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Nick Manning: Four cheers for the BBC

10 Jul 2019  |  Nick Manning 
Nick Manning: Four cheers for the BBC

Nick Manning has plied his trade in advertising, yet he remains convinced that the BBC plays a key role in maintaining a healthy commercial television market

It’s that time of the year again. The BBC has just published its pay grades for presenters, and the usual suspects are queuing up to kick the Corporation for its profligacy, fuelled by the BBC’s decision not to fund licence fees for the over-75s. The letters page of The Telegraph seethes with fury.

It’s an opportunity for the blindly opinionated to vent their spleen at an organisation that is supposedly dominated by its perceived left-liberal bias. One such journalist (James Delingpole of The Spectator) is on a self-imposed BBC detox, avoiding the BBC and feeling better for it.

So no Glastonbury, Wimbledon, Killing Eve or the BBC Weather app for James.

A more objective and better-informed appraisal suggests that the BBC is doing a great job under difficult circumstances, given the state of the TV industry and the fight for talent. And while I have plied my trade in TV advertising for nearly 40 years, I remain convinced that the BBC plays a key role in maintaining a healthy commercial TV market.

Let’s look at the facts. The BBC licence fee costs £154.50p a year, so £3 per week for each licence.

By any measure the BBC is extraordinary value for money, especially compared to the subscription costs of pay-TV."

This funds a wealth of TV (live and on-demand) and radio channels, including BBC Sounds, including a network of local stations which still play a role in community life and a vast array of web content. These are all available globally, and the BBC World Service still provides a beacon for millions around the world.

By any measure this is extraordinary value for money, especially compared to the subscription costs of pay-TV. My Sky bill is, er, sky-high by comparison, and I watch a lot less Sky.

And let us not forget that the BBC’s revenues are in decline, putting pressure on budgets and quality.

That quality remains high. Ask any American who lives here. The BBC funds and/or broadcasts original content that breaks new ground. Think ‘Fleabag’, ‘The Bodyguard’ and any early Armando Ianucci content (including the original Alan Partridge output).

The BBC still does sport better than anyone. The extraordinary success of the Women’s World Cup (the biggest live TV audience of the year so far for the England vs US semi-final) has helped propel the female game to unknown heights, and has made stars of players.

Who can do Wimbledon coverage better than the BBC? Amazon?

And my reaction to the salary detail is to marvel at what the BBC is able to do at the cost. People forget that genuine talent is rare, and the market for it has never been more competitive.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the ‘Top Gear’ example, with Amazon surely over-paying.

And while Graham Norton isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, who else could get the best out of Hollywood A-listers and anchor the Eurovision Song Contest in inimitable fashion?

Talent costs and it can, and does, go elsewhere. The BBC pays well, but not excessively, and has made some good progress in equalising pay and promoting female presenters. Laura Kuenssberg and Katya Adler are worth £3 a week on their own.

The strength of the BBC puts pressure on the commercial sector, but it means that the total TV system remains a global example of great programming"

It is commonplace to compare the BBC’s salaries with the Prime Minister’s, on the basis that they are all public servants. A specious argument given the mismatch between the PM’s salary and the ridiculous responsibility attached to it. It’s not a sensible benchmark.

So why, as a passionate advocate of TV advertising, am I such a big fan of the BBC and against it carrying advertising?

I’ve long believed that the BBC provides a standard that the commercial sector has to emulate, both in audience size and quality of output. The competition for Saturday and Sunday night prime viewing is still a battle-ground for great content and the one-eyed commentators who argue that the BBC shouldn’t make ‘Strictly’ because it’s not the Corporation’s job to entertain would be rightly vilified by the viewing public.

Yes, the strength of the BBC puts pressure on the commercial sector by dividing the audience and raising ad prices, but it means that the total TV system remains a global example of great programming on ITV, Channel Four and the other commercial stations, with benefits for advertisers.

The BBC may not be perfect (how could it be?) but it’s a vital British institution that underpins so much of British culture.

James Delingpole’s BBC detox may make him feel better, but look what he’s missing.

Nick Manning is the co-founder of Manning Gottlieb OMD and was CSO at Ebiquity for over a decade. He now owns a mentoring business, Encyclomedia, offering strategic advice to companies in the media and advertising industry. He writes for Mediatel each month.

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PatrickBarwise, Emeritus Professor, London Business School on 10 Jul 2019
“I agree with Nick and Nick. Two questions for those who apparently think free licences for all over-75s should be funded by cutting all BBC pay above the PM's £150,000/year. First, Given that the total amount this would save is only 2.7% of the cost of free licences (£20m/£745m), which services would you cut to pay for the other 97.3%? Secondly, if the BBC is overpaying its people, how come the National Audit Office has just published a report saying it's paying less than market rates? Is the NAO wrong?”
NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 10 Jul 2019
“Hear hear! You're absolutely right that the BBC drags the rest of the UK's media landscape up, in terms of quality of programming, diversity of content, and also in the robustness of online offerings. This latter point is worth noting - a quick comparison of TV channels' online platforms in the UK with those in North American markets (for example) demonstrates just how much the BBC's investment in content and platforms lays the groundwork for other UK broadcasters' output.
As for the wage bill, it's never outlined precisely what the alternative should be. In a competitive marketplace, should the BBC be merely a feeder channel for talent, with not a single recognisable household name?
Scrutiny of the BBC's business and spending is good; but as you highlight, much criticism about it comes down to one-eyed vitriol about its bias/ overspending/ liberal content.”