MEDIA SPOTLIGHT ON: THE BBC’S COMMERCIALISM - Murdoch turns up the heat in debate over BBC’s monopoly. Will ad agencies support John Birt or will they back Sky? Alasdair Reid reports

In the normal course of events, being attacked by Rupert Murdoch can only be seen as good news. Not only is it confirmation that you’re doing something right, but it means you can now count on the support, sympathy and friendship of what Des Lynam might refer to as ’the neutral supporter’.

In the normal course of events, being attacked by Rupert Murdoch

can only be seen as good news. Not only is it confirmation that you’re

doing something right, but it means you can now count on the support,

sympathy and friendship of what Des Lynam might refer to as ’the neutral

supporter’.



On the other hand, when you happen to be John Birt, the BBC

director-general, that’s not so easy to assume. For a host of reasons,

Birt isn’t the most popular man in British broadcasting; nor is the BBC

flavour of the month. Its unashamed enthusiasm for tacky National

Lottery activities recently earned it the censure of a Parliamentary

committee.



Unfortunately, Birt started it. At a TV conference held in Birmingham

last week, he made a plea for the enshrinement of universally available

public service broadcasting. A broadcast economy dominated by

subscription would, he said, create an underclass unable to afford

access to the information age.



Murdoch responded by kicking a couple of metaphorical lumps out of Birt.

He attacked the BBC’s commercialism, notably the licence fee-subsidised

news channel that will make life difficult for Sky News. He accused the

BBC of elitism and being Britain’s biggest media monopolist.



Takes one to know one, you might think. But Murdoch was, of course,

arguing that his media empire is relatively small potatoes in the broad

scale of things. He added: ’The BBC is far and away the biggest media

owner in the UK. With the combination of its pounds 2 billion annual

guaranteed income from a compulsory poll tax and vast commercial

freedom, there is absolutely no chance of it being driven out of

business.’



The advertising industry has little to choose between the two sides of

this argument as neither rely heavily on advertising revenues.



But the speeches were made at a conference on European media issues and

there were one or two Brussels bureaucrats in the audience.



Since listening to Murdoch’s speech, they’ve decided it might be time to

look at the BBC on competition grounds, starting, of course, with its

news channel.



At some point, they’ll seek views from interested parties in the ad

industry.



Should Murdoch’s views receive wholehearted support?



Only if you want the BBC completely destabilised, say some, and agencies

have always found that a scary prospect. ’The ad industry view of the

BBC is almost entirely coloured by airtime inflation,’ Jerry Buhlmann,

the managing director of BBJ Media Services, points out. ’That’s down to

the fact that the BBC’s share of viewing has not been eroded at all in

recent years. That is hardly the BBC’s fault. The issue has to be

integrated into a wider consideration of the economics of the whole

broadcasting industry. Murdoch has his own motivations and all’s fair in

business.



But it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right.’



Quite. Murdoch had to come out fighting after all the negative publicity

he’s had. Trouble is, it’s even scarier to believe that Birt is

right.



Another way of interpreting what he was saying is that in the

subscription-TV version of the future, people will be watching less

TV.



As one agency commentator puts it: ’That would make the current

squabbles about inflation look like a tea party.’ Agencies don’t tend to

have that assumption built into their long-term projections and many

have a model of the future in which more choice leads to more viewing.

The best thing about this sort of debate is that it might distract

attention from ITV’s run-ins with advertisers. Russell Boyman, managing

partner of Mediapolis, says: ’I don’t want to seem complacent but

innovations in TV happen a lot later and have a far smaller impact than

people expect.’



Become a member of Campaign from just £46 a quarter

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.co.uk plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

Partner content

Share

1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).