The future just happened

11 07 2007

What’s going on over at the BBC? A bit of futuristic navel gazing in the speech writing department? Another opportunity to trot out some Tardis metaphors (yes, we know Doctor Who is a big show) to paint a picture of Britain in 2012?

First came the Creative Future; then new media director Ashley Highfield’s amusing fast-forward to 2009 at last summer’s Edinburgh TV Festival, predicting TV’s long tail accounting for 25% of all consumption (the bit about Microsoft’s digital home finally working successfully by 2011 got a snigger); and yesterday, director-general Mark Thompson’s speech to an invited audience (complete with a Marty McFly reference too).

But beyond the dourness of Creative Future (a fitting prelude to the Brown premiership), the playfulness of Highfield’s world of Martini media and the excess baggage of allusion in Thompson’s latest speech, it obscures the bigger story and one which will take another nine years to fully play out.

Not whether the BBC rolls out on-demand services (it already has some, with more such as BBC iPlayer on the way). Nor whether the linear landscape will have changed by 2012; it’s inevitable.

The real story is the BBC digging in to hustings for the long, winding road to renewal of its Royal Charter (or mandate to exist). The UK has a new Minister of Fun. He’s got first-hand knowledge of Auntie’s lobbying tactics (he used to work there) and, the small matter of the London Olympics aside, it may explain why DCMS spending on consultants has more than quadrupled.

Thompson’s speech yesterday lays the virtuousness of public service broadcasting on in spade-fulls… but he has a point. What would Britain’s TV, radio and web landscape be like if the BBC wasn’t able to do all of the wonderful things which helps it touch the lives of almost everyone in the UK? Though admittedly, it could be doing more to reach yuonger and ethnic minority audiences.

The latest licence fee settlement has already required the corporation to make some harsh judgment calls: from staff cut-backs to having to put some ideas which could well shore up its future performance back into the toy box, because there isn’t the money to launch them.

Then there’s the BBC’s new governance unit, the BBC Trust, which has a remit to make the corporation accountable for every major decision. At face value, no bad thing, but when this results in the arduous requirement for a Public Value Test each and every time the BBC wants to innovate, the danger increases that the rollout of every new service (or tweaks to existing ones) will be subject the kinds of delays which have plagued the launch of the BBC’s iPlayer.

It’s been a largely septimanus horribilis for the BBC. News chief Helen Boaden’s hint that the axeman cometh, the £50K fine from Ofcom over the Blue Peter fiasco and a spate of high-profile departures from the broadcaster’s documentaries department.

But at least there’s one genuinely good piece of news amid the woe: news correspondent Alan Johnston is home. Welcome back, Alan.

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