BBC's innovation is mired by bureaucracy

BBC innovation is mired by bureaucracy

The BBC has to enjoy the good days because there are always more problems lurking around the corner, many of their own making.


It’s been a good couple of days for the BBC. It can bask in its support for women’s football, its exclusive rights for the Euro 2022 finals in the UK, and record audiences for the England win over Germany at Wembley.

Apart from the kudos the BBC had a peak audience of 17.4 million for the victory of the Lionesses while a further 5.9 million watched online.

The glory for the BBC might rapidly start to come under strain as others start to realise the previously ignored value in the women’s game and the cost of rights will begin to soar.

Advertisers and sponsors will also start to appreciate the brand value being created in such peaceful, orderly, respectable, family-centric events with scarcely a beer belly in sight.

It will be a bit like Tory ministerial hopefuls jumping on the Liz Truss bandwagon—even though spectacular bits have started to fly off that particular vehicle.

At least the BBC has not (yet) become a political football in the Conservative leadership final—although Channel 4 has made a brief guest appearance with Rishi Sunak saying he favours privatisation while for Liz Truss, the future of Channel 4 is one of the very few issues to which she does not bring alarming certainty.

The BBC has to enjoy the good days because there are always more problems lurking around the corner, many of their own making.

A system almost designed to delay

The latest, which you could be forgiven, given the noisy mayhem all around, for overlooking, is a public consultation on modest plans to “improve and increase” the programming available on the BBC iPlayer including continuing series.

The aim would be for the BBC to put any title on BBC iPlayer, in line with existing agreements with independent producers, which would increase the number of box sets and archive material available.

This seems like a very minor issue but actually isn’t. It goes to the heart of important matters such as how much freedom organisations like the BBC have to expand and innovate in a rapidly changing and highly competitive marketplace.

The outcome will reveal the extent to which regulators are happy to encourage innovation and competition in the broader sense or by default preserve the status quo in aspic.

At the very least it is a system almost designed to delay. The BBC’s modest proposals outlined in May are now in a public consultation process which ends tomorrow (Thursday) and market research and economic analysis will also be carried out “to assess both the public value and market impact of these proposals”.

The BBC Board will then determine whether the proposals meet the Public Interest Test. If so, the conclusions and supporting evidence will go to Ofcom the communications regulator for final adjudication probably in the autumn,

As a result it will be deep into 2023 before anything happens while the real competition, the American streaming companies, can turn on a sixpence, and do virtually what they choose to do overnight.

Fine. We have a regulated system and there are rules. But wouldn’t it have been rather splendid if the BBC Board had decided that the impact of such a move would disproportionately be a benefit to licence papers—virtually all of us—and not entered such a long drawn-out, bureaucratic process.

It was after all an extension to something that has existed for years rather than a completely new departure. If the go-ahead for such an evolution was seen as such a terrible thing, rival could always appear to Ofcom.

As Patrick Barwise of the London Business School has pointed out in great detail in Chapter II and Appendix E of The War Against the BBC, co-authored with Peter York, there is little if any evidence that the BBC crowds out competition by offering better choice to consumers.

If there is any effect at all it is a short-term one and as Barwise argues, “the claim that the BBC TV materially crowds out the competition has never been supported by credible evidence”.

In fact, the advertising and marketing specialist believes there is some evidence that over the long term the BBC actually benefits other UK broadcasters by encouraging consumers to adopt new distribution and viewing technologies and by forcing its competitors to “compete on quality” in their programming.

Project Kangaroo

After all the BBC does not play in the advertising or subscription markets in the UK. If it did, rivals might have cause for complaint.

Naturally the newspaper industry hates the BBC News website because it offers licence fee payers and everyone else reliable online news for “free” but that is a different story.

It would also be bizarre if the BBC, sitting on two years of a frozen licence fee courtesy of Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and a discredited, about to become former Prime Minister, were prevented from helping themselves and increasing viewer choice as inflation rises towards 11 per cent.

There should be an unwritten rule for all broadcasting and communication regulators that once a year they say in unison at least three times the historic words: Project Kangaroo.

For the very young Project Kangaroo was the scandalous decision taken by then Competition Commission in 2009 to block a combined BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 move into online TV because of a fear that it would stifle future competition. No such competition emerged and the UK lost, at the very least, the possibility of creating a strong player in what was to become the multi-billion, international streaming market.

Nothing can be done about the current process which in off and running down the track other than by supporting the BBC plans in the public consultation by tomorrow in the interests of all the UK’s public service broadcasters in the one-sided battle with streaming giants which have few of their public obligations.

For the future, the BBC board and Ofcom might get together in the interests of common sense to raise the threshold for the applications of such public interest tests.

Extensions to existing services, unless they are truly radical, should surely be freed from the cost and delay of such performances which only serve to entertain the billionaire streaming giants of California.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays.

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