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Aunty's belated lifeline

By Ed Waller 27-08-2015

BBC-bashing is a rich tradition at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, but at this year’s event this week the tone is suddenly rather more sympathetic. Armando Iannucci’s broadside against the UK government yesterday, for instance, was a great – somewhat refreshing – reminder of why the BBC should be preserved.

But, nevertheless, helped by decades of anti-Aunty sentiment, from constructive and destructive critics alike across the UK television industry, many with self-interest lurking behind their lofty words, the mood is such that the new government feels it can get away with pushing through plans to drastically reduce the UK pubcaster’s revenue, output and impact.

Never mind how the government has passed what is essentially part of the Welfare State overhead – the £650m (US$1bn) cost of free TV licences for the over-75s – on to the BBC itself, the masterstroke, if that’s the right word, will be the planned decriminalisation of non-payment of the BBC licence fee. Recently called for (again) by justice secretary Michael Gove, this would transfer responsibility for the BBC’s gradual death by 1,000 cuts to the public, and might explain culture secretary John Whittingdale’s slightly more conciliatory tone yesterday in Edinburgh.

Armando Iannucci delivering this year's MacTaggart Lecture

Armando Iannucci delivering this year’s MacTaggart Lecture

Given that the BBC last year injected £474m (US$739m) into the indie sector, accounting for more than 29% of all external commissions, according to recent data from Pact, it’s hard to see UK indies’ long tradition for BBC-bashing as anything less than biting the hand that feeds. That’s the downside of public ownership.

A financially constrained BBC would impact the indie sector, not just in volume of commissions but in the kind of shows it commissions. The Beeb (along with Channel 5, to be fair) commissions far more from smaller indies than its rivals do, thus providing some much-needed cashflow to a new generation of production companies outside the increasingly foreign-owned ‘superindies,’ which have been so M&A-focused of late that they’re losing market share to the little guys.

Market share for those UK indies enjoying turnovers of more than £70m tumbled from 37% in 2013 to 29% last year, while small indies – those turning over less than £10m –lifted their share of the market from 10% to 16% and those turning over between £10m and £25m went up from 14% to 18%.

The same Pact data also reveals that compared with other UK broadcasters, the BBC is far more likely to greenlight new programmes (which accounted for 46% of the BBC’s external commissions in 2014) instead of simply renewing existing ones. This, in turn, provides indies with intellectual property to take to an international market hungry for new IP instead of the tired old franchises from the usual suspects.

John Whittingdale at GEITF yesterday

John Whittingdale at GEITF yesterday

So Iannucci’s comments last night about a weakened BBC having an impact on UK television’s international standing are justified as the pubcaster will be forced to ‘de-risk’ its schedules by relying on existing hits instead of new programmes and the UK’s IP supplyline to the global market would dry up.

With the BBC potentially reduced to the level of other, lesser pubcasters the world over, UK indies might have to rely on the UK commercial sector for survival. The thing is, trends in that area are far from encouraging. ITV, for instance, put 85% of its spend into renewals last year, and less of it into smaller indies. And anyway, it has far more of its own production subsidiaries to commission from these days. ITV’s in-house production arm, ITV Studios, saw its first-half 2015 earnings grow by 18%, for instance, and its commissions from its parent network were up 11%, compared with the same period last year.

In addition, as UK channels get snapped up by rights-hungry US broadcasters with global footprints and as developments in technology makes it viable to sidestep public spectrum (and the public service obligations it brings) and simply use the internet to reach audiences, their relationships with UK indies could change radically, like they did with US indies. Remember them?

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Ed Waller Editorial director
Ed Waller PERSP 2

Ed Waller is a media journalist working out of London, England.

He is editorial director for C21 Media, which publishes the leading international TV trade website and print magazines Channel 21 International and C21 Kids. He also regularly contributes to UK national newspapers including The Guardian, The Independent and The Sunday Times.

Ed previously worked at trade magazines Televisual Magazine and Asia-Pacific Satellite.