Ofcom's regulation of the BBC: what about the money?

05 Apr 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Ofcom's regulation of the BBC: what about the money?

As Ofcom becomes the new regulator of the BBC, Raymond Snoddy examines some of the problematical issues both organisations will face

A bit like the triggering of Article 50, things you absolutely knew were going to happen can still come as a surprise when they actually do.

After delays and rows over cost, Ofcom has finally become the regulator of all it surveys - including complete regulation of the BBC for the first time. Well, almost.

The BBC Trust was not as bad as it was portrayed and sensitivities over the great increase in Ofcom’s range and power remain valid.

But all that is history and now for the first time for the broadcasting industry in the UK, it’s a case of Ofcom Rules OK.

It is not possible, however, to accuse Ofcom of having imperial desires or seeking organisation self-aggrandisement.

It is an open secret that the regulator did not want to increase its regulatory role over the BBC, and saw it as a bit of a poisoned chalice.

The controversies over BBC programmes are endless and very public with complaints in the region of 10 times more than those made against commercial broadcasters.

In fact Ofcom fought a rearguard action against the responsibilities the Government sought to impose and managed to bat some of them away.

As Stewart Purvis former chief executive of ITN, former Ofcom content partner and media academic has noted, Ofcom will not be responsible for auditing and budgets of the BBC.

It will be responsible for setting quotas and targets and holding the Corporation to them with the help of the threat of heavy fines for breeches.

But Ofcom has escaped the tasks of regulating BBC online and associated social media contributions and the same applies to the external services of the BBC.

Ofcom can merely give “an opinion” on anything it does not like on BBC online while action will be the responsibility of the new unified BBC board.

That said the regulatory authority Ofcom now holds over the BBC is considerable and it has not been shy in coming forward to say what it expects even before this week’s formal assumption of power.

The headline includes: a requirement that Radio 2 would have to broadcast at least three hours of news and current affairs a week in peak time, increased quotas for first run original UK programmes on BBC One, BBC 2, CBeebies and CBBC, more arts, learning, new classical compositions AND minimum quotas for each UK nation.

In future the BBC will have to spend the same on programmes, per head, in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and ensuring that at least half of all programmes shown nationally and produced in the UK are made outside London.

In a further turn of the screw where the BBC has exceeded previously set targets the current “over-performance” will become the new norm.

There will also be additional emphasis on ensuring the BBC portrays the full diversity of the UK population.

When it learned its new fate the BBC said the new targets and quotas were “stretching but achievable” - diplomatic language for “bloody hell.”

So far, so apparently reasonable. No-one is going to go to the barricades to fight against such a manifesto, given that there has been a serious decline in arts programmes in prime time on the main channels and BBC spending on new UK commissioned programmes fell by 30 per cent in real terms between 2004 and 2015.

Naturally Ofcom did detailed audience research before producing its draft manifesto. Rather predictably the audience said they valued news, children’s programmes, and programmes made specifically for UK audiences.

The slight problem with asking people what they want from an organisation like the BBC is they tend to swear they love nothing as much as opera and Newsnight when what they actually watch Strictly Come Dancing.

There are just a few problematical issues with the Ofcom shopping list.

Rigid quotas can easily turn into a box-ticking exercise. Diverting more money to the nations on a per-head basis sounds eminently fair but what if poorer programmes are the result, programmes made to meet the quota?

More news and current affairs on Radio 2 in prime time is a fine ambition but the usual definitional problems apply - what exactly constitutes radio prime time and is Jeremy Vine current affairs. If not why not?

Half of all programmes shown nationally to be made outside London? Very good except if costs rise as a result of programmes being dragged artificially from the metropolis as Breakfast was to Salford.

Perhaps Ofcom should be dispersed around the UK nations and have half its decisions taken outside London.

The real killer here could be money. Ofcom believes its new requirements on the BBC “are achievable and affordable within existing licence fee funding.”

To the extent that they represent merely a reallocation of resources - maybe - but some sound like extra costly demands at a time when the BBC is already having to make £800 million in savings, making it relatively smaller than its opposition with every year that passes.

Never forget that the BBC has already faced a decade of declining revenues in real terms combined with increased responsibilities.

And what if the BBC meets all its new Ofcom obligations at the expense of suffering falls in viewing and listening figures?

Will the Corporation then be criticised for the consequences of what it has been instructed to do?

If it doesn’t meet its quotas and targets there will be the rather farcical prospect of paying £250,000 a time out of the licence fee income - further reducing the money available to spend on programmes.

And that’s before account is taken of the six-part drama series that has already - in effect - disappeared to pay for the extra cost of Ofcom regulation beyond that of the BBC Trust.

At least there are senior people aplenty in Ofcom who understand the BBC - from Dame Patricia Hodgson who chairs the regulator, to Kevin Bakhurst, former controller of the BBC News channel who is Ofcom’s Content Group Director.

As with the triggering of Article 50, so with Ofcom’s regulation of the BBC, the time to judge is not now but on what comes out the other end.

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