Could scheduling restrictions possibly be headed BBC’s way?


Time for one of my Howard Beale moments while pondering where the heck is Lewis Black when you need him. Reading the stories in a number of Sunday papers in the UK suggesting the government is about to impose much greater restrictions on when the BBC can schedule its favorite shows, one has to wonder about its priorities and who it really is serving, the people of Great Britain who pay for the BBC or corporations who sell their products globally.

It seems like only yesterday that there was a very real substantive dialogue happening about the possibility of England departing the EU or ‘Brexit’ for short. I guess that wasn’t glamorous enough for David Cameron and the UK Conservative Party as current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport John Whittingdale is said to be looking at new proposals to prevent the BBC from scheduling shows directly against commercial rivals.

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The Sunday Times reported that a government ‘white paper’ looking into the future of the BBC will claim that the corporation has been too “aggressive” in its search for ratings, particularly at weekends. Why now you ask? Well, with the BBC’s present royal charter expiring at the end of the year, it’s possible that the ‘new BBC’ will be subjected to unprecedented new checks on the quality of its television and radio programs under a proposed new charter to be unveiled by ministers.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, this all started last year when ITV reacted strongly to the BBC’s decision to schedule some of Strictly Come Dancing directly against The X Factor. Peter Fincham, ITV’s then-director of programs, said that the BBC was engaging in ‘avoidable clashes’ with its commercial rival, although the BBC has denied this. Also, ITV challenged the decision by the BBC to schedule Silent Witness against series two of Broadchurch, while at Christmas Call the Midwife ended up broadcasting at the same time as the final episode of Downton Abbey.

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In response to what is expected to be revealed on 12 May in the Government white paper, the BBC has since pointed out that an independent report into so-called ‘competitive scheduling’ commissioned by the government concluded there was ‘little impact’ in situations where the BBC and ITV put dramas on at the same time. The report found that having entertainment programs on at the same time did not have a ‘statistically significant’ effect on ITV’s audience.

Personally, in the DVR day and age of ‘time-shifted viewing’ that we all live in, it’s no longer an issue that two programs are scheduled opposite each other. You watch one, DVR the other one and watch it an hour later and the ratings get counted for both. Simple enough for even a back-bencher to understand.

This is where my Howard Beale/Lewis Black-like moment rears it’s ranting head. While the BBC does not have to rely on pulling in viewers in order to boost advertising revenue like ITV, TV ratings are just as important for the UK public service broadcaster as they are for PBS in America. In a nutshell, ratings matter whether it’s for a commercial or public broadcaster. They matter for different reasons.

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While the BBC has to show it can serve the many and varied interests of all its license fee payers, ratings also matter to American PBS as it needs to signal its value to the widest possible audience for when it comes time for their voluntary financial support. That said, neither public broadcaster is going to sacrifice quality for ratings. It’s safe to say you won’t be seeing The Real Housewives of Dallas on either the BBC or PBS. Just not going to happen. Actually, come to think of it, given the tanking ratings for that freshman series, it wouldn’t be one to think about anyway if you are a broadcaster in search of ratings.

It seems as though the central issue revolves around not just the need for an 11-year charter by the BBC but the Government’s charge that the pace of technological change means that ministers should not have to wait for more than a decade before reassessing the corporation’s services and would like a 5-year reassessment. The BBC has argued privately that a midterm review would leave it unable to plan for the long term and “…massively erode the foundations of independence and leave the BBC as the perpetual plaything of the political classes”. This would be like telling PBS to not schedule Downton Abbey on Sunday nights because HBO has Game of Thrones or AMC has Walking Dead scheduled. Maybe those networks should move their scheduling of those shows to another night….

There are those who will say that the questioning of scheduling decisions that do not serve viewers such as placing two big-ticket dramas head to head is necessary. I would argue that the government cannot and indeed should not determine either the content or scheduling of programs. This is about the British people, not about corporate interests and the need to make a bigger profit because the BBC is trying to get an audience with quality programming. Personally, ministers need to spend a lot more time worrying about the possibility of an exit from the EU and let the BBC and ITV do what they do, which is make brilliant television.

I’m done now. Thanks for listening.