Complain about the BBC with ads all you like - the real threat lies elsewhere

Snoddy: Complain about the BBC with ads all you like – the real threat lies elsewhere

Broadcasters should focus much more on co-operation rather than on squabbling and forcing the Culture Secretary to have to adjudicate.

There is little wrong in theory about BBC plans to include advertising around their podcasts when carried on third-party platforms such as Spotify and Apple.

Podcasts are one of the fastest growing new sectors of the media and the BBC is always strapped for cash so why not earn a little more as long as the advertising does not appear on the BBC’s own “domestic” platforms?

It would seem crazy to ignore such a nice, new gift-horse.

The Corporation even harbours hopes, which sound a bit like sacrilege, of introducing advertising on some of its most iconic radio programmes such as Desert Island Discs, The Archers and In Our Time when carried on other platforms.

Of course, the commercial broadcasters will moan like hell about BBC encroachment, and 20 of them have indeed combined to make a formal complaint to Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer asking her to take urgent action.

They would say that, wouldn’t they?

Everyone from Channel 4, ITV, Sky and the Radiocentre, the body that represents commercial radio, to newspaper publishers such as the Guardian Media Group, News UK and DMG Media, have all taken part in the complaint.

Their argument is the old familiar one that the BBC has as much as £5.7bn in annual income, much of it guaranteed by compulsory licence fee, and that therefore should not be always trying to expand its position in the market, and in effect interfere unfairly with market forces.

The media groups say that such a BBC move would “fundamentally undermine” the current model where the Corporation is funded by the licence fee and its content is provided free of advertising across almost all platforms.

Dipping into the advertising revenues that are just starting to flow from the nascent podcasting market would damage its development, the protesters claim.

Such moves, the media groups argue, could have a significant impact “on fair and effective competition in the UK podcast market” while adding little to BBC budgets.

Ad-funded BBC ‘can lead to market failure’

They would say that wouldn’t they, and the BBC could certainly tough it out and hope that they can persuade Frazer, who might not be around much longer than the autumn to back the BBC, or make sure the issue is bogged down for months in communications regulator Ofcom.

As with many much bigger issues, including the future funding and ultimate purpose of the BBC, the Corporaton can reasonably expect a more sympathetic hearing from a new Labour government.

It will be that government that will be responsible for setting out the terms and awarding the Corporation a new Royal Charter.

So the BBC could act tough and play for time over advertising on podcasts until after the election — but it would be very unwise to do so.

The BBC has the enormous privilege of a licence fee that all viewers in the UK have to pay and it is unseemly, and surely counter-productive to be always asking for more like a modern-day Oliver Twist.

The traditional separation of methods of funding between licence fee, advertising and subscription may not be as pure as it once was, but there is still some merit in having some separation of financial powers between the various methods of funding.

Much bigger commercial rivals carry a greater threat

In the past you could argue that BBC channels should not carry advertising in the UK but could do so “abroad.”

Such a distinction has little meaning anymore, and viewers and listeners watching BBC content on universal online Spotify and Apple services in their homes in the UK complete with ads — unless blocked from doing so — might not understand the reason why there are no ads on the same programmes on BBC Sounds.

It would amount to a dangerous blurring of the edges of the argument against advertising on mainstream BBC which might well be misunderstood by ill-informed politicians.

For the BBC stirring up a bitter argument over ads on podcasts and ads around The Archers seems out of all proportion to any advantage to be gained.

The contest for national broadcasters and newspaper groups should be with the real “enemy,” the billionaires of California who would eat even more of their supper given half a chance.

‘Huge consequences’: Industry dissects prospect of ad-funded BBC

Public service broadcasters, and the BBC has a special responsibility here because of its unique funding, should be focussing much more on co-operation rather than on squabbling and forcing the Culture Secretary to have to adjudicate.

There are so many pressing battles to fight that the BBC would in this case be wise to consider its position carefully and realise that it would be wise to drop its plans for podcast advertising and ads on Desert Island Discs and concentrate on more important matters.

There would not even be much loss of face because the official BBC line is that any such proposals “are subject to an ongoing regulatory assessment and nothing has been confirmed.”

The Corporation, rather disingenuously, says it will “continue to engage with the industry as we shape our plans.”
It can confidently be stated that “the industry” has made its position perfectly clear and may not be much interested in further engagement.

What Keir Starmer should do

Meanwhile as Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer remains rather busy, at least for now, very little that is specific is coming out of Labour on what a Labour Government would do about media and regulation.

They believe in the creative industries as you would expect, but it’s getting nearly time to put more flesh on the bones.

We can assume that a Labour Government led by Keir Starmer would not try to privatise Channel 4 — not even the Conservative Government was daft enough to do that in the end.

Finally in March Frazer announced herlong-promised panel of experts, including the likes of Sir Peter Bazalgette, Dame Frances Cairncross and banker Lorna Tilbian, to advise on the future of the BBC.

They will meet at least six times during the course of this year — a progress that will almost certainly be interrupted by the general election.

Labour should set up its own advisory committee on the future of the BBC — if it has not done so already.

It is the one big media issue that a Labour Government has to get right — once distractions of ads on The Archers has fallen by the wayside.

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 — read his column here.

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