactory alternatives.  A factor which will figure highly in the forthcoming review.

Of course, technology, the internet in particular, will play a significant part of the debate on the future role of the BBC.  Changing viewing habits, especially the younger population who use streaming more, require access to the internet.  Such broadband access cannot be achieved UK wide for many years and many older people are not interested in using the internet.  For these reasons, John believes that the ‘universality factor’ could rule out a change to the BBC Charter which is due to be renewed in 2028.  This suggests that the current TV Licence model could remain in place until 2038.  However, as John observed at the outset, some in the Government and many in the Conservative Party do not favour the continuation of the licence of fee.  As he sees it BBC’s challenge is to increase the proportion of the under 45s watching BBC programmes.

During the Q&A session, John fielded many questions such as BBC’s sensitivity to Scotland, competition from newcomers such as Times Radio and the proposed GB Channel of Andrew Neil, the challenge of financing investigative journalism and sports coverage with reduced resources.  John gave very assured and informed responses.  This was an excellent talk and gave members a lot to think about.  Not least a concern that the future of the BBC as we know is under threat.  Many thanks, John

John McCormick Talk..