| In praise of
a mixed broadcasting sector (and of the (BBC) licence fee).
As we have been drawing up our weekly recommendations of radio programmes
that we firstly felt worth listening to and secondly were available
for people in different places and time zones we have become increasingly
appreciative of public service broadcasters, funded in the main
by licence fees although some also take advertisements.
In particular we have found the resources offered to the world by
the BBC so valuable that we thought it fair to skew this comment
greatly towards the Corporation's output and values.
We've become increasingly aware through our news reports of the
degree to which many commercial broadcasters will go to play down
the benefits of such broadcasters, frequently to degrees that if
not actually dishonest are certainly misleading and even more frequently
without in any way declaring a vested financial interest in weakening
Sometimes the attacks are blunt - an attack on the concept of a
licence fee, for example, and we feel experience of the BBC and
other broadcasters shows the value of this - and sometimes they
are more indirect - a call, for example, to keep public broadcasters
out of areas where the commercial broadcasters have their main audiences:
For TV this is often in the area of soaps and game shows whilst
for radio - where commercial radio has tended to concentrate on
a narrow range of music, talk, news, and sport - they often attack
on pop music channels, which the commercial broadcasters claim are
unnecessarily broadcast by public stations since they meet the demand
In all cases that we've seen there hasn't been a single disinterested
comment; the arguments are all ones for changes that remove or reduce
competition and, although they may be claim to be arguing in the
public interest we can't accept that the public interest is identical
to that of commerce.
We predicate our main argument here on a comparison between the
UK where there is a strong licence-funded broadcaster, the BBC,
with the US, where public broadcasting is comparatively weak and
would suggest that in the long-term the benefits of the British
system outweigh its disadvantages.
The benefits from commercial
radio for the public broadcasters.
Before developing our argument, we would accept
that benefit has accrued to the BBC from the presence of a
commercial sector and suggest that the main benefit is that
its competition has sharpened up the public broadcasters and
made it more responsive to its audience: we would contend
that the in the reverse direction the existence of public
service broadcasting also sharpens up its commercial competition.
Unfortunately, that's about it. We don't accept the argument
that commercial broadcasting is "free": it isn't!
The supposed free lunch is bought at the price of the commercials,
of themselves there to increase spending not just to divert
it from one brand to another and, more importantly, in terms
of the emphasis of the programming to maximize profit rather
than provide a diversity of services, and also in terms of
a mentality that in our view can frequently neglect many elements
of life that can reasonably be considered as important as
consumption of goods or services.
We would also content that in the same way that there is an
undeniable argument in principle against the idea of compulsion
through requiring a licence for reception equipment there
is similarly an argument in principle concerning the changes
to society, from which nobody can escape, if commercial values
and pressures are allowed unbridled sway.
The real questions to be asked therefore are whether on balance
the public would be better served without publicly funded
broadcasters and if not - as we strongly contend - whether
other options are preferable to the licence fee.
The value of a
diversity of services.
One of the real benefits in our view from a dual system is
the diversity of services it brings. In terms of genuine choice
we would argue that the mixed system provides significantly
greater diversity if properly structured than either a public-only
or private-only system.
Looking at the situation in terms of radio in the UK compared
to the US, where commercial dominates and public radio is
becoming more and more primarily a news-talk medium, we think
the balance here is clearly in favour of the UK.
True in the average English city you don't have the same number
of themed music stations as in the US although as digital
radio has expanded so has this particular aspect of choice.
But on the other hand a quick dip into BBC radio schedules
any day will show a vast range of programming that just has
no real equivalent in the US and that were it to be allowed
to die would never be created by the commercial sector.
Just consider the range of drama, story readings, radio comedy,
long documentaries, current affairs, news, sort and talk on
British radio with the choice listed in the US including both
commercial and public stations.
And what of other areas? When US broadcasting began there
was an emphasis on localism but as consolidation has put more
and more of US media into fewer hands this has decreased and
stations have become increasingly subject to the rule of corporate
Interestingly enough in the UK where the BBC was set up as
a national broadcaster but its commercial competitors following
the US example were set up on a local basis the trend has
been for the commercial sector to become less local under
the consolidation that has taken place so far whilst the BBC
has, in reaction to the commercial sector, added local services.
Also interesting is the fact that in the UK radio listening
- and listeners to a degree get a free ride since there is
now no separate radio licence so all the funding comes from
the TV income - has been increasing whereas that in the US
The reason for this in our opinion is a combination of a greater
real choice, lower advertising load for the commercial sector,
and the beneficial - for the audience anyway - effects of
an environment where each sector is fairly strong and evenly
matched and the regulatory regime prohibits format changes
without a process to justify this.
The relation between services,
funding and regulation.
In our view the combination of real competition, licence-fee funding
that guarantees the strength of the BBC, and a commercial sector
where the license issued is to be a particular kind of broadcaster
and not just a commodity that can be sold at the maximum price
has combined to deliver a particularly rich service to the UK.
Significantly changing any of these elements could equally badly
affect the balance and the whole environment.
Certainly the licence fee could be replaced by funding out of
general taxation but human beings being what they are and politicians
what they are this, in our view, is a certain recipe for both
more interference and lower funding as politicians find other
projects to which funds could be put.
Even worse we feel is to partly fund by advertising,
thus diluting the emphasis on public service and skewing priorities
towards commercial activities, something that dominates most other
areas of life. Nor do we think the US system of a comparatively
meagre public subsidy combined with "underwriting" gives
public broadcasting the same strength.
We conclude that for the BBC the combination of licence funding
and a public service remit that is regularly reexamined gives
it a strength that it would not be possible to match under other
Among the wider implications of this is that profits may not be
as high in the commercial sector as they would have been without
strong public competition but we feel the public benefits from
the British environment in which the commercial sector, facing
the combination of strong competition and a radio licence system
that means they operate on the basis of particular format promises
given to win the licence.
Add in a policy of automatic renewal of profitable analogue licences
where a service is being provided on a local digital multiplex
[where there is not a renewal is subject to competitive pressures
should another organization wish to propose an alternative service]
and there has been a pressure for innovation that in our view
has been to the benefit of all.
We just don't think a sound argument can be made that the balance
would be better for the audience under an American-style system:
In fact, although it would cost shareholders in current radio
companies a significant one-time hit in values we think the US
audience would benefit were licence renewals there not automatic
but subject to competition at least every decade from newcomers.
The main conclusion we come to, however, is that the world, not
just Britain, has such a cultural asset in public service broadcasting
and particularly the BBC that commercial attempts to weaken the
sector should be fought tooth and nail: In the end it would be
a much poorer world that did not have them than commercial broadcasting
rather than vice versa.
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