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Top-slicing the Beeb: Clueless execs get busy

Smelling the Ovaltine, swirling down the drain

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Some quangos, like jellyfish, seem to be able to reproduce asexually. It's what they live to do. What this means is that without any contact, parthenogenesis occurs and they simply spawn off a little version of themselves, which may grow as large as its parent. Britain's uber-regulator Ofcom, I learned this week, definitely falls into this class. I just hadn't realised how badly it longs to plop out lots of baby Ofcoms.

Ofcom recently proposed that the BBC should share the licence fee with commercial rivals. But with one exception, none of the commercial rivals actually want this to happen - which leaves Ofcom keenest of all on the idea.

At the Westminster Media Forum debate on Wednesday, executives from the top of British TV management discussed the regulator's review into Public Service Broadcasting, in which "top-slicing" the licence fee is The Big Idea. As we discussed here, Ofcom gets itself into terrible difficulties trying to define the subject. It can't decide what "Broadcasting" is in the Noo-Media era, nor what "Public Service" is, either. This culminates in some very strange conclusions, such as lauding Symantec's Anti-Virus help page as a very modern example of Public Service Broadcasting.

Amongst other things I also learned is how this purportedly "blue sky consultation" contrives to leave most of the interesting options out of the debate. Which isn't surprising when you see how few people there are at top of the public service TV business - they all simply swap jobs every few years - and how almost all of the Professorial "independent experts" are really just part of the furniture. Shafts of insight were as rare as rude words in church. But more of that in a moment. As for top-slicing, where do they stand?

Take your positions

Naturally the BBC regards Ofcom's review as an attack, or "pickpocketing". In a speech on Tuesday, BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons said the licence fee is "not a back pocket for government or regulators or anyone else for that matter. It is not a spare pot of cash, a contingency fund, to be raided every time there is a cause, however worthy, with a hole in its balance sheet and a media flag attached."

In other words, it's the Ark of the Covenant, and the BBC alone is trusted with the sacred duty to spend it. That's not so surprising - what is rather startling is that neither ITV nor Five want a slice of your money.

"We're not asking for money, we're asking for freedom," said ITV's director of strategy Carolyn Fairbairn. She agreed that the old model no longer worked, and that a multi-channel world meant only a fraction of revenue - around ten per cent - was being invested in programming by the newer channels. Magnus Brooke, ITV's directory of regulatory affairs, added that ITV would be tied by bureaucracy and compromised by public money.

Five echoed this theme, with its regulation exec Martin Stott chastising "an experiment in intervention that may or may not succeed". He also criticised the lack of accountability of a licence fee diffused between commercial broadcasters, and thought that by the time the cost of the additional bureaucrats had been totted up there wouldn't be a great deal of extra money for programmes. So you might as well give the money to the BBC.

BSkyB, which receives no public subsidy and has no public service broadcasting obligations, also thought it was a daft idea. There wasn't really a problem with a dearth of material, what with shows like Ross Kemp in Afghanistan, said Sky's director of corporate affairs Graham McWilliam. Sky's subscription highbrow arts channel was a good example of the market meeting the demand, he added. None of Ofcom's four proposed options involved less regulation, McWilliam pointed out - they all involved more. Jellyfish syndrome, again.

Naturally Channel 4's chief executive Andy Duncan disagreed. Duncan's main problem was not looking too chuffed at the suggestion of top-slicing, since Channel 4 is the biggest beneficiary.

His argument was primarily economic - the TV advertising market is shrinking, and C4 is great value, since it doesn't have to pay a dividend to shareholders. (ITV also points out the looming crisis in ad spend, but would prefer to have the public service obligations lifted so it can compete with Sky, rather than get a cash hand-out.)

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