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Thompson goes on the offensive

31 August 2010

BSkyB. The national press. The terms of trade. These were just three of the targets of Mark Thompson’s ire in a wide ranging MacTaggart speech that saw the BBC director general go on the offensive after months of attacks against the corporation.

It lacked the rhetorical flourish of classic MacTaggart speeches, but in a workmanlike way he set out a convincing case for a BBC that was widely supported and respected by the general public.

“Support for the licence-fee is as high, if not higher, today than it was when Alan Peacock wrote his report on the future of broadcasting for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Then there were four channels. Now there are hundreds,” said Thompson.

Attacking Sky
Thompson went directly on the offensive against Sky, in particular for failing to invest in British production. “It’s time that Sky pulled its weight by investing much, much more in British talent and British content,” said Thompson, who added that Sky spent around £100m in non-news, non-sport content - “not much more than Channel Five’s UK origination budget this year, despite the fact that Sky’s total turnover is more than fifteen times that of Five’s.”

“Sky’s marketing budget is larger than the entire programme budget of ITV1. As a proportion of Sky’s own turnover and its profits, its investment in original British content is just not enough.”

Thompson also said that Sky should pay public service outfits ITV, C4 and Five to carry their services on the BSkyB platform, which would help raise additional funds for the cash-strapped commercial broadcasters. Currently, the PSBs pay a charge for being carried on the Sky platform.

Thompson commented: “Sky is already a far more powerful commercial counterweight to the BBC than ITV ever was. It is well on its way to being the most dominant force in broadcast media in this country. Moreover, if News Corp’s proposal to acquire all of the remaining shares in Sky goes through, Sky will not just be Britain’s biggest broadcaster, but a full part of a company which is also dominant in national newspapers as well as one of the Britain’s biggest publishers.” It would be, he added, “a concentration of cross-media ownership which would not be allowed in the United States or Australia.”

Thompson said that if Sky invested more in British programming it would help make up for a £300m decline in production funding that has opened up since 2004 as a result of a fall in ad revenue at commercial broadcasters. “Between 2004 and today, the pot is estimated to have declined from around £2.9 billion to £2.6 billion,” said Thompson.

Attacking the terms of trade
Thompson caught the independent production sector by surprise by saying that the Terms of Trade should be renegotiated.

Clearly feeling that the Terms of Trade had had a negative impact on the income of broadcasters and their subsequent ability to spend on commissioning, Thompson said: “The current Terms of Trade did a good job helping to strengthen the indie sector: setting it on the path to its present success, and ending the bad old days when broadcasters held all the cards. However, the current pace of change affecting broadcasters, together with the scale and ownership of the independent sector, means it is the right time to take a fresh look at whether the current arrangements for contracting with broadcasters are flexible enough."

Attacking Contracts Rights Renewal
Thompson went on to speak in support of ITV’s campaign to renegotiate the Contracts Rights Renewal system.

“The UK needs a market in TV advertising which functions effectively, but it also needs to be a market in which ad-funded broadcasters can be confident enough of commercial success that they invest in quality content. Arrangements which risk a downward spiral of falling prices and disinvestment in programming will end up serving no one ⎯not advertisers, and certainly not the British public.”

Attacking the press
After a year of press attacks on the BBC over issues such as executive pay, Jonathan Ross’s salary, the corporation’s pension crisis and bureaucratic waste, Thompson hit back. “Systematic press attacks on broadcasters, and especially on the BBC, are nothing new of course ⎯ the first hostile campaigns began back in John Reith’s day ⎯ but the scale and intensity of the current assaults does feel different,” he said.

“Some newspapers appear to print something hostile about the BBC every week, even though the reporters often freely admit to us that they know the story is ramped up, distorted or just plain nonsense.

“And that’s true even of the readers of those papers which are most consistently hostile to the BBC. Across the UK population, 71% of people say they’re glad the BBC exists. Among readers of the Daily Mail, it’s 74%. The Telegraph, 82%. The Times, 83%. The Sunday Times, 85%. Not only do these newspapers fail to reflect the view of the majority of the British public about the BBC. They don’t even reflect the view of the majority of their own readers.”

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