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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Hot debate over BBC future

by Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

One of the subjects which kept cropping up at this year's Edinburgh Television Festival was the question of just what to do with the BBC's enormous store of programmes, old and new.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, had a suggestion: more repeats (of commercial TV programmes as well as the BBC's) to keep alive our shared memory of great television programmes of the past, as significant a part of our popular culture as the Beatles or Harry Potter.

EastEnders is one of the BBC's most popular shows
Greg Dyke had a suggestion: free online access to the BBC archive.

And BSkyB's chief executive Tony Ball had a suggestion: requiring the BBC to auction some of its most popular programmes to rival channels, and put the proceeds into developing new and original ideas.

It wasn't a suggestion that went down well.

The BBC's reaction was dismissive, almost contemptuous.

Sky didn't understand that programmes weren't just commodities to be bought and sold, a point Sky's spin doctors appeared partly to accept when they proffered a list of candidate programmes including Holby City and The Weakest Link but excluding EastEnders, which they agreed was too central to BBC One's schedule.

And the argument was dismissed as self-serving, designed to strengthen commercial broadcasters and weaken the BBC.

Wouldn't his proposal make the BBC a marginal player in its own marketplace, Ball was asked next day. "I'm not sure that's such a bad thing," he replied.

And you didn't have to work for the BBC to scoff.

Sky News
Sky: "Driven by market forces"
Nigel Pickard, ITV's director of programmes, called the proposal "total codswallop".

Those Sky spin doctors, who'd helped to draft the speech, looked deeply unhappy, though I'm not sure Tony Ball himself was much bothered.

He's a businessman, ruthless and successful, not greatly interested in ideas and theoretical arguments.

Sky says the proposal - and other suggestions, like giving BBC One and Two much tighter remits and requiring the BBC to divert the 100m it spends on imported films and programmes into making programmes in the UK - are designed to be helpful, to strengthen public service broadcasting by clarifying the BBC's role and diverting more cash into original programmes.

And - in what was for the most part a thoughtful discussion of the economic arguments in favour of public service broadcasting - Ball said he has no objection in principle to the BBC licence fee, though he thinks it's too high and the BBC itself much too big.

The reaction to Ball's speech - the worst to a keynote MacTaggart lecture that I can remember in more than 15 years of attending the television festival - shows what a gulf, philosophical and cultural, still separates the folk at Sky, driven by market forces and a belief that television is a business, from the rest of British broadcasting.

The people who run the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and many leading independent production companies grew up in a regulated world, sheltered from the full blast of market forces.

Greg Dyke
Greg Dyke: Wants to offer free online access to the BBC archive
They believe television is about culture as well as cash.

Ball's proposal has some obvious flaws. It would require regulation to bring it about - odd, coming from a man who believes in free markets and minimum regulation.

It might have the perverse effect of encouraging the BBC to commission programmes it thought it could sell to commercial channels, squeezing quirky, original and less popular programming even further.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the idea out of hand.

For one thing, what seems wacky today may turn into government policy tomorrow.

Remember the reaction when someone first suggested auctioning ITV licences to the highest bidder? A ridiculous notion, politically a non-starter. But it happened.

And Ball also produced new research showing that more than 50% of the population now question the value of the licence fee - up from 42% four years ago.

If the licence fee really is losing popular support, radical measures may be necessary - and Ball's bombshell may yet have its day.

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