DCMS Review of the BBC's Digital Radio services

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 3 November 2004

Over the last couple of weeks or so I have taken the time to read the whole of Tim Gardam's review into the BBC's digital radio services. Unexpectedly it has been an entertaining read, not least because of its lack of formality in his turn of phrase:

I was appointed to lead this review, and on April 30th the Secretary of State announced the start of this process, along with Professor Patrick Barwise's parallel review of the BBC's digital television services.

Paddy and I were asked to submit our reports by the end of August so that our recommendations could contribute to the Secretary of State's review of the BBC's Royal Charter, ahead of its expiry in 2006.

I'd love to write an internal document for the BBC which sets out terms of reference involving respected colleagues, and then leads off the next paragraph with the informal "Kazza and I..."

It was clearly a review that was intended to be read, and Gardam is not shy of displaying a wry sense of humour:

The BBC submitted extensive written evidence to the DCMS as the basis for this review. This comprised:

- A report from the Board of Governors on its supervision of the services.
- An overall review of the digital radio services taken as a whole.
- Individual accounts of each of the services.

These were extremely detailed and almost entirely devoid of self-criticism.

He also has an eye for an amusing and attractive metaphor - take this paragraph for example:

Some of its more rhetorical competitors like to characterise it as Sher Khan, the ravaging tiger of The Jungle Book, devouring all that is in its path. I do not quite share that view. Rather, to borrow another scene from the Walt Disney film of The Jungle Book, I see the BBC more like the well meaning herd of elephants, stomping through the jungle, trumpeting its achievements, each executive holding onto the tail of the one in front. They are undoubtedly a force for good, but unfortunately can be oblivious as to what might get crushed under their enormous feet.

Gardam also got some juicy pull-quotes out of his material. In the section devoted to 1Xtra, Gardam observes that when potential listeners in the 16 to 25 year old age group were asked to distinguish between Choice FM and 1Xtra

...they concluded: "They'd be in competition with each other. If they were in a room together, they would kick each other out."

I was also interested in the section on Five Live Sports Extra, which touched on the ongoing issue between the BBC and talkSPORT about the market value for sports rights. Kelvin Mackenzie, whose contribution is described by Tim Gardam as "enjoyably pugnacious" argues that the BBC, because of its financial resources, inflates the price of sports rights. talkSPORT are particulary agitated about Premier League football, where they believe the BBC paid 650% above the market value for the rights (c.£39m v £6m over three years)

The BBC retorts that:

it has been outbid for radio sports rights. It cites talkSPORT?s acquisition of the 2002 Ashes series in Australia for an inflated price of £650,000 (the previous price being £14,000), only to sell them back to the BBC, for a considerably cheaper sum, when the inadvisability of the deal became clear.

To me, at the heart of the whole review seems to be a real issue about driving digital take-up that the DCMS hasn't so far addressed in a joined-up way.

The digital markets are comparatively young. The BBC is clearly a big player, and the DCMS has mandated that the BBC should be a big player. However, the boundaries between the BBC, the concept of "public service", and the commercial sector are fuzzy as the market develops. For example on the one hand the option of making a Flextech/UK Gold style joint venture in speech-driven DAB radio between the BBC and a commercial company is seen as unattractive because:

if BBC7 had been a joint venture with a commercial company its output could not have been promoted on BBC television, thus denying it one of its core tasks: to drive digital take-up.

At the same time,

talkSPORT also objects to the competitive advantage the BBC sports networks have in their cross-promotion opportunities. The BBC's promotion of digital radio has concentrated on the individual BBC services. This gives Sports Extra, and by extension Five Live, a profile which talkSPORT estimates would cost it over £30 million to obtain through advertising.

It seems contradictory to me that the DCMS can charge the BBC with driving digital take-up, yet it has neither:

relaxed the rules to allow the BBC to promote the non-BBC stations or channels available on either Freeview or DAB on the BBC, to leverage that cross-promotional ability for the benefit of the digital platforms in the UK as a whole

or

compelled the commercial public service broadcasters to carry specific promotional material for either their own or generic digital services - there are, after all, no adverts specifically for Freeview on ITV1 or Channel 4

However, by far the most contentious area of the report regards the fact that BBC7 is credited with being the significant factor in the commercial failure of the OneWord network. One of the subsequent key recommendations of the report is that in future the BBC should consider making the radio archive available for exploitation by the commercial sector.

Now it is quite clear that the BBC is not currently making all of its audio, or indeed TV, archive available to the public, and I understand the business model that suggests that commercial players in the market can derive revenue from the BBC's archive - you just have to look at UK Gold. However the issue for me here is that the "market impact" of not selling is being cited as a driver for the sale of the archive to the commercial sector.

The Licence Fee paying public has already paid for the BBC's Radio Archive over the last eight decades. The current arrangement sees that archive mostly exploited by BBC Worldwide, which returns profit back into BBC programme making. Clearly the material has a commercial value, and I'm not arguing that the BBC should give everyone a free CD or DVD of programmes that they liked.

However we are just, for the first time since the British Broadcasting Company began radio transmissions from 2LO back in 1923, arriving at a technological landscape where all of that BBC archive content could be delivered back to the public at no cost to them save the price of their own broadband internet connection, and the BBC's bandwidth expenditure which is covered through the Licence Fee.

It therefore seems ironic that at this precise moment, in the face of all the work the BBC has done with the Radio Player, and is doing with iMP and the Creative Archive, a report is submitted to the government that suggests the self-same archive be monetised for the benefit of boosting the commerical digital radio sector. Myself, I don't get it.

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