Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the BBC

  1.  The BBC is grateful for the Select Committee's invitation to provide written evidence for its forthcoming further inquiry into Communications policy and the Government's plans for a Communications Bill. In this short memorandum, the BBC will focus on those issues identified by the Committee which appear most directly to be concerned with the BBC, that is:

    —  Defining and providing public service broadcasting;

    —  The development and promotion of digital services;

    —  Progress towards digital switchover;

    —  Ensuring universal access to digital services;

and, in the context of other key issues which have arisen during debate on the OFCOM Bill currently before Parliament, the question of how the BBC is regulated and governed.


  2.  The BBC agrees with both the Select Committee and the Government in seeing a continuing role for public service broadcasting in the digital age.

  3.  In the debates around the Communications White Paper and the Paving Bill, it has often been suggested that the BBC lacks a detailed written remit or clear purposes for its public services in the digital age. The BBC would take issue with both suggestions:

  4.  The BBC does have a very clear remit for its UK public services, contained within its Agreement with the Secretary of State, which is at least as detailed as any placed upon UK public service broadcasters. The remit includes general measures such as high quality output and editorial integrity; requirements designed to ensure that the BBC meets the needs and interests of audiences, for example by providing wide-ranging sports coverage, educational programming, and children's programmes; and specific scheduling obligations, for example through the requirement to include an impartial account of Parliamentary proceedings in our daily output.

  5.  The BBC's Governors have been able from this to derive a clear sense of the BBC's role and responsibilities. In his last oral evidence to the Committee, the previous Chairman identified a number of public service criteria which the BBC's output should seek to fulfil, namely:

    —  Universality B Programming which is available and accessible to everyone, free at the point of delivery, and which provides something for everyone.

    —  Quality B Programming which, regardless of genre, is of the highest quality in terms of concept, production values, and performance.

    —  Distinctiveness B A good public service broadcaster needs to produce not just good programmes, but programmes that are different from the rest of the market by finding new genres and revitalising old ones.

    —  Range and Diversity B The BBC needs to cover the full range of genres B our annual report lists 22 B and to be diverse in its coverage of them. That also means ensuring a mix of programmes across peak hours, and paying careful attention to the scheduling of news.

    —  Supplementing the Market B The BBC like other public service broadcasters has a responsibility to remedy any deficiencies in the market in terms of genre, by providing what others either cannot or will not. But to limit any public service broadcaster to those services not available in the market is to guarantee public service failure.

    —  Encouraging culture and creativity B The BBC has an ongoing responsibility to encourage culture in the broadest sense, to stimulate and to showcase creativity in directing, producing, writing and performing across the whole of the UK. This means taking risks and breaking down barriers in ways that will sometimes fail spectacularly, and that will sometimes extend the cultural agenda in sensational new directions.

    —  Independence and Impartiality B The BBC must always strive to set the highest standards of independence and impartiality in its news and current affairs coverage, and to deal with any complaints swiftly and effectively.

    —  Reflecting the Nation B The BBC must try to reflect the differing parts of our nation to the nation as a whole, and in a devolved and multi-cultural United Kingdom, to provide a means by which people can relate to and understand each other at local, national, and global levels.

    —  Support for Citizenship B The BBC has a substantial role in supporting democratic debate on issues of national and local significance by providing easy access to the information that citizens need to make informed choices.

  6.  In addition, the Governors set out each year a number of specific objectives for the BBC which reflect these criteria and against which they assess the BBC's performance. As an example, over the year 2000-2001 objectives for the Corporation included:

    —  Develop proposals to deliver BBC core purposes of creativity, citizenship and learning in the digital age.

    —  Strengthen BBC One, as well as all core TV and radio services, with a particular focus on offering a richer mix of content.

    —  Demonstrate improved services to the whole of the UK as part of the BBC's ongoing response to devolution.

    —  Deliver greater value for money for licence payers year on year through increased efficiency and more effective commercial activities.

    —  Ensure the BBC serves and is valued by currently underserved audiences, particularly the young and minority ethnic audiences.

    —  Improve diversity internally B to 10 per cent of staff from minority ethnic backgrounds by the end of 2003, with an increase from 2 per cent to 4 per cent at senior management levels.

    —  Improve openness and accountability to all stakeholders.

  7.  These annual objectives are designed to ensure that the BBC's public service remit remains at the heart of corporate strategy, and reflect the fact that while the BBC's public service purpose remains constant, the organisation and its output need continually to evolve over time in order to ensure that both remain true to their purpose.


  8.  As we enter the truly digital age, the BBC continues to produce programming and schedule mixed services in the best traditions of public service broadcasting, in ways that engage audiences more than ever before.

  9.  BBC ONE remains the television flagship channel, delivering the quintessential public service aim B making the good popular and the popular good. Examples of the diverse range of high quality, distinctive public service programming on BBC ONE in the last year include Blue Planet, Space, The Way We Live Now, Rolf on Art, Linda Green, and Son of God, all of them broadcast in peak time. BBC TWO meanwhile has contributed groundbreaking series such as the History of Britain, The Congo, Band of Brothers, Marion and Geoff, Blood of the Vikings, What the Victorians Did for Us, Islam UK and Bridges.

  10.  On radio, highlights of public service broadcasting in the last year have included Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time, debating the history of ideas and their application in modern life; Taking a Stand in which Fergal Keane talks to people who, out of conviction or circumstance, have taken a stand on a significant issue; and The Irving Trial, which featured contributions from all the protagonists in this extraordinary case, including, for the first time ever, an interview with the judge himself.

  11.  Our commitment to high quality news is also undiminished. On 11 September 33 million people accessed BBC news services. Panorama has seen audiences rise by 9 per cent over recent months in its new BBC ONE slot, and a year after the introduction of the BBC Ten O'Clock News, between five and six million viewers are turning to the service. Both Newsnight and BBC online news services are being called on by more people than ever before, and this autumn the BBC also launched an interactive news service specifically for digital television viewers.

  12.  A key part of the BBC's strategy going forward is to develop public service content for those who have previously felt excluded from mainstream public service broadcasting. Each of our planned new services seeks to add value to the BBC's output for the nation as a whole, and to serve wide-ranging, and in some cases under-served, audiences better than ever before:

    —  BBC 4 will provide more extensive coverage of the arts, sciences, history, philosophy and current affairs.

    —  Cbeebies will bring high quality, UK-produced education and entertainment to young children, free from advertising.

    —  CBBC will include new exciting drama, comedy, entertainment, news and factual programmes for older children B again, free from advertising.

    —  Among our new radio services, Network X will provide Black music with an emphasis on new artists, alongside around 20 per cent speech content including news and factual programmes for a primarily young audience.

    —  Network Y will provide an outlet for popular music from the BBC's archive from the 1970s to the 1990s.

    —  Network Z will bring to a broad audience the best of new and archive comedy, drama, stories and features, with programmes aimed at both adults and children.

    —  Five Live Sports Extra will provide greater choice of live sports coverage, allowing fuller exploitation of rights belonging to the licence payer, increasing live sports coverage.

    —  The Asian Network will become the only national network focused entirely on the interest of Asian audiences in the UK, providing a wide range of programmes, from news and current affairs to entertainment and music.

    —  The World Service will formally become part of the BBCs UK digital radio offering for the first time.

  13.  When she approved most of the BBCs proposals for new digital television and radio services, the Secretary of State asked the BBC to come back to her with revised proposals for BBC THREE (which was to replace the evening schedule on BBC CHOICE). Our new proposal has now been presented to her for approval and has been published so that others in the industry can offer her their views. The new proposition remains focussed on the needs of younger adult viewers, but differs considerably from our previous proposal:

    —  It will offer a much greater commitment to news, current affairs, education, music and the arts, which will now account for over one third of new programming for the channel.

    —  It will have a greater commitment to promoting new talent on and off screen.

    —  It will focus more heavily on reflecting not only every nation and region of the UK but also the multicultural, multiethnic society that is modern Britain.

    —  It will include much more online and interactive support.


  14.  Digital television is a UK success story, with the fastest growth in Europe, beating all expectations. While subsidies for set top boxes from pay-TV operators have helped drive that success, it has to be recognised that those subsidies will not continue forever. Indeed, Sky has now withdrawn their free box and minidish offer for non-subscribers, so that those wishing to watch only free-to-view channels through digital satellite are now required to pay, 215 in addition to the, 100 installation charge. Boxes are still freely available to those subscribing to pay-TV services, who also continue to benefit from subsidised installation costs. Subscription packages start at, 10 a month. However, it is clear from a number of pieces of independent research that a large proportion of the population will not be attracted to migrate to digital solely by the prospect of subscribing to more pay services. DTV needs to move to become the natural way to receive TV, available to everyone, not just for first sets but for the second and third sets too.

  15.  Digital radio is very different to digital TV, although many of the same issues apply. The digital radio market is only just emerging, with the sale of around 40,000 receivers so far. It is expected that this will pick up during 2002 as receivers become available at prices between, 99 and, 199, and as car manufacturers start fitting digital receivers as a standard feature.

  16.  Across both TV and radio, the BBC believes it has a vital role to play in making digital a universal proposition and that its new services will greatly increase the attractiveness of the free to air TV offering and of digital radio.

  17.  BBC TV channels have been present on every platform from the outset. Its interactive services B eg Walking with Beasts and Wimbledon B are unique in using such innovative technology to add value to public services, not for driving revenue. They have also attracted large numbers of people into using the interactive capability of the DTV platform B around one million digital satellite viewers accessed our enhanced Wimbledon coverage each day (c 20 per cent of subscribers to the platform), while more than 1.8 million viewers of the Walking with Beasts series used the additional interactive features at least once. Indeed, we believe that such services have an important role to play in driving digital take-up.

  18.  The BBC was the UK's digital radio pioneer, having broadcast its existing national networks in digital form since 1995. The launch of the new digital stations during 2002 will significantly enhance the diversity and range of services available digitally, and act as a real driver for take-up, coinciding with the availability of affordable receivers.

  19.  The BBC is also investing heavily in marketing to drive take up and diminish consumer confusion. We have put together a comprehensive multimedia strategy to provide information about the full range of options for consumers. We are currently running on-air trails for digital services which we expect to reach 90 per cent of the adult population over December and January, we have worked with broadcasters, retailers, manufacturers and platform operators to produce public information leaflets, we have launched a dedicated website which averages 25-30,000 page impressions a week, and we provide information through Ceefax and via a BBC telephone helpline, which has already received more than 20,000 calls.

   20.  Our digital promotion plan for 2002 was published last month, and our intention is to step up activity over the year ahead. Our on air promotions, print, poster and leaflet promotions will increase significantly, an enhanced website and call centre service will become available, and we will continue the joint campaigns with retailers and manufacturers. Our expectation is that by the end of 2002, everyone will have seen at least a hundred promotions.


  21.  The BBC supports the Government's attempts to balance the universal availability of digital television services with the aim of achieving full digital switchover.

  22.  Reaching the Government's timescale for switchover of 2006-2010 will however be a challenge. Among the measures which will support progress on this timetable are:

    —  An acknowledgement by the Government that the achievement of universal digital coverage will rely upon a mixture of distribution platforms B that universal coverage by a single platform will not be feasible within this timescale.

    —  Genuine co-operation with the industry on the projects in the Digital Action Plan, including spectrum reallocation and the coverage of public services, and in the management of the Plan itself.

    —  A strong free-to-air offering to provide an incentive for consumers to convert to digital.

    —  Co-ordinated marketing to address consumer confusion.

    —  The development of a cheap route to accessing free to air services only.

    —  Switchover itself would be helped by some measures specific to DTT.

    —  A rolling programme of region by region B or even transmitter by transmitter-switchover, to allow problems to be ironed out and momentum to build, rather than relying on a single date.

    —  A system of analogue conversion B migrating some DTT services to existing analogue frequencies. This will allow the power of digital transmissions to be increased (because analogue frequencies have international frequency clearance), giving greater coverage to fixed aerials and portable sets. Although this would require a clear commitment from government to reserve some existing spectrum for this use, a policy of analogue conversion will deliver almost universal coverage by DTT, combined with regionality and the release of spectrum.


  23.  For public service broadcasters to play their full role in the digital age, consumers must be guaranteed continuing access to their services, no matter which digital platform they choose.

  24.  The BBC therefore welcomes the Government's commitment to ensuring that public service television channels, including all the BBCs licence-fee funded public service channels, are available free at the point of use to every viewer. But in addition it is essential that consumers are also guaranteed easy access to the public services from the electronic programme guides which they increasingly rely on, and which are operated by pay-TV retailers. The ITC and Oftel have recognised that, notwithstanding their current regulation of electronic programme guides, the ease with which consumers can find the public service channels is still dependent, to a considerable degree, upon the co-operation of the pay-TV operators. The BBC hopes that the regulators will now consider revising the existing regulations both to ensure their effectiveness and take full account of developments in the four years since they were published.

  25.  The BBC particularly welcomes the proposed clarification of the Amust carry@provisions, and the Government's support for the position that cable operators must provide such carriage without charge to the broadcasters. We believe that the statutory underpinning of this requirement should be flexible enough to be applied, without further primary legislation, to other closed distribution platforms which may emerge over the coming years.

  26.  As far as satellite systems are concerned the BBC is concerned that the maintenance of the obligations on conditional access operators of Afair, reasonable and non-discriminatory access@ alone may not be enough to ensure that public service broadcasters are offered all the facilities they require to ensure that they meet the obligation to reach their customers. What is fair and reasonable in relation to broadcasters in general may not be sufficient in relation to public service broadcasters with universal reach obligations and which therefore cannot walk away from any negotiation if the terms offered are unsatisfactory. The BBC considers that such operators should be placed under a specific regulatory obligation to offer all such facilities to public service broadcasters, where necessary treating them differently from other broadcasters, in order to deliver a specific outcome B the public policy objective of universal viewer access. We hope that the Communications Bill will provide for such an obligation in order to meet the Government's stated objective of the universal availability of public service channels.


  27.  The BBC recognises that while it has a unique role to play in the digital marketplace, it still has to operate within that marketplace. How it is governed and regulated therefore needs to reflect elements of its operation.

  28.  The aim of any regulatory framework must be to create a level playing field in all respects in which the BBC is analogous to other broadcasters. This is what the Government intends and the White Paper effectively delivered, as set out by Baroness Blackstone during the Lords Committee Stage of the OFCOM Bill.

  29.  The BBC, like all other broadcasters, will be subject to basic content standards, set by OFCOM (ATier 1@). Like all other public service broadcasters it will be subject to quotas and targets agreed with OFCOM (ATier 2@), as well as the requirement to publish Statements of Programming (ATier 3@). Furthermore, the BBC will continue to be subject to all aspects of competition law, in future regulated by OFCOM/OFT.

  30.  It is in connection with the interpretation of the remit where most attention has focussed. Here too, however, both ITV and the BBC will be left to interpret their own remit. ITVs broad remit is set out in legislation, but it will interpret this in a Statement of Programme Policies, which it will draw up independently of the regulator. Only if it fails to deliver over a long period could OFCOM re-impose more detailed programming requirements. The BBCs remit is set out in the Charter. The BBC will also interpret this through its own Statements of Programme Policies agreed with, and monitored by, the Governors each year. Their judgements will be reported in the Annual Report and the BBCs accountability to Parliament will allow Members to question the Governors' findings. If the BBC consistently fails to deliver the public interest, the Government may seek to address such matters through its powers over the appointment of the Governors, or by setting more rigorous requirements in a new Charter or in a revised Agreement.

  31.  Beyond the three tiers of formal regulation, the BBC is unique among broadcasters in being subject to rigorous Parliamentary regulation, and scrutiny. At the end of each Charter period the Government can make fundamental changes to the BBCs obligations and how it is governed. New services need Government approval after many months of public and industry consultation and advice from regulators. The Select Committee has held an annual hearing on publication of the BBCs annual report B the BBC welcomes this process and would hope to see it continue.

  32.  Within this framework, the BBC sees a vital and continuing role for the Board of Governors. The Governors are there to deliver what is unique about the BBC B its remit. In doing so, they must allow no other consideration to come before the public interest. OFCOM on the other hand will have many conflicting objectives B including the promotion of commercial broadcasting. The BBC believes that, facing these conflicting objectives, OFCOM could not be relied upon not to bring outside interests to bear which have nothing to do with the public interest in the BBC.

  33.  The challenge to the BBC and its Board is to ensure that its unique system of governance, underpinning the delivery of the remit, works and is seen to work. Many improvements have been introduced over the decades. The Board is now looking closely at how to build upon the White Paper framework to ensure the highest standards of governance and public accountability.

17 January 2002

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Prepared 27 February 2002