Thursday, December 04, 2008

Guild's response to Ofcom's PSB review

The Writers' Guild of Great Britain has submitted a paper as part of the consultation on Ofcom’s Second Public Service Broadcasting Review - Phase 2: preparing for the digital future .

The paper supports the principle of Public Service Broadcasting and defends the licence fee as the best way to fund the BBC "for the foreseeable future".

Commercial broadcasters, the paper continues, "cannot be forced to continue as PSBs, but should be encouraged to do so by various means" (such as tax incentives and specific levies on equipment).

Arguments are also made for certain types of programming to be valued in particular for their public service benefits.
Drama and comedy

Any definition of PSB must extend to high-quality UK-originated drama and comedy programming. The dramatisation of classic literature has been a distinctive element of UK broadcasting since the earliest days and must be encouraged to continue. Likewise high-quality original drama. This is among the most expensive television to produce. It is vital that the BBC is adequately funded to continue to produce this level of material, and it should be among the obligations of commercial PSBs.

There is also a strong tradition of excellent soap operas, police and hospital series, detective dramas, etc. These should and will continue because of their enormous popularity. They deliver large viewing figures to advertisers and value for money to licence fee payers.

While we are fortunate to have a strong and innovative independent production sector, it is important that the BBC and ITV retain the in-house ability and expertise to produce a large proportion of both these types of shows for themselves. This is where skills can be learnt and improved and is the obvious arena for job-based training that will benefit the entire broadcasting industry. Therefore there could be some relaxation of the present very high quota requirements for independent production in these areas.

Comedy programming – in particular family-appeal sitcoms – is another traditional bulwark of UK broadcasting, but has weakened in recent years because of the damaging consequences of making expensive shows that turn out not to be hits. This needs to be factored in to the obligations on PSBs.

Children’s programming

Most children spend a lot of time in front of the television, and we must be crazy if we do not want them to benefit from programmes that are original, entertaining, stimulating and educational. It is deplorable that the BBC is now the only broadcaster providing significant original UK-based children’s programming. We have already slipped too far and Ofcom must take responsibility for getting us back on the right track.

It must be a core function of the BBC to continue to provide children’s programming of the highest quality. It must once again be a key obligation of commercial PSBs. While it is reasonable to have controls on advertising, we should not be over-squeamish.

Specialised children’s channels have their place, but the main general channels of all PSBs should always have high-quality children’s programmes in the mix.


We would like to mention radio, as we believe it is a vital part of public service broadcasting. With the failure of private sector initiatives – the latest and saddest being Channel 4’s plans – from the Writers’ Guild’s perspective the only show in town is the BBC, specifically Radio 4, Radio 7 and Radio 3. It is tragic that the cuts panic at the BBC has been indiscriminately extended to all radio budgets, even though radio is produced extremely cheaply and efficiently, and the entire cost of BBC radio is a small fraction of the corporation’s overall budget. The cuts are deeply damaging and should be reversed immediately.
The Guild's paper then makes some specific proposals.
We do not agree with any suggestion of “top-slicing” – i.e. taking part of the licence fee income away from the BBC and giving it to commercial PSBs. Robbing Peter to pay Paul will not lead to any overall improvement in broadcasting services. We have a clear and transparent system in which the BBC is funded by the licence fee and the commercial PSBs are funded by advertising. Everybody understands this and most people accept it. We should not muddy the waters. The BBC is already under pressure because the real value of the licence fee is being eroded and huge property development and relocation proposals are too far advanced to be cut back. Programme making is subject to damaging cuts and this situation must not be made worse.

We see no merit in taking away part or all of BBC Worldwide from the BBC. The profits of BBCW are reinvested in programmes, and the need for this has incentivised BBCW to great successes in maximising the income derived from BBC programmes, particularly through overseas sales.

There is little or no advantage to PSB in slicing the cake slightly differently when what we obviously need is a bigger cake...
The paper concludes with a strongly-worded defence of the BBC.
We have a choice now whether to support the BBC and allow it to develop into the digital age, or to let it decline from a combination of financial starvation and hypercriticism until it is past recovery. Once we have lost our BBC the very voices that are now loudest in demanding its destruction will cry out in the audiovisual desert that is left behind.
Download the full document (pdf).

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