Posts Tagged ‘Tony Hall’

A Slice of the Public Pie.

In BBC on February 3, 2014 at 10:27 am

Michael White’s article in the Telegraph on Friday was a well-argued view about the decline of the quality and lack of direction at BBC Radio 3. Personally I always thought it was a shame that Radio 4 got the extra digital channel. A second Radio 3 channel featuring archive broadcasts would have been superb – and possible, reading as I have today of the demise of ‘Archers Lite’ – a more successful station audience-wise – not only pleasing Whitehall listeners but potentially being a way to find those elusive new audiences.

But what White’s article also reminds us is that discussions about the future of the BBC and the review and renewal of its Charter, have started. I am hoping that this will be a longer process than the ‘signed-on-the-back-of-a-fag-packet’ deal that Miller’s predecessor signed with the BBC over the level of the Licence Fee.

It needs to be fought over. Line by line. Not to destroy or undermine the BBC but more to ensure that the BBC remains relevant in the future.

Annually the BBC receives over £3.0bn directly from the public. I’m not here to argue whether it’s an unfair tax or not. Personally I think the Licence Fee is necessary, vital in fact, to ensure that the UK’s cultural landscape continues to enrich our lives. And I mean ‘cultural’ in the broadest sense. Alongside the BBC’s role in television, radio, online and the development and distribution of new technologies I also include the impact it has right across the cultural spectrum.

But while most of their activities are positive, there is no denying that the BBC has not always leveraged it’s Licence Fee wisely or fairly.

For every wildlife documentary featuring David Attenborough, there is something as crass as The Voice. For every Prom concert, Cardiff Singer or Young Musician there are the equally disturbing idiocies such as Maestro At The Opera. For every Shakespeare season there is a search for the UK’s best barber, baker or ballroom dancer to ‘snog, marry or avoid’.

Sadly the return of Tony Hall to the BBC as Director-General has seen a slide back to the imperialist approach of the Corporation he left behind in 2000. Surrounding himself with acolytes like Purnell and Bulford from that yesteryear period, the BBC has become more adamant than ever that it should not shrink further but rather – and more worryingly – expand.

Surely there must come a time when the BBC must recognise that it must reduce the scope of its services in some way? It doesn’t need to axe BBC Three for example but considering the amount it invests in developing new technology couldn’t that channel feasibly become a mobile or online channel only? That way not only could it guarantee that it served new audiences and reduce that channel’s overheads considerably but also lead the way for other companies to follow? Whenever the BBC invests in platforms or technology and takes the risks, other companies are more willing to follow.

And the BBC isn’t above a little ‘aggressive’ competitiveness. There’s ample evidence of that in their chase of ratings and I don’t buy that high ratings are evidence of quality. The BBC invented it’s so called Audience Appreciation index which clearly demonstrates that what the audience perceives as ‘quality’ or ‘distinctive’ doesn’t have to equate to high rating. I also believe that the BBC has played a role – however small – in the demise of local media and journalism.

Three billion pounds is more than a great deal of money. What’s more it is public money, so it comes as no surprise that the concept of ‘top-slicing’ – or sharing a portion of the Licence Fee – resurfaces whenever the future of the BBC is debated.

Fortunately for the bean counters and the policy wonks based at the BBC’s new billion pound fortress, there has never been a cogent or well-argued reason for top-slicing. In the past it’s only been other broadcasters who have argued for it, often against the backdrop of falling commercial revenues.

But perhaps it is because the argument is not bold enough? Perhaps that slice skimmed off the top of the BBC’s coffers should be made available for everyone to share?

Michael White refers to Classic FM’s bid for a cut, arguing that BBC Radio 3 isn’t ‘distinctive’ enough. How the BBC must hate it when their own buzzwords are used against them.

So what if an amount – a figure extrapolated from the total amount of the Licence Fee collected and factoring in the billions the BBC aims to save in the long term – was ring-fenced for the Creative Industries as a whole. Of course I mean orchestras, opera companies etc but also theatres and other performing groups and even the digital and technology companies that are now part of the fraternity.

Of course there would have to be incredibly strict criteria – as well as checks and balances – in place to ensure that this money was awarded correctly. And even stricter conditions would also need to be set in terms of how that money is spent and impact measured.

Perhaps one condition could be that the money received has to be spent within the organisation’s local community, in a sense paying it back into the lives of Licence Fee payers. Larger organisations could potentially guarantee to match-fund any money through their own fundraising efforts. Or the BBC could make good on its often talked about promise of greater collaboration and make long-term investments in permanent exhibitions, co-productions and the like rather than short-term investments that benefit the Corporation more than their partners. I think the shine of the history of the world in one hundred objects has dulled considerably and nothing new seems to be on the horizon.

It’s not unfeasible that the BBC could get a small return on investment in some way. Not a financial return necessarily but perhaps sharing any audience data or insights from funded projects for example.

But is there another reason to seriously consider top-slicing?

Over and above any industry-led argument is there also a moral argument for the BBC to share its largesse?

I’m not suggesting this in reference to the tidal wave of badly handled calamities that have engulfed the BBC in the last few years, the backwash of which is still swamping the organisation. In the face of accusations of corporate malfeasance, weak management, even weaker succession management in the guise of Tony Hall and a continued lack of strategic direction aside, is it right that one single organisation should be in receipt of this entire levy?

And that’s before you factor in the dominant role of BBC Worldwide in to the equation, and the millions of pounds it returns the the Corporation every year. And with Tony Hall looking to expand – not shrink – the BBC’s international business that revenue stream looks set to grow.

And other BBC departments take public money from elsewhere. For example, the BBC Philharmonic receives from Salford Council. I love the BBC Phil and laud their projects such as the current collaboration with the Hallé and their funky Presents series, but what is the money from Salford spent on exactly?

I’m even sure that the hundreds in the BBC marketing department could make it look like the BBC was acting like some ‘public service philanthropist’ throwing proverbial pennies from behind a silk screen.

A while back Maria Miller insisted that the Creative Industries make a greater revenue contribution. Perhaps the creative opportunities of top-slicing could help.


What Tony Hall Could Do Next

In BBC, Classical Music, Opera on March 27, 2013 at 4:50 pm

The BBC welcomes a new leader after Easter. Sooner than expected if the average term for a Director-General should be counted more normally in years rather than days, and foisted on the Corporation without interview or due process by that great panjandrum Lord Patten.

And what Lord Tony Hall of Birkenhead inherits is an organisation that often seems outdated, out of touch and out of its depth.

Like a gambler with a faulty or marked deck of cards, ‘Call Me Tony’ has already shuffled his management team. He’s shifted some errant executives around, followed Patten’s cue and appointed at will and symbolically renamed divisions as if the digital age had never happened.

Over the next few days, weeks and no doubt months the media will write about Hall’s intray, his first one hundred days – and let’s hope he surpasses that target unlike his predecessor ‘Incurious George’ – and dissect every word and action he undertakes.

His is an unenviable task. He is being heralded by the BBC’s inadequate spin doctors to anyone who will listen as the ‘great bright hope’, a man who will pull the BBC out of its creative mire and tackle the management malaise.

And if rumours are true Hall hopes to put right many wrongs with a war chest of £100 million which he is having skimmed off divisions like a layer of cream in advance of his arrival.

But money can only go so far. For years the BBC has singly failed to come up with a creative strategy and stuck to it. Granted, trying to come up with a single aim and purpose for an organisation that is splitting at the seams with television and radio channels, a morass of mindless entertainment fodder and a website with a voracious appetite is always going to be a problem.

But perhaps it should simply look to define itself by the original principles established by Lord Reith?

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

So on that basis then the BBC’s commitment to arts and culture should be at the centre and benefit from Hall’s chest of gold? Surely?

Currently the BBC’s commitment to culture is haphazard. History, art and literature seem to do pretty well but classical music seems to have hit an all time low in terms of love.

I think Christmas was the last time opera made it to one of the main channels, the Proms have been relegated bar the token appearance and attempts by the BBC to popularise classical music with such ideas as Maestro At The Opera aren’t so much misintentioned and misguided as simply offensive.

Even the recent and most excellent Written On Skin – possibly one of the most exciting and significant new operas for many years – has been recorded for transmission on BBC 4 at a later date. Why it wasn’t broadcast live escapes me.

So, given a blank cheque what could Tony Hall do?

What I am about to suggest isn’t a strategy or a manifesto but simply a few ideas. But none of them, I believe, are too far-fetched to achieve.

Naturally anything he does has to be seen as impartial – a great BBC word when it suits them – and therefore can’t be seen to favour his old friends on Bow Street. But nonetheless here is an opportunity for Hall to cure the dry rot at the heart of the BBC’s commitment to the arts.

And let’s be clear, this commitment isn’t about ratings. It’s about saying that quality – another BBC buzzword – isn’t only about the millions that watch, or about an increase in that other BBC marketing tool its appreciation score, but about standing by a set of principles set down decades ago.

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

First. A simple reversal. If rumours I have heard are true, this year the Proms will not feature at all on either BBC 1 or BBC 2 but be tucked away on BBC 4. I hope my friends in the BBC have got that wrong. I mean no disrespect to Richard Klein. I’ve met him plenty of times. I’ve enjoyed talking with him and hearing both his views and ideas as well as his frustrations, and admired his passion in the face of ever more harrowing adversity and cuts to his budget. But putting everything on his channel doesn’t make it a destination but rather an apology.

So first of all, put the Proms back on the main channels. Again I hear that there are some stupendous proms planned – not least Barenboim and the Berliners performing the Ring cycle – therefore the Proms needs to be actively celebrated for everyone to watch as well as listen.

The BBC might be surprised by the results. Music is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. If done correctly, classical music on television can be just as gripping and entertaining – yes entertaining – as a night at Glastonbury and far more dramatic than that manufactured and mind-numbing pap The Voice which cost the BBC £22 million.

Secondly take a more active role in live broadcast. I hugely admired Bayerische Oper’s live broadcast of Kriegenberg’s Götterdämmerung last year. While that was commercially sponsored, it’s a crying shame that the BBC has retreated from taking any part in the screens that are set up in major cities. I can’t believe the outlay was that much compared to a single episode of Strictly Come Dancing but wouldn’t it be marvellous to revisit that decision and again perhaps use them for the Proms – and not just the Last Night – but also strike deals with other arts organisations and help share the financial burden in some way?

And with the Proms adequately provided for perhaps the BBC could make a bold decision regarding opera? I believe the TV term for them is output deals so could the BBC sign an output deal – possibly the first of its kind ever – with all the major UK opera companies – ROH, ENO, ETO, WNO, Scottish Opera, Glyndebourne etc – and commit to broadcast one or even two of their operas in every season? It’s a bold idea and would take some planning but why not? As well as signalling a very concrete commitment to classical music on a par with the Proms, I am sure the companies in question wouldn’t balk at this new revenue stream. And it needn’t conflict with their existing commercial deals with cinemas as there are plenty of operas to go around. Additionally I’m pretty sure Parliament would like it too and in a concession to those poor schedulers they could be broadcast on BBC 2 and we could have some respite from more ‘bake offs’.

And what about The Space? It’s a smart idea and is being brilliantly championed by the likes of Susannah Simons – the only BBC executive it seems that has a real passion for classical music – but it needs more and longer-term investment. Originally a hurried afterthought for the London Olympics when the BBC realised it’s own cultural contribution was almost zero, The Space could and should play a greater role in supporting the arts – big and small – across the UK. And at the same time be a way to get to young people, that ever elusive audience.

Perhaps a deal with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and their excellent Night Shift and The Works series?

And finally how about prime time programmes that don’t patronise and aren’t presented by idiots? Get rid of ideas such as Maestro At The Opera and follow real musicians – players, singers, conductors – as they try and make a real career based on talent and passion. I like Simon Russell Beale on stage but I don’t want to be subjected to him – or others – pontificating about classical music. If the BBC can secure the ever wonderful Mary Beard then why can’t it make programmes about classical music presented by experts in the field? People who actually know what they are talking about without resorting to a script potentially not even written by someone with specialist knowledge themselves?

I admit this is – as I have said – my wish list. I’d like to come home and switch on my TV and have the opportunity to watch something that isn’t either a half-starved idea created as tick-box television or tucked away in the television equivalent of a gulag for the culturally inclined.

It will be interesting to see what Tony Hall does upon arrival at Broadcasting House.

I’m hoping that his ten or so years outside the BBC – and at Covent Garden – have removed any old loyalties that might lie dormant in his grey suited breast.

I’m hoping he has some bold ideas about the BBC’s future creative purpose and direction.

And most of all I’m hoping he will put the arts – and in particular oft-neglected classical music – back at the heart of what the BBC does.

Inform. Educate. Entertain.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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