MEDIA FORUM: What would happen if the BBC started to run ads? - Who’s for a spot of advertising on the BBC? The usual response is, ’Oh no, not that one again.’ It might not be so easy to dismiss this time around. Should the Davies

Last week saw the production of an alarming amount of vitriol, paranoia and black propaganda as the subject of a more commercial BBC began to reach boiling point. Who said the industry was bored with the ads on the BBC debate? This time it’s serious. Because, of course, the Davies Committee is serious. It could change something.

Last week saw the production of an alarming amount of vitriol,

paranoia and black propaganda as the subject of a more commercial BBC

began to reach boiling point. Who said the industry was bored with the

ads on the BBC debate? This time it’s serious. Because, of course, the

Davies Committee is serious. It could change something.



Set up by the culture minister, Chris Smith, the Davies Committee has a

remit to look at the future of BBC funding and the deadline for

submissions from interested parties is today (Wednesday). The

Incorporated Society of British Advertisers has prepared a document

outlining a spectrum of viable commercial options, including either

sponsorship or spot advertising opportunities on both network television

and radio. It is also believed to have commissioned a report showing

that if the BBC could take a couple of hundred million pounds in ad

revenue there would be almost negligible damage to the current

commercial sector.



So, obviously, there were people keen to see advertisers portrayed as

selfish gits unable to appreciate that in recent years they have already

been given Channel 5, GMTV and a post News at Ten ratings windfall. And

now, guess what? The barbarians are at the gates of the BBC.



Unfortunately, the broader context to all of this has been conveniently

ignored. It is almost inconceivable that in ten years’ time we will have

a public service broadcasting sector funded by a clumsy tax system.

While no-one does anything to recognise this, it is an economic timebomb

at the centre of the media and advertising industries. That’s what the

Davies Committee has to address. Should it listen to ISBA?



Yes, says David Cuff, the broadcast director of Initiative Media. ’Since

1993, commercial television revenue has increased by 51 per cent. There

is more cash in the system than anyone could have predicted. Television

advertising will be a pounds 3 billion market this year. So pounds 100

million in advertising on the BBC (3 per cent of that) is a drop in the

ocean, especially as demand will be up by 5 per cent this year. It will

keep inflation down and might subsidise free television licences for

pensioners, which might be seen in some quarters as a politically astute

move. Our television market is the most expensive in Europe because we

are the only country not to have a public service sector financed by a

mixture of taxes and ad revenue.’



ISBA’s enemies point out that Cuff’s main client is an ISBA prime mover,

Unilever. That’s hardly a conclusive argument, though - the Institute of

Practitioners in Advertising has in the past ignored lobbying by big

clients and come down against commercialising the Beeb.



The conspiracy theory here is that big buying points like airtime to be

overpriced because there’s no better argument for the existence of big

buying points.



What’s the IPA take likely to be this time? Jim Marshall, the chief

executive of MediaVest, is the IPA media policy group’s spokesman on

broadcast trading issues. At this stage, he is only prepared to state a

personal view, but it isn’t a million miles away from the IPA’s official

Davies Committee submission. He comments: ’There are some arguments for

doing this in a controlled fashion as long as we’re not talking about

massive amounts of money. But my view is that the destiny of the BBC

lies in the hands of the BBC itself. I suspect that its decision to opt

for a less aggressively commercial schedule on television is more of a

post-rationalisation measure, given what’s been happening to ratings now

that ITV has dropped News at Ten. It still has to decide whether it

wants to be part of the commercial world.’



This is a variation on the IPA’s usual ’box’ argument. If, like Andy

Pandy, the BBC gets back in its unequivocally public service box, then

it won’t get hurt. But should commercial broadcasters be alarmed at the

widespread feeling that they wouldn’t miss, say, pounds 100 million? Of

course, says Martin Bowley, the chief executive of Carlton UK Sales.

This, he urges, is a patently ridiculous argument. He adds: ’The

advertising community is well served by commercial channels. You can use

us to reach any target audience you could possibly want.’



ITV ratings are up. Why should ISBA keep demanding more? Having lost its

share of Channel 4 revenues with the abolition of safety-net funding

arrangements, ITV would not now take at all kindly to being asked to

fund the BBC. Nick Milligan, the sales director of Channel 5, warns that

ISBA should think carefully before it pushes this point. He states: ’It

lobbied for Channel 5 to be created as an antidote to cost inflation. We

have helped to move the commercial share of total viewing up from 56 per

cent when we launched to the current all-time high of more than 60 per

cent. What have we heard from ISBA? Precisely nothing.’



Milligan agrees that the BBC’s problems are self-inflicted - ’their

first trip to Crinkley Bottom saw them attempt to take on ITV in a game

they were ill-equipped to play’ - but the corporation doesn’t deserve

the ultimate punishment: inevitable annihilation.



He adds: ’As for ISBA, what it thinks it wants is not what it would get:

a BBC that looks increasingly like ITV, an ever more powerful single

company ITV, a Channel 4 that tears up its current remit and an

uncertain future for Channel 5.’



The reality, according to Steve Booth, the managing partner of Booth

Lockett Makin, is that the BBC is already in a commercial environment

that is evolving rapidly. But he believes there is only one way of

resolving the contradictory aims and ambitions of the market’s various

players. He states: ’I sympathise with the existing commercial

broadcasters’ reluctance to sanction shifting revenues in the BBC’s

direction.



If funds are spread across a broader base of channels, standards on the

main commercial channels will only fall, with potentially disastrous

consequences.



But the BBC clearly needs to be funded in a manner appropriate to the

emerging arena. I suspect that this is more likely to be pay-per-view

via the digital market.’



Opinion, p27.



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