Mandate for new BBC era: Distinctive content first, ratings second

john whittingdale

John Whittingdale, U.K. Culture Secretary

U.K. Culture Secretary John Whittingdale addressed the British House of Commons today, and released a whitepaper, laying out operational and programming principles that will formulate the next BBC Royal Charter — that is, in Whittingdale’s words, the constitutional basis for the BBC. The next 11-year term of the charter begins in 2017.

Today’s declarations result from 10 months of work, and revise both the mission statement and operating principles of the BBC. Added to the current BBC mission statement (which includes the well-known phrase, “to Inform, Educate, and Entertain”) are the phrases “to provide distinctive content and services” and “affirm the need for impartiality.”

Whittingdale’s vision would have the BBC diversify its programming to better serve population niches, and retain its independence while simultaneously making it “more effective and accountable in its governance and regulation.”

To put more detail into that last point, Whittingdale wrapped up his House address by stating that the government regulated broadcast group “will be more transparent and accountable to the public it serves and who rely on the BBC to be the very best it can possibly be, so that it can inform, educate and entertain for many years to come.”

“The BBC is and must always remain at the very heart of British life.” –John Whittingdale, U.K. Culture Secretary

The whitepaper is a reformation of sorts, and Whittingdale took a corrective tone in describing it. “These reforms will assist the BBC to fulfil its own stated desire to become more distinctive and to better reflect the diverse nature of its audience. They place the BBC at the heart of the creative industries — as a partner of the local and commercial sectors, not a rival.”

The mention of competition is part of a rebalancing effort which puts more emphasis on community service programming, and de-emphasizes any ratings chase which the BBC might be engaged in as it operates side-by-side with U.K. commercial radio. “Editors should ask consistently of new programming, ‘Is this idea sufficiently innovative and high quality?’ rather than simply, ‘How will it do in the ratings?'” Whittingdale told the House. He noted that BBC Radio holds a 53% reach, but on 27% of people think radio and TV deliver “more daring and innovative” shows than the commercial side. The new Charter is out to change that.

The basic funding structure, which includes a licensing fee imposed on U.K. citizens, will not change. the BBC has suggested that it might develop subscription plans in addition to licensing. John Whittingdale endorsed the plan conceptually, while making it clear that any paid membership would be for additional content and services beyond normal programming that is broadcast under the license. “We would also like to see BBC content become portable, so that licence fee payers have access when travelling abroad,” Whittingdale said.

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Brad Hill