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BBC cuts: look on the bright side

Many of the changes at the BBC announced by Mark Thompson last week should have been happening anyway.

For all that last week's announcements spell pain and upset for many BBC staff - which may yet turn nastier still - and notwithstanding some negative political reaction, Mark Thompson must be feeling cautiously optimistic.

On reflection, the BBC's plans for managing on its less-than-expected licence fee settlement would appear to have much to commend them. So much in fact that it's hard to avoid the conclusion that many of them should have been happening anyway - irrespective of the licence fee settlement.

Take news for example. Do they need to strip out duplication of effort where it adds little value? Of course they do. Do they need to reorganise to become more efficient - and importantly more effective too - especially in relation to multimedia working and delivering news to the public where, when and how they want it? Yes, that too. Are they currently set up to maximize the benefits of new technology? No.

Overall the news plan has a story behind it. Protect newsgathering capability, one of the BBC's key assets, and at the same time pay special attention to those news and current affairs programmes that add real value (Today, Newsnight, Panorama and so on) - the more so given their different styles and editorial takes.

There are, of course, plenty of potential pitfalls. In programme terms ownership and efficiency are always in a state of tension - the former, because all the commitment creatives bring to programmes they feel they 'own' is often the source of much quality output that is genuinely distinctive.

But it generates inefficiency in extra overheads and the persistent tendency to fight for your programme's interests at the expense of others. It drives managers mad but eliminating it completely is hazardous - in terms of quality and distinctiveness at least.

And then there is the question of television current affairs. As of last week the BBC no longer has a television current affairs department in its own right; it will be a unit in the new News Programmes department. This certainly sounds "efficient", but will it continue to get the funding and support it needs to be a major part of the BBC's television journalism offering? Or will it suffer from its lack of status and profile? These issues will need plenty of attention and careful management - but it's difficult to say the BBC shouldn't be trying to do most of this.

The other main focus of the BBC's proposals was a 10% reduction in programme commissioning, most notably of factual programmes. It is here that Thompson's mantra of "fewer, bigger, better" would seem to be most obviously applicable.

The first phase of the digital revolution - multichannelling - generated demand for more programmes to fill the new digital channels' schedules. In the BBC's case literally hundreds and hundreds of hours. But the next phase - on-demand - really does require fewer programmes of greater all-round and long-term value.

In targeting what she described as "middlebrow factual", which most viewers won't miss, in favour of fewer, more valuable programmes capable of multiple use, Jana Bennett - the director of BBC Vision - is speaking the language of the on-demand future.

But here again, in admitting that most of these programmes won't be missed she raises the question of why they were being made in the first place. The suspicion that the BBC had more money than it really knew how to usefully spend is hard to avoid (and was certainly not lost on Gordon Brown).

In any event, refocusing factual programming is also going to require clever and considerate leadership and commitment to higher aspirations from channel controllers and commissioners. But if the new strategic direction is correct - which it probably is - surely the BBC would be doing this anyway too?

There is much more to Thompson's plan than this, of course. Questions over the amount of money spent on BBC3 (too much) and children's programming (not enough) will not go away. But the main thrust of debate over the BBC's plans to make ends meet, couched in terms of "hard choices" and "difficult decisions", has centred on changes in news and factual programmes, which would have had to happen anyway.

There's an upside to presenting them as a response to the government's refusal to give the BBC the licence fee increase it asked for - that it might help to divert the ire of angry and uncertain staff. The downside is that it will be taken as evidence by many that the BBC came round to doing the right thing - in terms of value for money, being fit for the future, and ultimately even its own best interests - only after Gordon Brown applied his fiscal briar to the corporate backside.

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Comment No. 749078
October 22 9:42

So when is Jonathan Ranker Woss going on strike?

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Comment No. 749142
October 22 10:06

Your words aren't going to go down well in any of the BBC newsrooms with your former colleagues - never mind your acceptance of a disappearing distinctive current affairs department - but you're right to point out that these measures are imperatives, notwithstanding the licence fee.
One of the London freesheets had a headline last week about interviews with the DG - one reporter from ITV, one from Sky and 37 from the BBC. While the paper in question didn't understand the difference between actual reporters and the number of requests from different programmes, to most people outside this seems ludicrous. How many different ways can the DG express his view? (Most senior execs would be advised to pool their statement and there would have been one version only for everyone to chew over).
Like the paper in question I don't know who half the BBC News correspondents are now, or what they do (I don't watch News 24) but I have felt in recent times that they're not the core issue. The BBC is seriously overmanned in long term, pensionable administrative staff. Their jobs have changed, the technology has changed, and yet they seem to soldier on, inflating programme budgets and turning up for meetings in numbers unheard of in the independent sector.
Losing programme editors and reporters may make for a sexy headline or two but I'm not sure that's where the redundancy axe is most needed.

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Comment No. 749194
October 22 10:25

Forget News 24 on the BBC at the weekend it is targeted at Numpties..

Prgrammes from Today till Newsnight same old stories just different opinions do we really need such speculation

They all got it wrong on Gordon Brown with the election after all.

Mel Bel x

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Comment No. 749232
October 22 10:45

On Saturday we had a shorter version of election speculation with a merely day-long flannelfest about some rugby match. The possibility that some people might not give a toss was never entertained. Cue "we're all in this together" with smiling presenters, care-in-the-community fans, and dire "England Expects" pronouncements. A little balance, please, and a little bit of sense of perspective.

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Comment No. 749243
October 22 10:48

Can someone give me examples of "middlebrow factual" programmes?

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Comment No. 749261
October 22 10:53

Anything with Bill Oddie in it - "Wild" - he's a threatened species.

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Comment No. 749337
October 22 11:25

I heard Jana Bennett (Head of 'Vision') being interviewed last week and she spoke almost exclusively in mediaspeak - 'middlebrow factual' was one of the easier to understand phrases she came out with. She couldn't answer any questions in English, it was all these awful media terminologies that no-one outside the industry would have a hope in hell of understanding.

It doesn't bode well for BBC staff that one of their top bosses doesn't speak English. Plus she sounded a bit like Dr Strangelove.

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Comment No. 749519
October 22 12:28

Let's face it, clearly the BBC has management problems. May I recommend peeking at the National Audit website?

One has to ask, how many BBC "Managers" does it take to change a lightbulb?

After more than a quarter of a century working there I have yet to divine the correct answer...

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Comment No. 750105
October 22 15:52

Well Steve,

I've just been told that my neck is on the line as are several people in my small department. Our crime, we don't lick a**e, our expertise are in the arts and specialist music, no future or figures in that! How ironic I literally sit under Sir Michael Lyon's sacred rear end and the result of his naive belief in Thompson's 'creative futurde' is the most creative of our lot (I'll exempt myself from that)are about to be taken out and shot!

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Comment No. 750271
October 22 16:50

So how already (as is reported in the press, that John Simpson is secure) when the letters have not been sent out.

Have some Editors/Execs etc been told their jobs are safe !!
Or is the John Simpson story just mere gossip ??

Mel Bel x

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Comment No. 750448
October 22 18:33

Lose Ross (Ross Ross Ross - Out Out Out).

Rerun Monk with respectful deference to sequence and regularity.

Incidentally, just downloaded Serifanowicz and Charlie Brooker. The votes from the yeractual jury are as follows:

Serifanowicz: No laughs [honestly, not one]
Screenwipe: Loads of laughs

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Comment No. 750710
October 22 23:52

yeractual, or whatever your name is
Charlie Brooker currently makes me laugh out loud. Which is OK in the privacy of one's home while watching Screenwipe, but a tad embarrassing on the bus when reading his Guardian column. This is a man at the top of his game. Brilliant.

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Comment No. 750753
October 23 1:01

This is ill informed stuff. The spin that programmes like Newsnight have been shielded from the cuts is well wide of the mark. It's just that the newsroom is having all the redundancies up front instead of staggered over five years.

And the notion that sending more than one reporter to a story equals over-staffing ignores the fact that BBC News services several outlets at once. If one reporter were to cover a story for a dozen outlets, he's never have time to do any journalism.

Yes there are efficiencies to be had and no, no-one seriously thinks the BBC should be immune to compulsory redundancy. But make no mistake, these are unnecessarily draconian cuts made by a management with no vision for what does and does not matter, and which will permanently cripple the BBC's ability to maintain a comprehensive news service.

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Comment No. 752467
October 23 20:55

With reference to this..


"A new book promising to lift the lid on allegedly declining standards in British journalism has instead ignited fierce media speculation over relations between Britain's oldest Sunday newspaper The Observer and its sister title The Guardian."

Which makes me think, shouldn't the Guardian and Observer newsrooms become "trimedia", like Auntie's?

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