Media Forum: Will the BBC paper boost rivals?

Could proposals deliver a sure-fire rise in commercial impacts?

The press reaction to the publication of last week's Government Green Paper on the future of the BBC was surprisingly hostile. True, some national newspapers summoned up smatterings of applause but, as praise goes, it was damningly faint. And it was more than counterbalanced by those commentators who were unreservedly scathing.

It was, they said, classic muddle and fudge.

A fudge in the sense that, although continued regulation of the BBC by a board of governors is acknowledged as "unsustainable", the Paper argues for the board's replacement not by Ofcom but by an independent trust structure that will have questionable independence and will not even be legally constituted as a trust.

Even more fudge in the fact that, although the paper more or less admits the licence fee will be an anachronism when analogue switch-off is achieved (target date: 2012), it proposes that licence-fee funding continues until 2016.

And yet, from an advertising industry perspective, it's certainly not all doom and gloom. As a quid pro quo for this licence fee promise, the BBC will be given a more tightly drawn remit and clearer responsibilities. Basically, it has been told, in no uncertain terms, that it should stop nicking programming ideas from the commercial sector and chasing ratings for ratings' sake.

This is surely what the advertising industry has been demanding for years now - that the BBC be put back in its public service box. So, are agencies and advertisers happy?

Bernard Balderston, the associate director of media at Procter & Gamble, says it all depends on whether the BBC actually delivers. He comments: "From a strategic standpoint, the proposals don't look as if they will introduce anything radically different. It will be interesting to see how, in reality, it is managed. We would argue that a better-balanced schedule would be to everyone's benefit and that means the BBC putting less emphasis on the genres that the commercial sector delivers perfectly adequately. So, if the BBC puts more focus on documentaries, the arts and drama, that will be all to the good and it would certainly give the viewer a better overall proposition, especially as Ofcom will be requiring the commercial sector to deliver less in terms of public service broadcasting in the future."

Tom George, the managing director of Mediaedge:cia, agrees it all depends on how effective the new regulatory regime turns out to be. And interestingly, he's a fan of the licence fee. He explains: "Having re-examined all of the possible funding options, we have come to the conclusion that the licence fee remains the best method of funding the BBC from an advertiser point of view." Other options, he concludes, would be far more disruptive for the totality of the broadcast economy.

Some commentators believe that ITV may see this as an opportunity to ease off, cut budgets and deliver bigger dividends to its shareholders.

Andy Jones, the joint managing director of Universal McCann, wouldn't go that far, but he agrees it's hard to predict a detailed outcome. He states: "You would have to believe that if the BBC adheres to its public service remit and takes Fame Academy and Ground Force off its schedules, then that would have to be good for the commercial sector. But not necessarily everyone in the commercial sector. It might switch from competing with ITV to competing with Channel 4."

Could ITV really see this as an opportunity for complacency? Mick Desmond, the chief executive of ITV Broadcasting, says the world has moved on - ITV knows it cannot take anything for granted. He comments: "Obviously we have a view about the manner in which the BBC has chosen in the past to compete in ratings terms but we also believe there is a balance to be struck. We'd like the BBC to be strong by excelling in genres its commercial competitors do not tend to supply in great abundance."

And, he concludes, the most important signal the BBC can send would be to agree to publish its schedules in advance of ITV's. He states: "It's in everyone's interest to find a way to avoid the sorts of schedule clashes we've seen in the past. As it is, we publish our schedule three weeks (in advance of transmission) and then the BBC maximises its schedule around ours. That is clearly the wrong way around. We would like the opportunity to steer away from clashes. If they were to give a commitment on this, it would say much about the seriousness of their intentions."

NO - Bernard Balderston, associate director of media, Procter & Gamble

"A change in emphasis at the BBC doesn't automatically mean a rise in impacts. If it were to focus more on comedy or drama, some programmes might be big winners."

MAYBE - Tom George, managing director, Mediaedge:cia

"The easiest hypothesis is that ITV could gain audience. But within CRR, share of commercial impacts remains the most important factor from an ITV point of view, so it is by no means as straightforward as you might think."

NO - Andy Jones, joint managing director, Universal McCann

"Channel 4 could be affected negatively by this because the BBC might now home in on some of the types of programming Channel 4 sees it has made its own. And it's true ITV might come under pressure (from shareholders) to cut back too."

YES - Mick Desmond, chief executive, ITV Broadcasting

"We would like to think that ITV could be a beneficiary in audience terms - but by no means the only beneficiary. We don't believe, for instance, it is in anyone's interest to have a weak BBC - no-one wants it to become an intellectual ghetto."

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