Will Digital Content Sharing Be The Price BBC Pays For Charter Renewal?

Commercial broadcaster and newspaper groups have long accused the BBC of overstepping the mark. With a guaranteed source of public income the corporation, in their collective opinion, has acted against the interests of competitors who have to fund their channels,stations and newspapers through advertising rather than the public purse. 

So, it's very interesting today to see how John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, is effectively allowing them to have their day in court, or more accurately, their year of advising the government before a white paper is produced on the future of the BBC. If you take a look at who's been asked to advise, it's a veritable who's who of those who've spoken out about the licence fee and the BBC having too much power and reach at the expense of commercial organisations. 

The first name that leapt out at me was Ashley Highfield the Chief Executive of local news group, Johnston Press, He's very highly regarded in both the tech and media camps, as the former head of new media at the BBC, but now is highly vocal about the impact of the BBC covering local news in the kind of depth which was previously the preserve of the local press. He has been calling for the BBC to be curtailed in its reach in to local issues or to at least have to share the content it generates with rival local news groups.



Then there's Dawn Airey, senior vice president at Yahoo EMEA who used to run Channel 5 and has been highly critical of the BBC rolling out new channels and concentrating on reality TV style shows instead of concentrating on what she believes are its public service obligations. Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England and former MD of Classic FM has also criticised the BBC for moving in the radio station's territory. Dame Collette Bowe, when Chair of Ofcom, suggested licence fee money should be in a pot which other broadcasters can bid for. Similarly, Alex Mahon, former Chief Executive of Elisabeth Murdoch's Shine television production company, was part of an advisory committee a decade ago that suggested the licence fee should be replaced by a subscription model.

Now, a lot of these opinions were expressed by these executives when they were in previous positions where the BBC was a major rival they felt was encroaching on their turf, so we don't know for sure that this is still their opinion. That is, of course, apart from Ashley Highfield, who is still at the helm of Johnston Press where he has made all his comments about BBC tanks being pared on the lawn of local news across the UK, directed from W1A (the postcode or ZIP code where the BBC is based). 

Suffice it to say, then, of the list of eight industry advisers, five have stood out for strong views regarding the BBC having its wings clipped. The next year, then, it going to be a tough one for the corporation as the government decides what to put in next year's white paper regarding its future as a publicly-funded media organisation.

The corporation has already taken a 'haircut' by agreeing to fund free licences to those aged over 75, in return for a guarantee the licence fee will increase with inflation So, it's hard to imagine the licence fee being replaced altogether. It's also hard to imagine sufficient numbers moving to only watching box sets via Netflix or Amazon, meaning they have no television watching equipment and so do not have to pay the licence fee. It may happen but in a year's time it's not going to look likely enough to make the licence fee look obsolete.

So, if the licence fee remains, a possible area to look at is whether public service broadcasting money can be bid on by rival channels and production companies. Indeed, the BBC will come under even more pressure to source programming from independent production companies which amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Where the real difference will come, I predict, is online. This is an area which wouldn't have been envisaged when the BBC was set up, for obvious reasons, and it's the one place where rivals can say the BBC's dominance detracts eyeballs away from their commercially minded sites. So, if I were to pin my colours to the proverbial mast, I would suspect if there is a major change ahead it will come with the BBC having to share -- either for free or through licensing deals -- its digital content with rival media companies. This has the potential to raise money for the BBC but it could also save the local press considerable budget and ensure there is nothing available on BBC local sites they cannot offer themselves. 

So, I'll predict now the licence fee has at last another royal charter renewal in it but the money it provides the BBC will have to be more reasonably shared through a continuation of throwing open production opportunities to the independents as well as somehow ensure local news can be distributed by rival commercial media groups. A very interesting year lies ahead.

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