Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-351)

24 APRIL 2007


  Q340  Chairman: But every newspaper is investing huge amounts in going online.

  Mr Thompson: In my view, if you actually look at what is available on the BBC News website in terms of global coverage of news around the world, my contention, and you may disagree, would be that there is still a strong case for the BBC providing that service, but, if you say to me, "Should the BBC provide an online encyclopaedia?", I would say that, in addition to any commercial offerings that are available, with the existence of something like Wikipedia, which is quite an interesting category of publicly minded, universally available content on the web, you would say that the BBC should not provide an online encyclopaedia. I would say that the task of the BBC, first of all, on the web is to look at those areas, and I would make the case that journalism is one of them, where we can do something which is distinctive and which adds to the richness available on the web, but for the BBC, firstly, not itself to assume that it should do everything on the web, we should not and we do not and we will not, but again in a sense I think you have to apply the same kinds of tests in the context of the PSP and, rather like Channel 4, it seems to me clarity about what is the remit, what are the public purposes which are being set here for the PSP, how will they be governed and how will the performance of it be judged against its objectives. Now, you may or may not support them, but, if you look at the White Paper, the Charter and Agreement, the public purposes of the BBC are laid out there and there is an entire regulatory mechanism set in place to try and hold the BBC to account against those public services and, in a way, that kind of process, it seems to me, is something that you want to go through at the start before you start throwing money or throwing your cap in the air about an idea like the PSP.

  Q341  Helen Southworth: I was fairly astonished to find out that with digital television there are now 23 dedicated channels providing programmes for children, yet that is not necessarily making people feel particularly comfortable about the quality of the provision that is available to children. Can you tell us just a bit about what you think is happening to the market at the moment and then about what the BBC is going to do as a leader in this process?

  Mr Thompson: I think there are two or three things happening and it is worth noting them all. Continuous channels work very well for children and young parents so that they can watch whenever it is convenient to them, and we are seeing, and have seen over time, a shift from viewing of children's programmes in general networks like ITV1, BBC One, towards continuous channels. Secondly, on those channels, children's appetite for animation, for cartoons, particularly American cartoons, is very high. The products, the cartoons, are relatively cheap to buy and you can run them on very high repeat cycles, so running such a network is a relatively lean operation, as a result of which there are a very large number of such networks and, because of that, because of the elementary supply and demand issues, the value of the commercial impact, the actual value to advertisers of such channels is quite low, so the money available to go ahead to, for example, make original British children's content is very low which is why, although there is some on Disney and elsewhere, there is very, very little indeed. Most recently, the Ofcom decision in the matter of the advertising of unhealthy foods in advertising slots where children are likely to be watching is going to have a further depressing effect on the amount of money available for investing in original British programmes. Therefore, the BBC's position, I think, goes like this: that we believe that our principal mission, and we run some cartoons, some animations, in our schedules and that is partly because that is a way of getting children to watch programmes like Newsround and Blue Peter, but our view is that we remain committed to providing mixed schedules of high-quality, British programming for British children, so a programme which, in various ways, reflects our national children's literature and the best of modern writing for children which, with programmes like Newsround, tries to bring journalism to children and so on, that is what we want to try and do and it is a matter of concern to us that the market as a whole does seem to be closing in at the moment.

  Q342  Helen Southworth: There have been suggestions that the market is getting critical. What do you think?

  Mr Thompson: I think that, because of the factors I have talked about taken together, my own view is that plurality of supply of British children's programming is not quite as critical as plurality in the context of news, but it is clearly desirable that there should be a range of providers of British programming not least because, if you are a maker or if you are, for example, an independent producer making children's programmes, it is nice to have more than one organisation to sell your wares to, so I am not sure whether the term "going critical" is perhaps overstating it, but I think there are some really quite serious concerns about how much original children's commissioning and production there will be beyond the BBC.

  Q343  Helen Southworth: Are you setting specific targets for the work that you are going to be doing to commission for children's television over the next period?

  Mr Thompson: Well, the children's networks will have, under this new regime, service licences and agreements with targets for the origination, for the minimum proportion of independent commissions in that mix and all the rest of it. We are also looking at ways of more effectively linking what we do on television, the radio and the web together, but our ambition is that, where we can, we want, in a sense, to work well with parents to deliver the best possible services that work in Britain's households. For example, we do not make programmes for very small children, two and under, and, when we do make programmes for younger children on CBeebies, wherever possible we try and make sure that it is done with expert advice on child development, linguistic development and so forth, so programmes like Teletubbies are intended actually to be useful in child development. We would not recommend that children watch many, many hours of television every day. For older children, we are very focused on helping them find ways of using the Internet safely, for example, so safety on the Internet and, more broadly, media literacy are a big part of what we try and do. We try and make sure that, for children in the classroom, there are opportunities to use our news website and our news programmes to learn more about citizenship and about society, and we have recently done a very big thing called School Report, inviting thousands of schoolchildren to effectively take part in making their own news programmes, so we are trying, where we can, to work with parents, with teachers and with children themselves to produce environments for children which have got decent, valuable content which are safe and where both children and parents know what to expect and when.

  Q344  Helen Southworth: You spoke earlier about the public service concept as, in your view, being not just about plugging a gap in the market, but also about quality and standard-setting and sort of ratcheting up expectations that viewers could see could be achieved. How important, do you think, is the role the BBC has in children's television in that area?

  Mr Thompson: I think it is an incredibly important example actually. I would say that it is incredibly important which is why, when we have the problem we have had recently on Blue Peter, it feels like such a very serious mistake to us, and it has been so mortifying for everyone who works on that programme because we try and set ourselves high standards everywhere, but, in our children's programmes, we know that one of the good things about the BBC at its best is that the public have learnt to trust the BBC and what it stands for and we must not abuse that trust.

  Q345  Helen Southworth: We have been told that quite basically, without further intervention, the BBC is likely to become the only supplier of UK-originated children's television. Do you think that that is a reasonable statement and, if so, what, do you think, needs to be done?

  Mr Thompson: I think that my prediction would be that you will continue to see some entertainment and music-related programming and probably some factual programming being made for the commercial children's channels. In fact, already today it is true that we are, I think, almost on our own in terms of children's drama. We think that providing drama for children, whether adapted from classics or contemporary drama, is very important and we also are now trying to produce rather more family-orientated drama, and programmes like Doctor Who and Robin Hood are an attempt to provide programming which children can enjoy in a family context. Already I think we are today pretty much on our own in making drama for children.

  Q346  Helen Southworth: What about teenagers? How significant is the BBC in terms of that very, very important group of children?

  Mr Thompson: Well, teenagers and, in particular, looking at younger teenagers and, in particular, younger girls, 12-15, was one of the things that we said we wanted to find some more output in our licence fee bid. They are obviously a very important group, they bump into the BBC in the classroom and, if they are interested in music, they might well bump into us on Radio One, but there is not, for someone like BBC Television, much drama and in fact, if you take British television, there is not much drama, particularly for younger teenagers, which speaks to them and sees the world from their perspective, but it is a good example of something we have to weigh up against all the other priorities that we see in front of us.

  Q347  Helen Southworth: Is the Board going to be taking this very seriously, the entire issue of children's television?

  Mr Thompson: Yes, I think that certainly the Management Board does and I would expect the Trust, just as the Governors historically have done, to regard, in the broadest sense, our service to young people as being particularly important to them, but also crucial to their parents. It is one of the things that the British public look to the BBC to do really well.

  Ms Thomson: Just as a supplementary on what could be done to help provide more production, children's programmes production, in the UK or indeed in the EU, one of the interesting things is of course that the Television Without Frontiers Directive has suggestions for quotas of EU production for television channels, but says that they apply "only where practical", or something, so traditionally they are not applied to the satellite channels. Actually, if each of the commercial satellite children's channels was just encouraged to make half an hour of original content every week, so only one half-hour a week per channel, you would pretty well have as much commissioning of content in the UK as you get from the whole of ITV Children at the moment, so there are ways of at least moral persuasion perhaps for some of the channels which are operating big in the British market for children where a lot of them will have corporate social responsibility programmes and so on, and one half-hour a week of production, if they all did it, would help the production base a lot.

  Mr Thompson: When it comes back to the idea of top-slicing the licence fee, what we have got though in CBBC and our children's department is a kind of critical mass of people who are passionate about making programmes and content for children and who often will start in one area of entertainment or factual programming and go into drama and all the rest of it. If you split that up, split up the investment, I am not sure you could keep that college going, I am not sure you would keep that sense of critical mass going. It is recognised around the world as being the strongest, single kind of critical mass of this kind of talent and, in a way, although I can understand the arguments for splitting the BBC's resources, I think you would end up in the end again probably undermining the one last piece of really strong children's production.

  Chairman: We need to move on to our next session, but, before we do, there is one other issue which we have already touched on which impacts upon our next session.

  Q348  Paul Farrelly: Last year, you piloted what has come to be known as "ultra local TV" and that, on my patch, included Staffordshire TV which, I am afraid, rather passed me by and I never saw it. I was invited to go and see it being made, but actually fitting that in was difficult and I was never dragged out to College Green while down here or called up locally and asked to appear on it, so it fizzled out, as far as I was concerned. That briefly said, Chairman, on paper I am quite keen on that sort of local television because what we find around the country is that a lot of news is delivered by local newspaper monopolies and quite often we, as politicians, think, "Thank heaven for BBC radio", but, particularly as a former journalist, I believe that competition actually increases standards in journalism and more competition would be healthy, so after the pilot scheme and after the licence fee settlement, which means you have got to order your priorities, what is the future for the BBC in providing that sort of local form of television?

  Mr Thompson: I think that the pilot as a whole, and I am sorry that we missed at least one star during the pilot—

  Q349  Paul Farrelly: Maybe it was very good editorial judgment!

  Mr Thompson: I think the pilot was quite interesting and has raised some quite big questions for us, in particular, what is the best way of getting such a service to the public. We tried broadband, we also tried a wheel on satellite so that you could get news from Staffordshire at 10 minutes past the hour, sort of thing, every hour. I think there are some quite big questions about, in particular, satellite distribution. I think there are two more things I would say. Firstly, listening quite carefully to the anxieties and objections of the local and regional newspaper lobby, in a way, one of the things I would like to try and do as we think about local television is again engage more closely with, if you like, our critics and try and work out whether there are ways of addressing their concerns in the eventual proposal we make. The brutal thing to say is that this is a really good example of effectively a new commitment which I think inevitably you have to put a big question mark against, given the settlement that we have got, and I certainly cannot today give you an undertaking that we are going to proceed with it. I can see the benefits of it, I think it would complement what we do with local radio and on our Where I Live sites, but, I have to say, in a tight licence fee settlement it is a good example where you might have to say, "Well, we can do something, but we certainly perhaps can't do the original vision", so we will just have to look at it and line it up against the other priorities we have got.

  Q350  Paul Farrelly: Is one of the options you are considering possibly launching in selected areas in the future in co-operation with local newspapers and, if so, how would you address the competition point of view?

  Mr Thompson: I think that, whatever happened, such a service would have a roll-out over time. BBC English local radio began in the late 1960s and some would argue that the roll-out is not yet complete and there are one or two areas which are still underserved by local radio, so there would be a roll-out over time and, as a corporation, as I have said, what we need to do is to figure out, after the pilot, but also listening to the local and regional newspaper groups, whether there is a way in which, if we do propose something in this area, we can do it in a way which does the best it can to allay their fears. I have to say, there will always be some people who, in a sense, will say that, no matter how little, frankly, practical reality there is behind it, in theory, they might at some point wish to do this and, therefore, it would be quite wrong for the BBC to come in and foreclose the market. I think that the dialogue that we have had with the newspaper groups actually has been so far a constructive one, I take their concerns seriously and, as we develop the proposal, if we do decide we can develop it given our funding, I hope we can do something which, as far as possible, goes at least a long way to allay the fears which have been expressed about the service.

  Paul Farrelly: I was going to move on, but have been instructed not to because of time, to show platform prejudice to distinguish between the news which is a free on PCs against news delivered through mobile telephones which people pay for, but we will move on to that and the impact of the market when we see the Trust. I only mention it now so that my old Reuters colleague, Mark Wood at ITN, knows we have not forgotten him!

  Chairman: We will be seeing you again in July, I believe, so we will return to some of these things.

  Q351  Mr Sanders: On this question of local television, is this not precisely the area that you should not be involved in? If there is a demand for local television, leave it to the marketplace.

  Mr Thompson: I think what I want to say to Mr Sanders is that the BBC is already present in media up and down the country with local radio stations and with local websites. To some extent, this debate, when you get right down to it, is not fundamentally about a completely new service, but to what extent the websites should include rich audiovisual content, reports from our reporters with lightweight cameras as well as with microphones for the radio and so on; it is about an evolution of local provision which you can see happening in many other parts of the world already. What I would say is that my presumption, if you look at a couple of things and, firstly, if you look at the local radio environment, by and large actually, the path of BBC local radio and independent local radio editorially has been diverging. In other words, I think BBC local radio is today more distinctive, more focused around speech, debate, news and information and in most markets, not in all, but in most markets actually local radio is moving towards a much more music-driven package and we have seen one or two, and I can think of Saga, for example, speech-based models actually moving more towards music. It is not obvious to me that this is an area of market convergence necessarily around a particular editorial proposition. The second thing, I think, to say is that it depends on what we actually propose. There are very big categories of local media, for example, classified advertising, for example, information about local entertainment and a click-through to buying tickets, where the BBC again should not be involved. That is absolutely appropriately left to the market and indeed my view is that we should actually link from our sites to places where people, if they want to do those things, can find us, and I see much more of a partnership model where the BBC, if you look, for example, at our pilot in the West Midlands, we were at every count of last year's local elections, every single count. Now, we have never been able to do that in our history. We can bring the detail and the texture of local democracy to the audience in pictures as well as sound in a way we have never done before. Honestly, nobody else in the market is going to do that, so I would say, "What can the BBC do which is going to be useful and valuable and what can the market do?", and let us see if there is a way in which we can co-exist.

  Chairman: I think that is a good note on which to end. Thank you very much.

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