Where would we be without the BBC?

BBC TV gallery A new study examines UK consumer choice without BBC television

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Charter renewal negotiations may have to wait until after next year's general election, but that doesn't mean the debate isn't ramping up already.

While Maria Miller was telling the Oxford Media Convention on Wednesday that she was in no rush to begin talks with the Corporation over its future beyond the current charter, which runs until 2016, a new report was imagining what things would be like if there was no BBC.

'The last charter renewal went on for far too long,' the culture secretary told the gathering of media workers and academics. But when the process does begin, she insisted, it must not be part of any political discussion. 'The BBC is too important for that,' said Miller.

The Reuters Institute study, What If There Were No BBC Television? - unveiled at the convention - seemed to back her view.

Its authors told the conference that the loss of BBC television - or its scaling back - would 'significantly lower' the choice and value for money to the viewer and would be a 'disaster' for TV production in the UK.

Fewer commissions

The independent review found that the industry would spend between 5-25% less on content without BBC television (which currently accounts for around three-quarters of BBC expenditure) and 25-50% less on new commissions.

It also discovered that total TV industry revenue was likely to drop, by anything between 10-25%, if the licence fee was taken away.

BBC and Scottish independence

If Scotland votes yes to independence, says Maria Miller, it will say goodbye to the BBC.

The culture secretary told the Oxford Media Convention that a vote against remaining part of the UK is a 'vote to leave the institutions of the UK, and the BBC is one of those institutions.

'It's important that principle is clear,' she added.

The economics-based review concluded that, with no BBC, viewers would pay a penny less for their television per viewer hour but for 'significantly less choice'.

Authors Patrick Barwise and Robert G. Picard conceded that their study - which does not take account of possible 'citizen' benefits delivered by the BBC - is not 'definitive', but they were confident its main findings were 'clear cut and robust'.

And they provided an indication of what might happen if the current 'salami-slicing' policy - where the licence fee is frozen but has to fund more and more activities beyond core services - continues.

'Within a generation the BBC will be reduced to a minor sideshow,' they warned, 'the UK equivalent of PBS in America'.

Spectrum land grab

David Elstein, though, was unconvinced by their evidence. 'What would happen if the licence fee was abolished or the BBC stopped doing TV?' the chairman of openDemocracy.net and Broadcasting Policy Group asked. 'Somebody else would.'

He said programmes like Strictly, EastEnders and Call the Midwife ('not Newsnight and the unpopular bits') would be made by other broadcasters, while there would be a 'tremendous land grab' by commercial operators for the spectrum vacated by BBC channels.

'Nearly all the content would survive,' he insisted. 'And the content industry would do rather well.'

And anyway, he claimed, the BBC had reduced its spending on new programmes by 27% over the last eight years.

'Its revenue goes up every year, but its spend on new content goes down,' he said.

More on programmes

James Purnell, director of digital and strategy, thought otherwise, claiming the BBC had moved more money into programmes over the last few years.

'We are moving 4% of our central costs into programme making in this last licence fee period,' cited the BBC executive.

He welcomed the Reuters Institute study, and the contribution it made to the debate 'based on evidence and economic theory'.

He said it showed there would be a 'clear consumer loss' to not having a BBC. But he contested the study's assumption that the BBC 'crowds out' some commercial investment - an argument to which it gave 'the benefit of the doubt' before making its calculations.

Purnell believed that competition from the BBC made other broadcasters raise their game, citing ITV drama as one example.

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