It's not been a good week at the BBC. The Corporation is squirming
over reports that Gavyn Davies - who stands accused of being a Labour
crony - is to take over from Christopher Bland as chairman; the
director-general, Greg Dyke, felt it necessary to apologise publicly for
the treatment of a former US ambassador on Question Time; and the BBC's
digital plans have got commercial backs up.
On the first two counts, attacks on the BBC have been somewhat
Davies is a sound choice for chairman - he's been a sterling deputy to
Bland, led the review that won the BBC an increased licence fee to fund
the new digital services and, as the chief economist of Goldman Sachs,
has a sound business background. And the Question Time audience raised
legitimate debate about America's aggressive foreign policy but it was
arguably too soon after the terrorist attack for such an openly hostile
stance towards the US to be aired palatably.
But when it comes to the BBC's new digital strategy, Auntie stands
guilty as accused. Last Thursday, the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell,
granted the BBC three new digital TV channels and five digital radio
Plans for BBC3 - a TV channel targeting 16- to 34-year-olds - were
kicked out because they were deemed to duplicate what is already being
offered in the commercial sector.
Fine, but it seems a little cock-eyed to concede this point when BBC1
and BBC News 24 have been getting away with exactly the same thing for
quite some time now. And the digital proposals that have been given the
green light will only serve to exacerbate the problem.
The BBC is planning two new services for children, both of which overlap
with existing commercial offerings. The first will target six- to
13-year-olds, the second the under-sixes - sectors already well served
by the likes of the Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel and Fox. In the
BBC's defence, though, there is room in the children's TV market for
more homegrown kids programming that doesn't rely on wall-to-wall
The third digital TV channel is positioned as a sort of TV version of
Radios 3 and 4. In principle this sounds like a real attempt to broaden
the TV landscape. But with an operating budget apparently only a third
that of the radio services, can the new digital channel really be
anything other than a tokenistic ghetto for the arts?
To a greater or lesser extent, all the new TV channels will replicate
commercial offerings. But they will also free up BBC1 to be an even
greater threat to mainstream commercial channels. The Government has
promised a review of all the BBC's digital services in 2004 but the need
for BBC activities to be brought under the remit of a new Ofcom
regulator is imperative.
If that does not happen soon, the BBC could find itself responsible for
sending some commercial rivals to the wall.