Media Forum: Is BBC-COI plan sensible?

Do Francis Maude's proposals have any mileage, Alasdair Reid asks.

And public-service broadcaster shall talk unto public-service advertiser. Or something like that. This cute little twist on the BBC's ponderous mission statement ("Nation shall speak peace unto nation") was proposed in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister in charge of making Whitehall more efficient.

Maude's modest proposal was that, in order to allow COI to continue its important public-information role without endangering the public purse, it should be allowed to run some of its campaigns free of charge on the BBC.

Maude imposed a partial freeze on government campaigns on taking office back in May but apparently now feels it's regrettable that COI is, as a consequence, somewhat constrained in the pursuit of its philanthropic mission. After all, it's terribly important to remind people that they shouldn't be smoking, drinking or eating too much.

"Instead of paying more than £200 million a year to buy ad space in the media, why shouldn't we use publicly owned channels ... to deliver public-service messages?" Maude asked conference.

It provoked a rare show of unity across the whole broadcast economy. Commercial broadcasters hate the idea because they have been relying on an upswing in COI spend to cement their recovery.

It tastes of ashes in the mouths of the BBC's Brahmin class too. As one former director-general allegedly once said, if the corporation was ever forced to take commercial messages, you might as well tear down the chiselled coat of arms on the west facade of Broadcasting House and replace it with the sordid legend: "Nation shall speak (frozen) peas unto nation."

And then where would we be? ITV's group commercial sales director, Gary Digby, agrees that, quite apart from any disruption there might be for the UK's broadcast economy, the proposal could open up broader questions about the BBC and advertising. Also, he adds: "I think you'd find more people questioning what they pay the licence fee for."

ISBA, the voice of the UK's advertisers, declined to comment - possibly because its membership is rather split on this issue. Some will undoubtedly lean towards the Digby stance; but others will feel it in their best interests to see COI money coming out of the commercial sector, thus helping to keep airtime prices, already at their lowest point in a generation, bumping along the bottom.

Meanwhile, Steve Williams, the UK chief executive of OMD Group and chairman of the IPA's Media Futures Group, says such a move would have fundamental implications for BBC independence: "Historically, the Government has only been able to influence the corporation during the period leading up to and during the renewal of the BBC Charter and the fixing of the licence fee. And would the BBC be able to take the impact of full-scale COI activity without fundamentally altering the nature and feel of its broadcasting, thus causing a public backlash? Meanwhile, this move could seriously undermine the financial viability of commercial broadcasters, even on reduced COI budgets. Does this mean there should be an economic impact assessment?"

However, Phil Georgiadis, the chief executive of Walker Media, argues that this proposal fits perfectly with the BBC's public-service remit. He says: "It's true that there are vested interests that would have to think long and hard about the possible impact on their businesses - but I'd argue that this could be managed sensibly over a reasonable period of time. As for potential BBC objections - these might arise because the BBC sees this as advertising. It should see it as public information. In fact, that's one of the acid tests - whether, from a taxpayer point of view, a particular piece of COI communication is worth doing."

That's not entirely in keeping with the way that John Davidson, the head of trading at Starcom MediaVest Group, sees things. He concludes: "Though you could argue that BBC digital switchover ads are effectively iPlayer promos, members of the public may feel that they pay the licence fee for quality content without ads. And where would this madcap proposal leave the government-owned commercial entity Channel 4? If it did become a reality, numerous commercial media regulations may need to be reviewed further - for instance, the rules on commercial airtime minutage. But it sounds like a political conference headline and a government showing it can be relied upon to look at every option."

NO - Gary Digby, group commercial sales director, ITV

"Other advertisers are not going to be happy about COI being able to have (uniquely privileged) access to one of the country's best broadcasting assets."

MAYBE - Steve Williams, chairman, IPA Media Futures Group

"The independence of the BBC is what marks it out from other state broadcasters around the world - would it risk losing this element of its heritage? And could this open the way to a commercially funded BBC?"

YES - Phil Georgiadis, chief executive, Walker Media

"I would strongly support this in the interests of the taxpayer. If the Government wants to communicate important public-interest messages, where better than the BBC? The environment would seem appropriate for public messages - and it's comparatively uncluttered."

NO - John Davidson, head of trading, SMG

"The real danger is opening up the (wider) concept of advertising on the BBC. This is the hidden danger for advertising and media content businesses because creativity and innovation could be stifled."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com

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