The knives are out. Thanks to a backroom deal between Chancellor George Osborne and BBC director-general Tony Hall, the licence fee looks safe. But the BBC will have to foot the bill for over-75s to get free TV. That means cuts, cuts, cuts to its output – of up to 12 per cent. Then again, they could be far worse if the process of charter renewal decides the BBC is simply too big.
So what will go? What should go? My first response to any suggestion of BBC cuts is a howl of protest. I’d go into mourning if BBC4 were ever axed. My children were weaned on CBeebies. I rely on the BBC website. Dammit, I’m one of the few lonely creatures who still listens to Radio 3 – when the presenters stop talking for a few minutes. And these are the kinds of vulnerable areas over which, as we speak, the hatchet hovers. Somewhere, people with big calculators are doing the sums. If we don’t come up with better ideas, they’ll make the wrong calls and we’ll all be sorry. So here are my grudging, agonised, very-much-back-of-an-envelope suggestions for eight ways to save, if we really must.
1. Put CBeebies and CBBC online
It’s sad, but that’s where every child I know gets their content anyway. If you want to keep a broadcast side, put the big children’s series on BBC1 instead of Dom Littlewood repeats. (Current CBBC budget £77 million, CBeebies £28 million.)
2. Does BBC1 need a budget of £1 billion a year?
Not if you get rid of overblown game shows like I Love My Country and Prized Apart (above). The latter was a full-on turkey, involving members of the public flown back and forth to Morocco by private plane. At no stage did anyone spot that this was a bad idea.(And oddly, the format was developed in-house then sold back to BBC1 by a production company).
3. Put ads on BBC Online
Yes, I like the website, but it would be very nearly as good if it were handed to BBC Worldwide to slim down and run commercially. I’ve used it when I’ve been abroad with ads and it’s fine. That’s up to £100 million saved.
4. The Olympics
Yes, London 2012 was incredible. But let’s face it, they will never be that good again. In future, I’d be willing to watch on another channel, with ads.
5. Local radio
We need to talk about local radio. At £150 million annually, it costs more than Radio 4 (£115 million). Perhaps it’s time for a painful consolidation and/or cull.
6.Turn Radio 3 and Radio 1 into digital stations
It hasn’t hurt 6 Music and you can argue both Radio 1 and Radio 3’s audiences will be as content getting their music on crystal-clear DAB. I certainly would.
7. Stop making joyless period dramas that are all period and no drama
The Outcast and Life in Squares (above) spring to mind. Series like these cost upwards of a million pounds an hour to make. (And, yes, I realise nobody sets out to make a bad one.)
8. Lose the BBC News channel
It would hurt, but round-the-clock TV news is a luxury when Sky News and Radio 5 Live have it covered. You could merge the BBC News channel with BBC World News (the commercial version for outside the UK) and save up to £50 million.
So there we have it: a recipe for a leaner, meaner BBC. Job done. Or is it? Are you convinced? I know I’m not. I’ve jumped through the hoops for the sake of an intellectual exercise, but every one of these economies would leave us culturally worse off in ways that are hard to measure.
And for what? A report by a top accountancy firm concluded the Corporation was more efficiently run than most public bodies and large charities. In all its glory, the BBC costs my family 40p a day. Not trivial, but my newspaper costs four times that. I know which looks better value.
David Butcher is deputy TV editor at Radio Times