The present government isn’t exactly known for its love of the BBC, or more particularly the £3.7bn it receives from the licence fee. In a spirit of open debate, however, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is hearing learned opinions on whether the publicly-funded broadcaster is fit for purpose as it reviews the corporation’s charter – giving the BBC’s main commercial rival ITV the chance to really stick the knife in.
The BBC has gone too low brow for ITV’s distinguished tastes, it seems. BBC One in particular had become ‘less and less distinguishable from its rivals’. There was ‘practically nothing’ on the channel for lovers of the arts, while the number of documentaries had dropped ‘very substantially’. The BBC, it says, has ‘chased viewing share at all costs’, which is contrary to its noble commitment to serve the public interest.
‘It is hard to see the case to spend the licence fee on a 42nd series of Bargain Hunt, the 19th series of Homes Under the Hammer, the 16th series of Escape to the Country or the 11th series of Antiques Road Trip,’ ITV said in its written submission to the committee, adding that the stimulating and unique content on BBC Three and Four should get a bigger share of the licence fee.
Whether or not recommissioning Bargain Hunt could be seen as proof of the BBC chasing viewing share at all costs (or for that matter serving the public interest…) remains open for debate, but ITV is perhaps on firmer ground when it suggests a ban on the BBC acquiring expensive yet demonstrably commercially viable foreign formats, such as The Voice.
A flattering way of looking at ITV’s position is enlightened self-interest. Despite rising revenues and profits, the firm is suffering from a slide in market share. ITV’s main channel fared worst of all, with a 7% ratings decline in the first half of this year. It would certainly help matters if the BBC was restricted to showing three-hour conceptual dance routines and edgy French documentaries on medieval farming patterns rather than ratings grabbers like Strictly or the Great British Bake Off – which incidentally the BBC defends as helping to ‘bring the UK closer together’.
Of course, slashing the license fee or forcing the BBC to broadcast less commercially viable shows aren’t the only options. A certain Jeremy Clarkson, now of Amazon Prime, suggested it needs to consider more salacious material to justify its funding. ‘If it wants to survive then it must at least consider the possibility of Cash in The Attic: Nude,’ Clarkson said in a column in The Sun (where else?). Stranger things have happened.