FORUM: Is commercial radio right to moan about the BBC? - Is BBC Radio enjoying an unfair advantage over its commercial rivals by using BBC TV airtime to promote its wares? Should the advertising industry be concerned about this uneven playing field and w

BBC Radio’s 75th anniversary celebrations have been an opportunity for the broadcaster to remind a grateful nation of the successful part it has played in all our lives over the past three-quarters of a century.

BBC Radio’s 75th anniversary celebrations have been an opportunity

for the broadcaster to remind a grateful nation of the successful part

it has played in all our lives over the past three-quarters of a


And surely only the churlish could object to that.

There have been a range of special programmes, endorsements from some of

its celebrity listeners and so on. However, BBC Radio’s self-promotion

has not stopped with this aural equivalent of the carriage clock

traditionally presented for longevity of service. In fact, it has hardly

even begun there. Capital Radio has estimated that the BBC spent the

equivalent of pounds 2 million of airtime on advertising its radio

networks on BBC Television in one three-month period (Campaign, last

week). And that figure doesn’t include the ubiquitous ’Perfect Day’

corporate ad that is promoting the range of music on offer across BBC

Television and Radio. It’s all starting to raise commercial radio’s

hackles. And perhaps it’s not that hard to see why.

To take one small example: Capital Radio plays its station output to

callers placed on hold. While I waited to be connected to the managing

director of Capital Radio London, Martina King, poised as she was to

fulminate against the iniquities of BBC Radio and the unfair cross

marketing advantages it enjoys, her station was playing Perfect Day.

King herself is simply concerned that BBC Radio should be subjected to

the same strictures as any other radio station.’BBC Radio has made some

beautiful commercials. They aren’t promotions, they are commercials -

and the only way they differ from what agencies would produce for

commercial clients is that they tend to be a bit longer. BBC Radio,

after all, doesn’t have to worry about the media cost.

’What we are asking is that the same restrictions are placed on BBC

Radio as are now enforced on BBC Magazines, and that they shouldn’t be

allowed moving commercials. The BBC is either a commercial organisation

or it isn’t, and currently it isn’t. We have nothing against the BBC

advertising on commercial TV, but there’s no reason it should be

permitted to enjoy any unequal advantages.’

These sentiments are echoed in large parts of the commercial

broadcasting industry, as Tom Toumazis, managing director of Emap On

Air, explains.

’The BBC is a publicly funded, public-service broadcaster. But it wants

to be an international, multi-media commercial conglomerate. It says, to

remain the former, it must become the latter.

’Imagine a commercial media group with a 40 per cent share of TV, 50 per

cent of radio and the unique right to use free TV to promote


Imagine this group also has more than pounds 2 billion of free cash-flow

every year to exploit multi-channel TV, the Internet and so on. Finally

imagine it is not accountable to shareholders. Scary? Absolutely. The

’Perfect Day’ ad is just this week’s example of how the BBC competes

unfairly and distorts media markets. It seems incredible that while the

Monopolies and Mergers Commission spends months on the Capital/Virgin

radio merger, the immense impact of the BBC goes unexamined. The BBC’s

commercialisation is an unfinished piece of business that only

government can settle. Media companies should express collective concern

with a single voice.’

For BBC Radio’s marketing director, Sue Farr, the issue is rather more

complicated. ’I’m not known for sporting metaphors but Dominic Mills’s

call (Campaign, last week) for a level playing field is as inappropriate

as confusing a swimming pool with a tennis court. The BBC is a

public-service broadcaster. Our listeners and many non-listeners have

already paid for the radio services through the licence fee. It is our

duty to tell them what they have paid for. The Charter requires that the

BBC should tell viewers and listeners what types of programmes they can

expect to find on each of its radio and television services.

’Research shows us that a surprisingly high proportion of listeners and

viewers are uncertain about what our radio networks provide. Information

trails on BBC television are one effective way of telling them and

further research shows that they are actually welcomed by the audience.

The time allocated for such trails is highly regulated. What about the

’contra’ deals on airtime and advertising that are traded in the

commercial world? I note it here to underline the different rules.

Neither is unfair, we are playing different games.’

Derek Morris, a managing partner at Unity, isn’t wholly convinced by

this argument. ’It’s not unreasonable to expect the BBC stations to want

to build up their brands. But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable or that

all the stations are competing with each other on a level playing field.

The cards, after all, remain resolutely stacked in the BBC’s favour - to

be the only commercial advertiser on BBC television is a huge advantage

and not one that should lightly be discounted. BBC Radio already enjoys

a colossal advantage by having had the first five picks at the available

frequencies, while poor old commercial radio is shunted off to

unattractive frequencies at the end of the dial.’

David Fletcher, a director at CIA Medianetwork, is less sure of

commercial radio’s right to claim the moral high ground in this dispute.

’It is important for the future of commercial radio that the media owner

should possess several strong and different brands and then exploit them

by making sure they dovetail to best effect. That would mean

cross-promoting them, scheduling their different stations in

complementary fashion and so on. Given that this is the state that

commercial radio wants to get to, it’s a bit rich for it to get on its

high horse about the BBC doing exactly the same thing, albeit on a

grander scale.

All right, so it’s not a level playing field, but then it never has

been. The BBC has had to sit back and watch commercial radio take half

of its audience without being able to do that much about it, because of

its restrictions, so you can’t really blame it for going overboard on

its cross-promotional activity.’

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