Thursday, January 15, 2015

Risk assessment

Yesterday was a day of song and dance, risks, and assurances for BBC Director General Tony Hall. In the morning, a pretty average year's assembly of music and dance programmes was dragged together and squeezed uncomfortably into one of the "themed seasons" now pervading the BBC's
output. Thus a programme on popular music in the Deep South from comic Reginald D Hunter is put together with a "working title" half-baked idea from Radio 3 called Classical Voice Season, and lo, we will get battered with new glitzy graphics and trailed to death over the year ahead.  I'm marginally surprised the elastic didn't quite stretch to The Voice and Strictly.

At lunchtime the DG addressed staff on the challenges of the year ahead. He told them Auntie was entering a "high risk" period up to Charter Renewal, which could see it "cut down" and "stuck in an analogue cul-de-sac". The BBC may lose the "freedom to reinvent itself" if the year ahead does not go to plan, he said, urging employees to speak up for the corporation "against those who would bring it down". All a bit scary - however, he soon returned to the Bumper Book of Leadership Speeches: "Our confidence will never be arrogance, our pride will never be complacency, our determination will never be defensiveness...I am confident that at the end of the process we will emerge stronger, re-energised and with our best days ahead of us".

House organ Ariel decided to lead with another assurance. At least, it looks like one. "Hall: Production will not be privatised". "We're not a commissioner broadcaster, we're a creator". BBC production's future, he said, was "not one which is being diminished and never one that is being privatised".

This may puzzle some, and perhaps even Anna Mallett, who's leading Project Green, aimed at nestling some or all of BBC Production in Tim Davie's Worldwide, a wholly-owned commercial subsidiary, chaired by Tony Hall. There'll probably be some conflation with loss-making BBC Studios and Post Production.

It's hard to imagine what sort of rationale will be used to decide who goes, or who stays. Already, the Nations, Regions and Television are very confused - is it to be based on likely profitability, current failure/success in winning commissions, or cost-of-production comparisons ? Or is it to be intellectual - shiny floor stuff, quizzes, "premium drama", low-cost daytime go; culture, childrens and such stay ?  And crucially, will production costs fall or rise ?  What happens to "compete and compare", say, when Eastenders has to pay a real commercial rent for Elstree, and fully include it in their rates ?

On "premium drama", would the BBC of the last century have made Intruders, Ripper Street, Atlantis, Musketeers, Orphan Black ? Will the BBC of the current century continue to "buy" them from Worldwide ? If, say, Fox offers more, does Worldwide sell to them ?  And will Mallett's proposals, due with the Executive by the end of the month, and with the Trust by March, answer the questions ?

One advantage seen by the scheme's proponents is the ability to pay "talent" more, with less scrutiny than fully within Auntie.  BBC Worldwide only discloses the salary of two executives; dividing the salary bill by number of employees in the last full year produces an average of over £67k. Soon BBC Worldwide moves from White City to the refurbished Stage 6 of Television Centre. Hacks who used to inhabit the space won't recognise it. Worldwide's second house move in less than a decade, and its costs, might take some of the scrutiny away from Broadcasting House.

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