Alec Shelbrooke: Way forward for BBC in new age of broadcasting

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THIS Christmas there will be more repeats than ever before across the traditional terrestrial four channels. Commercial broadcasters will have taken these decisions to maximise their advertising revenue during this period, but what is the BBC’s excuse?

The BBC is something we should all value, recognising its unique role, but that does not mean we should avoid holding it to account for the content provided.

Public service broadcasting offers a range of services that simply would not be viable in the commercial world.

Millions of people listen to Radio 3, Radio 4, Radio 5 Live, World Service, local radio and 6music; all of which would struggle unsupported. Yet in recent years – even decades – a ratings war and popularity contest has seen the BBC lose sight of the underlying importance of taxpayer-funded television.

The BBC’s founding charter set the demand to inform, educate and entertain. Before the advent of commercial television this was enough, but as competition rose from the private sector, questions arose about ensuring the provision of economically unviable broadcasts.

Consequently the balance was struck between the ability to invest in new programming, which sometimes fails and sometimes creates entertainment hits and legends.

This year across BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4, in the two weeks from today, 63 per cent of programmes will be repeats. ITV will show 57 per cent of repeats and Channel 4 72 per cent. As these are commercial stations, that is their choice.

However, BBC1 will show 47 per cent repeats and BBC2 a jaw- dropping 74 per cent; higher than any other channel.

Although Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have 90 per cent new programming, where is the public service on the other 12 days of Christmas?

Many people think fondly of seeing repeats of Only Fools and Horses, or Dad’s Army, or Morecambe and Wise and indeed they have a place. But why is it that these headline-grabbing repeats were made such a long time ago?

It may be because the majority of the public regard this as the heyday of the BBC and don’t want to leave it? Or perhaps it is because not enough new, ground-breaking material is coming through.

Many argue that this situation is caused by a freeze in the licence fee, but at £145.50 – in times of austerity – a significant further rise in this regressive tax would be devastating to hard- working families and pensioners, struggling to get by.

Yet, equally, it is disingenuous to paint a picture that the licence fee is the only way in which the BBC can fund itself. In 2013 Top Gear and Dr Who alone made £300m for the BBC commercial arm. So if finances are tight, surely the time has come to look at a model similar to the Republic of Ireland’s and allow commercial revenue though advertising alongside the licence fee?

Immediately this would worry commercial stations as the revenue pot from advertising is finite. However, with the BBC always entering a ratings war with ITV, the competition already exists and has driven ITV to turn its fortunes around in recent years, commissioning and broadcasting some of Britain’s best loved dramas; Lewis, Broadchurch and Downton Abbey to name a few.

This commercialisation proposal is not to replace the licence fee nor reduce it. It is to help fund the BBC by utilising and exploiting its commercially viable and popular programmes; then using the taxpayer contribution for new material and talent.

This month the BBC announced its plans for BBC3, which is to become an online channel, broadcasting comedy and thought-provoking content for 24 hours a day.

This is a positive move by the BBC as it exploits the online platforms and services that it has invested our money in and seeks to educate, inform and entertain the younger generations.

What is thoroughly disappointing to me, however, is that the BBC has once again failed to exploit its uniqueness and has opted to fill the terrestrial broadcast gap left by BBC3 with a BBC1 + 1: repeats. This is wasteful, as BBC iPlayer already provides this service for repeats and as such only benefits a minority of the public who do not have catch up capability.

A better use of this platform and true to the founding principles of the BBC would 
be to make this channel 
“BBC Breakthrough”, one giving a platform to new talent, be it from comedy or original programming, that may well produce the cultural and comedic gems that the BBC was so capable of in the past

It is not the quantity of repeats that is so disappointing with the BBC this Christmas, it is that 
the proportion gets higher each year.

There will always be a demand – especially at Christmas – to see some good old family favourites, but where are the next generation’s family favourites coming from?

The BBC is a jewel in our national heritage for what it contributes to our society.

It must ensure it uses our money to push new boundaries and create new, long-lasting content.

• Alec Shelbrooke is the Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell.