MEDIA SPOTLIGHT ON: BBC - Auntie’s policy on advertising is still a terribly fuzzy picture. How can the Beeb resolve its funding predicament? Alasdair Reid investigates

What tangled webs the BBC weaves. Last week the corporation was on classically schizophrenic form - and, as always, the problem was that poisonous stuff, advertising.

What tangled webs the BBC weaves. Last week the corporation was on

classically schizophrenic form - and, as always, the problem was that

poisonous stuff, advertising.



This is an incredibly sensitive issue at present. The BBC wants more

money to spend on launching lots of new channels and, because the BBC

hierarchy insists that the corporation is unique in broadcasting in that

its public service ethos would be completely destroyed by advertising,

it wants the cash in the form of an increased licence fee. BBC

lobbyists, remember, fought ferociously (and probably successfully) to

keep advertising off the Davies Committee agenda.



The trouble is that there’s another BBC that loves advertising. Can’t

get enough of it. Sees it as absolutely central to its future. A

paradox?



Certainly - and one that’s never more apparent than when the BBC is

setting out its stall in a new sector like the internet.



So, while the European Commission in Brussels was preparing to add its

own contribution to the digital licence fee debate - a digital surcharge

on the licence fee will almost certainly contravene rules on state

subsidies - it was probably not all that surprising last week to find

the BBC attempting to clarify its position as a public service

e-corporation.



Stung by criticism in the Davies report that it has been guilty of using

materials sourced from its licence-fee-funded activities to derive

commercial profit, the BBC announced that there is now to be a clear

distinction between public service internet sites and commercial

internet sites such as its most popular one, beeb.com. Which is, of

course, funded by advertising, as are lots of things run by the bit of

the BBC that loves advertising - BBC Worldwide. Consider, for instance,

the consumer magazines such as Gardeners’ World and Top Gear, which

derive much of their material from (and owe their success to)

programming funded by the licence fee.



So obviously, the BBC’s consumer magazines will also have to stop taking

advertising forthwith. Won’t they? Unsurprisingly, the BBC reckons

not.



Advertising, apparently, is poisonous only when it appears in a

moving-picture format. A BBC spokeswoman comments: ’The principle is

that the BBC can’t have ads on screen in the domestic market associated

with the BBC brand - which obviously cuts out TV and the internet.’



Except, of course, for UK TV, the BBC’s UK commercial television venture

with Flextech. But then this isn’t an argument, it’s a tradition. The

spokeswoman continues: ’When the BBC came into being in the 1920s it

couldn’t get its listings published because publishers regarded it as a

competitor, so it had to launch the Radio Times. No-one objected when

the Radio Times took ads to reduce costs. Therefore print advertising

has always been part of the BBC’s commercial business.’



But will rival publishers now draw attention to the inconsistencies

inherent in BBC thinking? Duncan Edwards, the deputy managing director

of the National Magazine Company, insists that this issue is far bigger

than the publishing industry alone. He states: ’The BBC exploits public

service properties commercially in everything from the internet to

exhibitions. It would need a cross-media group to address it

properly.’



Can the newly clarified BBC policy be turned to the advantage of those

lobbying the Government in the aftermath of the Davies report?

Perhaps.



Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising affairs at the

Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, doesn’t think it’s the

magazine side of the BBC that needs to re-examine its policy. Quite the

reverse. He comments: ’Obviously we have always approved of mixed

economy funding such as exists with the BBC’s magazines - paid for by

the people who want to read them through cover price and through

advertisers wanting to reach those readers.’



He adds: ’I don’t think anyone is surprised at the lengths to which the

BBC will go in attempting to protect an argument it has convinced itself

of, but which doesn’t bear any genuine scrutiny.’



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