Friday, July 19, 2019

Charlotte's web

An upbeat Charlotte Moore, Director of Content at the BBC, in an article for the 60th anniversary edition of Broadcast, on her guiding principles:

"First, we’re committed to creative excellence and supporting the British production community. We aren’t driven by commercial imperatives, we don’t need to commission for international audiences and we already have an amazing back catalogue, so our only guide is to continue to take creative risks and commission the best shows.

"And, to reiterate, we’ll keep doing this in every genre – we won’t abandon genres that don’t generate international sales.

"This means we’ll work with independents large or small who want to bring us their best ideas. Last year, we worked with more than 300, we spent just under 90% of our development funding outside of the BBC group, and commissioned 36% of our business from indies with a turnover of less than £10m.

"Second, we’ll continue to invest in the best new talent. The BBC of 2019 must reflect the Britain of 2019. We’ll keep seeking the next Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Stacey Dooley, Guz Khan, Tim Renkow or Mobeen Azhar.

"We’ll improve our support for diverse talent behind the camera, not only with our current schemes but with new opportunities that will be announced shortly.

"Third, we’ll continue to put the reinvention of BBC iPlayer at the heart of our plans. When it launched in 2007, it was revolutionary, but we now need to step up the pace of development to keep up with the market.

"Making sure we have an iPlayer that can compete on a level playing field with SVoDs and act as a showcase for the best British content is key to our future, especially if we want to remain relevant to young audiences. These are the viewers of the future and it’s critically important they feel they are getting value from the licence fee.

"Challenges lie ahead but, with so much talent available, brilliant creativity across the industry and an audience that is hungry for more, there has never been a more exciting or exhilarating time to work in TV."

Minority stake

Mmm.  Britbox, the very late re-invention of the BBC's Project Kangaroo, could be a nice little earner - for ITV. 

It starts off with ITV holding 90% of the equity, and the BBC 10%. The BBC has an option to acquire up to 25% in total over time. ITV will have the ability to bring additional investors on board. ITV appoints the majority of the BritBox board. The management team will be led by Reemah Sakaan, Group Director ITV SVOD, responsible for making editorial decisions about the service content while also ensuring alignment with ITV's and the BBC's branding and editorial policies. Reemah reports to Kevin Lygo, ITV’s Director of Television, who has overall commissioning responsibility for BritBox.

The BBC, like other contributors, will be paid "market rate fees" for its content, should Reemah fancy it. You will pay £5.99 a month.

Programme and party combined

It's always difficult getting end-of-show-party dosh at the BBC, but the producers of This Week pulled quite a stroke for a 'political' programme. The final episode was an hour and 10 minutes long (presumably pulling in twice the normal budget), and featured expensive (in copyright terms) filmed sequences, pastiching Grease; a wedding band; and a live and watered audience. All from Central Hall, Westminster (basic hire starts at £8k).

Fiscal illusions

It reads as a passage written with more than an economist's glee. In yesterday's Fiscal Risks report from the George Osborne-created Office of Budget Responsibility, comes a new Primary Spending Risk...

"The likely cost of the BBC’s recent decision to means-test free TV licences for the over-75s by
linking it to pension credit – thereby potentially prompting a material number of those
currently not taking it up to do so – poses a fiscal risk that we had not previously envisaged.
It is unusual for a government to delegate parameters of welfare policy to a broadcasting
company to save money. The unintended consequence is likely to be that the link to pension
credit receipt will raise welfare spending by more than bearing the remaining cost of free
licences reduces BBC spending, so the budget deficit will rise not fall. "

That summary may seem pointed enough, but there's loads more schadenfreude in the full analysis of the consequences of Osborne's cute 2015 attempted trammelling of the BBC. 

"Free TV licences for households including someone aged 75 or over were introduced in 2000,
with the BBC being compensated for the foregone revenue by the Department for Work and
Pensions (in effect transferring some of the BBC’s funding from licence fee receipts to general

"In 2006, the licence fee as a whole was reclassified as a tax, making the free licences
in effect a tax relief. All BBC income and spending is treated as part of the public sector finances.
In the July 2015 Budget the Government announced that compensation from DWP would be
withdrawn progressively, so that from 2020-21 the full cost of free TV licences would be borne
by the BBC. As part of that agreement, the Government gave the BBC responsibility for the policy
beyond the term of the then current Parliament, legislated for in the Digital Economy Act 2017.
We have assumed to date that the BBC would maintain the current system of free TV licences, so
that the reduction in compensation would reduce BBC spending and the budget deficit.

"However, the BBC launched a consultation on the future of the concession in November 2018,
and in June 2019 announced its decision not to maintain the current system but to focus
eligibility on households containing someone aged 75 or over who receives pension credit. A
report prepared for the BBC by Frontier Economics estimated that maintaining the current
regime would cost the BBC £745 million in 2021-22, but that means-testing it in this way would
reduce the cost to £209 million, after accounting for additional administration and compliance
costs but assuming no increase in pension credit claims. Announcing its decision, the BBC Board
estimated the full cost at £250 million, factoring in “implementation costs including compliance
with the new policy and possible increased take-up of pension credit”.

"The scale of any likely increase in pension credit claims is highly uncertain. If the £40 million
increase in costs estimated by the BBC Board were accounted for entirely by higher take-up, this
would imply around an extra 250,000 claimants, costing around £850 million depending on
their characteristics – more than the original move was expected to save the Government. And
since the BBC will spend the £500 million or so it saves by means-testing, the overall cost to the
public finances will be even greater relative to the assumptions in our latest forecast.

"DWP estimates there were around 470,000 people aged 75 or over who were entitled to the guarantee element of pension credit in 2016-17 but who did not receive it, almost 40 per cent of the total number entitled. These had an average entitlement of £65 a week, resulting in around £1.6 billion of unclaimed benefit among this age group.  So around half of that group would need to start claiming to wipe out the expected savings from transferring responsibility to the BBC and the BBC cutting its domestic spending by a corresponding amount. But if the BBC spends what it saves via means-testing free licences, that fraction would fall to only a sixth.

"Experience from 2003 to 2008, when DWP undertook extensive activity to encourage pension credit claims, suggests that very large increases in take-up are unlikely, but more than a sixth is quite possible. The critical difference this time is that potential claimants are facing a potential loss via the licence fee, whereas then they were only forgoing income they had never claimed. During this period, take-up of guarantee credit initially increased, but plateaued at between 70 and 80 per cent of those eligible. DWP narrowly missed its 2008 target of 2.2 million guarantee credit claims and fell further short of its 3.2 million target for pension credit.

"Part of this disconnect between the then estimates of entitled non-recipients and the ability for
DWP staff to identify them was thought to be shortcomings in the estimation methodology, in
particular mis-recording of benefit receipt by respondents to the family resources survey (FRS)
and the understatement of savings. But methodological improvements since then, including
matching FRS responses to administrative data, have increased rather than reduced estimated
non-take-up, partly as a result of better identification of disability benefit receipt, which further
increases the numbers entitled to pension credit (and the amounts they receive).

"The publicity associated with the latest change will also be different, with more scope for the BBC
to use its channels to advertise pension credit than DWP had with a limited communications
budget. The BBC has stated its aim to encourage take-up of pension credit, saying:

“… We want to raise the visibility of Pension Credit, which Age UK cites as one of the
reasons why people don’t claim, and have already written to charities and older people’s
groups to work together to do this. We have started a public information campaign which
includes using our airwaves and writing to all 4.6 million households setting out the new
scheme. We hope that pensioners will consider claiming as they could then be eligible for
around £2,500 and other benefits as well as a free TV licence.”

"DWP took a similar approach, but eventually concluded that “it would not represent value for
money to repeatedly press unwilling eligible people to take up their entitlement.”

"Today's over 75s might, however, have different experiences and awareness of the benefit
system, and attitudes to claiming, than their counterparts 15 years previously. This may increase
the likelihood of take-up. Between 2012-13 and 2016-17 the proportion of eligible people aged
75 or over taking up the guarantee element of pension credit has fallen by almost 10
percentage points. This is likely to reflect a combination of the lack of proactive take-up
promotion by DWP and the gradual reductions in pension credit as a whole as the savings credit
element has been eroded in value. If this fall in take-up were reversed, there would be around
120,000 extra claimants of pension credit, at an annual cost of around £400 million.

"The BBC’s announcement appears already to have had an effect. New pension credit claims
rose from 7,600 in the four weeks to 7 June (immediately prior to the announcement) to 9,300
in the four weeks to 4 July. After allowing for the fact that no new claims were made on the late
May bank holiday, that represents an increase of around a quarter.

"Potential knock-on effects of the BBC’s decision extend beyond pension credit. In particular the
act of claiming pension credit might prompt additional claims for attendance allowance,
particularly among those who receive advice from third parties. And for those renting their
homes, claiming pension credit could increase claims for housing benefit, though given the
higher level of take-up of housing benefit among pensioners (perhaps due to it often being paid
through a reduction in rent rather than as a benefit), the risks here appear smaller.

"In summary, it is relatively unusual for a government to delegate parameters of welfare policy to
a broadcasting company in an attempt to save money, and it is perhaps not surprising that this
may have unintended consequences. The BBC’s decision to means-test free TV licences via a link
to pension credit receipt may well raise welfare spending by more than it reduces BBC spending, particularly once the BBC spends the money it saves by means testing. The net effect on the
public finances would therefore be to push the budget deficit up not down.

"Government policy towards the licence fee in recent years also highlights the fiscal illusions and
policy risks to which hypothecated taxes or charges of this sort are prone. In principle the licence
fee is a charge that people choose to pay for the right to receive broadcast services, but the link
between the amount that licence holders pay and the money that the BBC spends providing its
share of those services has been weakened first by requiring it to pay for part of foreign policy
(the World Service from 2014) and now part of welfare policy. Given the fate of other attempts
to reduce the generosity of parts of the welfare system in recent years, there is also a risk that the
Government will step in to prevent or ameliorate the losses for those due to lose out. "

Thursday, July 18, 2019

More, more, more

The slow news offering, Tortoise, seems confident enough about its future to keep hiring. In the past month, it's secured the services of Alexi Mostrous from The Times, and Basia Cummings, from HuffPost. Also at their Eastcastle St, W1, HQ is Eleanor Scharer, billed as "Partners and Programming". Eleanor followed James Harding from The Times to the BBC.

And there's more to come.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


There were a number of prickly exchanges between Tories on the DCMS Select Committee and the BBC DG Lord Hall this afternoon.

The DG clearly wished observers to infer that the decision to bow to the imposition of Over 75 licences in the last Charter negotiations was made between George Osborne and the then BBC chairman Rona Fairhead (later a Tory Minister). His colour chart edged to magenta at any suggestion that the BBC was not 'honouring' a pledge in proposing a narrowing of free licences to those in receipt of Pension Credit; he insisted that both Osborne and Culture Secretary John Whittingdale knew that the BBC would have to test its continuation as a universal benefit for Over 75s - confirmed two years later in the Digital Economy Bill.

Damien Collins, chairing the Committee took delight in the vagueness of BBC published minutes at the time; if Lord Hall was as apopleptic then as now about the wrongness of this condition added to the Charter, why was not this choler reflected in the record ?  Maybe that'll encourage better minutes in future - they couldn't possible be less informative than they are at the moment.

New finance chief Glyn Isherwood got a little roughed over on the staged reduction in payments received from the Department for Work and Pensions, which means the BBC coughing up £450m this financial year for the benefit, before taking full responsibility in 2020/21. He needs more practice dealing with the farmyard economics of Philip Davies MP. Mr Isherwood was on surer ground with continuing attempts to resolve the Personal Service Companies mess with the HMRC, which he approached with admirable frankness.   


Some head-scratching at MediaCityUK this morning, where one of the popular sheet anchors of the BBC operation there, Ian Bent, has resigned.

As Head of Radio Production, North, Ian runs a department that makes programmes for Radio 4 (You and Yours, Countdown, Round Britain Quiz), Radio 3 and The World Service. He has worked as a reporter, presenter, producer and editor on programmes across Local Radio, Radio 2, 3, 4, 5, 5 live, 6 Music and World Service.

Radio 4 hasn't been generous with Salford in the past, re-calling some editions of Woman's Hour back to London, to 'save money'.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Fast mover

The press release said Mohit Bakaya would take up his role as Controller Radio 4 in August; the Radio 4 commissioning site has him already in place, with Kirsten Lass acting in Mo's old role as Commissioner Factual.

An app for it

What news of media thought-leader Ashley Highfield, once of Microsoft, the BBC and Johnson Press ?

He's been re-invented as "Henley Partners", which seems light on accuracy, given he's the only Partner, and it's based in his Kensington W8 home. He's come up with an app, to help small businesses target newspaper/online ads. He's largely full of himself.

Only at the BBC

Machines are going to watch and listen to old BBC programmes, so they can work out what to recommend to us punters who've shared the deepest and darkest sides of our broadcasting preferences by signing up for iPlayer and BBC Sounds. That's bound to work, eh ?  Nonetheless, a bunch of John Lewis vouchers to the wordsmith who came up with 'enrichment engines', only previously used in Formula 1.

"We have ambitions to increase our understanding of our content catalogue using machine learning based enrichment engines to generate new metadata."

"The Platform team are developing two content enrichment capabilities; enrichment engines and infrastructure to support enrichment engines. The enrichment engines need to generate metadata based on inputs such as transcripts, audio and video for use in recommender systems, search engines and more. The supporting infrastructure needs to enable builders of engines to be able to easily integrate them into the BBC’s content pipeline, allowing for experimentation and measurement of impact."

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