Media Perspective: Public service must come first if the BBC hikesits licence fee

Few things are as dull as sitting through interminably long speeches at weddings. I was reminded of this at a mate's nuptials on Saturday, when almost everyone in the room decided to stand up and have a go (the longest effort running to 31 minutes).

However, the BBC's press conferences come pretty close to father-of-the-bride speeches in the tedium stakes.

This week's on licence fee proposals, which Radio Five Live in its wisdom decided to broadcast live, wasn't much different.

It took the director-general, Mark Thompson, and friends a long time to say that the BBC, despite making cost savings of close to £4 billion by shedding around 4,000 jobs, still has a funding gap of £1.6 billion and wants the licence fee raised to £150 by 2013 (or £180 in real terms).

It needs the money to deliver its vision for a digital future, endorsed by the Government's Green Paper earlier this year.

Part of this increase - inflation plus 2.3 per cent - is needed to fund the costs of DigitalUK, previously known as SwitchCo. The BBC is possibly the right body to organise this painful process, given its success with Freeview and the free airtime it can contribute to informing viewers about the switchover.

However, much of the licence fee increase is intended to pay for improvements to BBC services, which could have mixed consequences for the corporation's commercial rivals. On the one hand, Thompson outlined plans to channel more resource into improving regional programming and other public-service broadcasting commitments, music to the ears of commercial broadcasters looking to ditch some of their regional commitments.

On the other, it emerged that there will be more investment in digital services. This has aggrieved opponents of the BBC on the occasions when the corporation has launched digital channels; BBC3 is a good example, aimed squarely at valuable, tightly defined commercial audiences while failing to set the world alight in audience terms. Yet, thankfully, most of the new investment seems to be in public-service moves, such as opening up the BBC archive, rather than launching yet more digital radio and TV channels.

However, there is a feeling that while Thompson has moved in the right direction by making radical cuts, he has not gone far enough. Does the taxpayer really need to be forking out an extra £1.6 billion when a channel such as BBC3, which seems to offer little public-service value, is supported with a £97 million budget?

In contrast, it will be interesting to see the impact Channel 4's More 4 launch will have, given its much tighter programming budget of £33 million.

I reckon it will be a success and, if so, will provide a further lesson to the BBC on how to deliver more for less.

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