How can the BBC do more with less?

As the corporation outlines new initiatives in a bid to impress the Government and licence fee payers, Ben Dowell asks whether it can pull off the trick of expanding while undergoing further funding cuts

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It’s a conjuring trick that 1980s magician and former BBC favourite Paul Daniels would have had trouble with: how do you appear to be relevant and all-embracing while facing serious financial cuts?

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The BBC is in this dilemma at the moment and it appears to have found the answer: a new era of consolidation.

For the past eight years, it has endured a licence-fee freeze, meaning a real-terms reduction in the value of the annual £145.50 charge made to householders. This has meant that it has been required to save £1.5bn a year by 2017 under the so called Delivering Quality First initiative.

Under the terms of the new financial deal thrashed out with the Government – the requirement that it pays for the free licence fees for over-75s – it will face a reduction of about 20% of its total income over the next five years.

That isn’t, to use Daniels’ catchphrase, “not a lot”.

So how exactly is it going to do this?

With the fine detail of its new licence fee settlement still to be be thrashed out, and the Treasury number-crunchers waiting in the wings to impose possible further financial restraints on Auntie when the final settlement is reached, the BBC is on PR overdrive.

Consolidation seems to be the answer. Consolidation of what the BBC does best combined with the threat of the axe for much-loved BBC services, with BBC4, CBBC and the BBC News Channel all in the firing line.

Hall outlined the direction of travel, with the announcement of a new iPlayer service for children (iPlay) as well as a new BBC Ideas Service, which will aim to bring together the Britain’s cultural institutions – museums, galleries, universities, theatres – under one umbrella to exchange ideas and develop content.

And what do all these initiatives have in common? Well, they will cost barely a bean. And in the case of the Ideas Service, passionately advocated by Brian Cox, it seems likely that the BBC will in fact benefit from the largesse and expertise of these publicly funded bodies.

“Let me stress: this is not an expansionist BBC,” Hall said today.

Well, it couldn’t be, even if he wanted it to be.

There is also the promise of a greater investment in TV drama – with BBC spinners confirming speculation over the weekend that around £50m extra a year will be made available to make more Poldarks, Doctor Whos and Sherlocks, the kind of stuff the BBC likes to crow about and viewers love.

But where will the money come from? There appears to be a greater and greater likelihood that BBC4 – annual budget £54.3m – could face the chop, and CBBC and the BBC News Channel also look to be under threat.

“Streaming news may replace rolling news,” says the BBC document that accompanied today’s announcement. “Children may prefer iPlay to scheduled television. The Ideas Service might mean we no longer need BBC4.”

They are powerful weapons in the BBC’s arsenal, but this is a high-stakes game. The highbrow BBC4, the news channel and CBBC do not cost a great deal, but they are all beloved of opinion-formers – the kind of people who edit newspapers or run Government departments, or middle-class people who have children but don’t want them watching Disney all day.

Will the Government just look the other way? Or will the threat of these losses galvanise the public into action?

There is a danger that the BBC could end up being the biggest casualty of its own bluffing. After all, the outcry over the move online of BBC3 was probably not as thunderous as campaigners would have liked. It is a kind of emotional blackmail that could come back to haunt the corporation. Unless of course, the viewers turn demonstrators and come out onto the streets to protect BBC4 and the News Channel.

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