There have been many televisual highlights in the month since my last column but none as sweet as the sight of Mark Thompson, BBC Director General, being grilled by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. I might have been wrong but within the usual laconic look that Paxman adorns while tearing strips from his interviewees I felt there was a definite backdrop of enjoyment to this interview. Mark Thompson was there to be interviewed regarding the results of the recent BBC strategic review which concluded that severe costs need to be stripped from its operations.
The proposed cull is wide and varied and across all the Beeb’s current media output. It includes the potential closure of the digital radio stations 6 Music and Asian Network. Some of the teenage output will be closed as well as spend on buying in overseas shows such as Heroes. The big hit is to its online division where web output could be halved, backed by a 25% cut in staff numbers. The web operation's £112m budget, yes you did read that right, will also be cut by 25%. It was not all cuts though with additional investment earmarked for BBC2.
Importantly for the Regional press, Thomson also announced that its local websites will be refocused to carry only news, sport, weather, travel and "local knowledge content". He also stated a commitment to never to increase the BBC's number of local services on television, radio and online or to make any existing services more local.
For many years now dear old Aunty has walked a fine line between King Canute and Emperor Augustus. On one hand it has tried to hold back the tide of media expansion from other channels against its position. On the other, expanding hell for leather in all ways especially digital, both radio and web. When your annual spend budget is over £3bn, i.e. the amount of money they get from our license fees, they have been able to do that quite happily. Now in these recession times with a general election in a couple of months and a need to reposition for the “how can you justify the license fee” debate, they have to be seen to be doing something.
By announcing the results of this review, like Hadrian with his wall, the beeb has effectively stated that the expansion era is over and it will now work within defined boundaries. However in doing this it has created a backlash and debate about what the role and output should be of a public service broadcaster. This has not just come from the usual media columns but from the public as well. The most interesting reading has been the comments left on websites against stories linked to the cuts. Time and time again the question comes up as to what is the license fee for. This review on cost and focus was a starting point to answering that question but the wrath it has unleashed would indicate they have a lot more explaining to do.