Address to Royal Television Society International Conference, Opportunity Knocks, at Barbican Centre, London
Friday 26 September 2008
Check against delivery
I want to spend my few minutes this afternoon addressing some of the fundamental questions posed by this week's Ofcom report. I'm not going to try to offer a definitive view – it's a substantial piece of work and deserves thorough scrutiny – but a set of initial responses.
So first: is Ofcom right to say that we face a real problem with public service broadcasting? Key parts of Ofcom's analysis of that problem – for instance, the quantum of the financial challenge that Channel 4 may face over the coming years – keep fluctuating pretty widely. But yes – let's agree that we do face a real problem.
You can't look at Ofcom's depressing conclusions about ITV's regional provision without accepting that.
And was Andy Burnham right this morning to say that it's an urgent problem? Again my answer is yes. The ITV story offers a grim lesson. Over the years, successive regulators moved too slowly and underestimated the scale of change that ITV was facing. There may be an inevitability about ITV's retrenchment now, but the public have every right to feel let down.
So a real and urgent set of issues. But does that mean that Ofcom's ever smaller set of models somehow hold between them the way ahead for British broadcasting?
I don't believe so. To me, the debate needs to become more ambitious, more imaginative and less defeatist. We need a solution which supports the vital creative and editorial role which Channel 4 plays in our system. But we shouldn't throw in the towel when it comes to ITV and Five – they both have a critical role to play in investment, in creative diversity and in straightforward public service delivery. The public want all the current PSBs to remain in the family. They don't want any of the players to be thrown overboard. And – as I read Ofcom's research – they don't want the stabilisation of Channel 4 or any of the commercially-funded PSBs to be achieved at the price of destabilising or weakening the BBC.
Long-range certainty of funding and independence for public service broadcasting must include long-range certainty of funding and independence for the BBC. Otherwise you haven't strengthened the system at all: you've just moved the problem somewhere else.
So how can we achieve it? I take my cue not from Ofcom's models but from what the Secretary of State said this morning. Britain's broadcasters need to do more together to shape their own destiny and the BBC can and must play a central role in this.
That's why we're well down the road and have made significant progress on a set of tangible and economically significant initiatives to help all of the PSBs transition successfully to a digital future.
Our technology, our funding model and our scale has enabled us to develop the iPlayer, Freesat, BBC HD. We're moving the dial in on-demand and mobile and on many other platforms. How much of that technology can we share with ITV, 4 and Five?
We're going through a bigger efficiency and modernisation programme than any other UK broadcaster and producer. Can our investment and the lessons we're learning about digital production transform the whole industry? Can we help small independent producers and other stakeholders and potential partners as well as PSBs?
Again, can we use regional and journalistic infrastructure to help the sustainability of local, regional and national services beyond the BBC?
It was suggested yesterday that perhaps BBC Worldwide could be gifted in its entirety to Channel 4. Well, I don't see how that could work – Worldwide is not a portable ATM machine, its whole strategy and growth is about BBC branded services: bbc.com, BBC World News, CBeebies, BBC America. It's an odd thought that the BBC website should come under the BBC in the UK but under Channel 4 once you get to Calais. Worldwide's ability to generate revenue comes from its closeness to the BBC itself and to BBC intellectual property.
But none of that means that Worldwide can't play an important part in a solution. John Smith and his team are talking to other PSBs right now to see what can be achieved by working together. The progress we're making is surprising everyone.
Later in the year, we will be presenting these ideas to the BBC Trust. To form the core of a solution, we know they've got to represent more than just fine words. They've got to mean real, identifiable cost savings and new revenue streams and they've got to be deliverable. They've got to work for Channel 4, ITV, Five. But many of the ideas we're developing at the moment don't come from us, they come from the other PSBs.
What I want to deliver to the Trust and to offer into this debate is a set of practical partnerships and initiatives which are deliverable and big enough to be game-changing. Which do not require legislation or any new regulatory machinery – and which therefore can make an economic difference to the other PSBs in months rather than years. Which avoid going around the houses yet again on the tired and contentious topics of contestability and an arts-council-of-the-air. And which point to broadcasting's future rather than its past.
We need a better debate about the future of public service broadcasting. Less spin. Less certainty that the regulatory levers are the only levers to achieve the right result. Less sitting back and waiting for the politicians or somebody else to ride to the rescue. We need to work together to give this unique, sometimes slightly wayward, ultimately very precious system of ours a great future.
It's what the public want. This time we shouldn't let them down.