The inner workings of the BBC news operation are a mystery to me (although I did get a peep into the newsroom a while ago which was very exciting) so I find myself wondering about the orgins of this item on yesterday’s Today programme. The premise is that Saturday evening primetime TV in Britain is enjoying a renaissance thanks to big live and drama franchises like X-Factor and Doctor Who. Can’t really argue with that – Saturday night TV has been brilliant for several years now and the ratings reflect that – but is it strictly news? I mean, what’s the trigger? Did something happen? Was something announced? Or did someone in the ITV press office pitch an interview with Michael Grade to the Today editors who then sought a premise for the item?
The interview itself is interesting and Grade’s always good value, although his case, which is that this represents some kind of reprieve for broadcast TV, sounds a bit thin. Let’s face it, the Saturday evening revival is almost certainly a blip in the inexorable decline of broadcast-model media produced by a burst of creativity and investment from the BBC and ITV that probably can’t be sustained (especially not by ITV during the nastiest decline in ad spending in decades). Our collective realisation that broadcast TV has real and enduring strengths in live and ‘event’ programmes will not save the medium from ultimate irrelevance – although it might defer it.
So, back to my question, how does a story like this, connected only obliquely to current events, wind up on air in Today’s peak hour? What’s the process?
I had a bit of a whinge over at Speechification earlier on about the BBC’s content archiving policy. I find it frustrating to say the least that Heather Couper’s epic history of astronomy, Cosmic Quest, which has been running on Radio 4 since May, will now be withdrawn from the public domain all together.
The BBC’s standard line here—and it’s not an unreasonable one—is that the Corporation can only afford to buy ‘first run’ or otherwise limited rights to shows like Cosmic Quest and that if it was obliged to pay for ‘in perpetuity’ rights the additional cost would block the purchase of other good stuff and thus ultimately limit the choice provided to licence-fee payers.
This is undoubtedly true but also defeatist and essentially an inadequate response to the changing imperatives of the network era. The BBC needs to be braver and more committed to change. Here are a few things that could and should be done to unlock more good content for public use:
The BBC should free access to content that has limited (or zero) secondary value. That’s not to say content that’s no good: just stuff that can’t easily be sold on or exploited after it’s been transmitted. Lionel Kellaway’s brilliant Radio 4 programme about Rooks (a favourite of mine) is an asset of great beauty and immeasurable value to its listeners but, let’s face it, hardly any value in an open marketplace for audio content.
The BBC should be a rights innovator: hybrid methods of preserving public access to assets and commercial value to creators and license-holders should be developed and tested on real content. Not easy and not possible without compromise on both sides but the Corporation is uniquely placed to drive innovation that’s beneficial to UK licence fee-payers.
The BBC should be a copyright activist. Legislators should be lobbied to help redesign copyright law to preserve access to orphaned assets: content that’s not being exploited but can’t be freed because it still has a nominal owner. The Corporation should fund work to design use-it-or-lose-it laws and other innovative devices that emphasise access and public benefit over predatory and unfair protection.
The BBC should set targets for freeing content. By defining and prioritising categories of assets that should be freed, the BBC could drive the accumulation of a big pool of useful material held in the public domain permanently. Announcing in advance that certain content categories—perhaps whole channels or strands—are in future going to be purchased for permanent public access would encourage creators to get on with it and adjust their pricing and commercial terms for the new climate.
The goal should be to define and then grow the pool of free-to-use, public domain content archived at bbc.co.uk and not to apologise for the inflexibility and intransigence of rights-holders and exploiters. The potential gain for UK Plc and UK citizens could be enormous. The “there’s nothing we can do about it , guv” response must be made a thing of the past.