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The BBC wants ITV to keep its opinions to itself

The broadcaster isn't happy with ITV's recommendations for the next Royal Charter.
Jamie Rigg, @jmerigg
12.08.15 in AV
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[Image credit: Shutterstock]

At the end of 2016, the BBC will be given its next Royal Charter, which will define its duties as a public service broadcaster for the following decade. While the UK government will ultimately agree the finer details of the next Charter with the BBC, earlier this year it put out the first call for opinions on what the future remit of the broadcaster should be. ITV made a point of publishing the report it submitted as part of the public consultation process, with one of the main recommendations being a requirement that the BBC focus on delivering distinctive programming, not chasing audience figures. This obviously ruffled a few feathers at the BBC, today provoking the broadcaster to defend its creative decisions and go about debunking some of ITV's more accusatory claims.

What ITV recommends

As far as ITV is concerned, the BBC's initial pitch for the new Charter is more or less identical to its current remit. Vague commitments to creative, innovative and distinctive programming, which ITV argues hasn't been as important to the BBC as maximising viewing share "at all costs." Case in point: The closure of BBC Three as a linear TV channel despite its unique programming (though the BBC Trust only approved this with the condition the remaining BBC channels take more creative risks). ITV believes there's an onus on the BBC, being publicly funded, to provide what competitors cannot. This should mean no purchased content or formats, unless rival channels aren't interested in getting first dibs, and guaranteed investment in content that's not available elsewhere.

With a budget commercial competitors can only dream of, and an increased money pot set aside for dramas, ITV argues that "derivative and indistinct content" might get people watching the BBC, but makes it harder for rivals to compete. The BBC must be obligated to offer choice, meaning it shouldn't schedule entertainment and drama programming at the same time as competitors. This would also put an end to the "aggressive scheduling" ITV accuses the BBC of. Citing a diminshing variety of content for the sake of enlarging audience share, ITV recommends the new Charter not only decree any new BBC endeavours be innovative and distinctive, but that more effective oversight is needed so proposals are actually met. ITV agrees, as others have suggested, that Ofcom assume some of the responsibilities of the BBC Trust to ensure this, and that it's important to come up with a clear definition of distinctiveness that the BBC can be measured against.

Why the BBC doesn't agree

It's safe to say the BBC isn't best pleased with ITV's assessment or suggestions, claiming they're based in "a parallel universe where BBC One's editorial strategy is to ape ITV and chase ratings at all costs." The BBC argues that ITV is actually advocating for less choice for audiences, at odds with previous praise of the "competition for quality" between the broadcasters. In the Beeb's opinion, distinctiveness is not something that can be strictly defined, since it has a different meaning to different people. It doesn't make sense that the BBC only make a show because others won't, and that the best way to come up with new content is not identifying a gap in the market and plugging it.

The way to keep the creative juices flowing is aspiring to create the best programmes in any given genre, as well as offering a complete range of content that's distinctive from competitors. This means taking creative risks, adhering to the highest standards and supporting ideas and talent coming out of the UK. This is how the BBC is and will continue to create distinctive programming, it argues, with the licence fee giving it the freedom to do so. Even in the past week, BBC One has shown new factual programmes, comedy and reality-based entertainment, as opposed to ITV's evening peak slots, which were almost entirely dominated by I'm a Celebrity and The X Factor.

The BBC also claims that aggressive scheduling is a myth, and that putting special demands on when shows are broadcast will only benefit competitors to the detriment of the audience. ITV used a particular example of competing dramas to evidence its claim the BBC is only after viewer share, but in rebuttal, the Beeb points out that ITV actually changed the time slot for its show -- "So who is scheduling against whom?" Also, tying the BBC's creative hands up in regulation could be paralysing. According to the broadcaster, ticking boxes is not how you come up with innovative shows. Factual output is growing, and BBC One offers a more diverse schedule and commands a bigger audience than ITV despite budgets being approximately the same.

Furthermore, by stopping the import of formats, there'd be no more University Challenge, The Apprentice or Dragons' Den, which we certainly wouldn't be happy about. Comically, the Beeb said in its blog post "Perhaps this proposal should be re-named: "The BBC can't have these programmes, because ITV wants them."" We haven't heard a great deal of industry back-and-forth during the Charter Review thus far, but it's clear the BBC doesn't want the likes of ITV steering its creative direction, especially when protecting the competitiveness of its own content forms part of the agenda.

ITV does raise some interesting points, though, if only arguing that the Charter lay out a clear, accountable direction for the BBC that isn't drafted in vague language. The new Charter is more than a year away of course, so we're bound to hear plenty more points of view between now and then. But if there's one thing you can expect the BBC to remain bullish on, it's protecting the creative freedom it already enjoys.

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