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Thompson seeks to clarify cuts

22 March 2011

There’s an unmistakeable ring of a communist-era five plan about the BBC’s latest operational review, the grimly titled Delivering Quality First.

The pressure to find 20% of savings as a result of the licence fee freeze until 2016 is the driving force behind the initiative. The BBC is consulting with senior execs about what kind of cuts it should implement, in a process that runs until May.

It’s this consultation process that has led to lots of leaks in the press over recent weeks, with frequent headlines about daytime programmes being scrapped on BBC2 or local radio output being axed.

In a briefing to journalists today, director general Mark Thompson sought to clarify exactly what is going on  and effectively ruled out closing existing stations. “It’s not obvious that what the public wants is a complete reduction of services,” he said, explaining the reprieve granted to BBC6 Music and The Asian Network.

That means that many of the cuts will take place at a programme level, affecting many in the production community - both inhouse and indie - who make shows for the BBC.

Even though the consultation has yet to run its course, some common themes have already emerged - and were confirmed by Thompson in his press briefing today.

So it’s probably not a good time to be making daytime shows like To Buy or Not to Buy, Restoration Roadshow or Flog It! on BBC2, as the BBC is mulling focusing instead on a ‘richer originated daytime schedule on BBC1’. The BBC is also considering reducing the £150m it spends on overnight programming after 10.35pm.

Conversely, it’s probably a good time to be producing peak time shows, in particular on BBC1. “Should we protect the BBC1 budget by making other cuts in TV?”, is one big question raised in the BBC’s consultation. It’s early days yet, but clearly BBC1 is going to be the big winner in this process.

Another winner is likely to be drama. “Should we spend more on drama to reflect high public demand?” asks the consultation. The BBC is also thinking about repeating more of its big ticket shows, such as dramas like South Riding or natural history series like Human Planet, acknowledging that viewers’ increasingly busy lives mean they are often missed first time around.

Politics and current affairs shows look set for a rethink too, with the BBC asking ‘what fewer, bigger, better would look like.”

Producers working outside London will also be cheered by Delivering Quality First, as it asks whether more of the BBC’s channels and commissioners should be located outside London.

In fact, what’s so surprising about the Delivering Quality First consultation is that - beyond its off-putting title - it has come up with some rather sensible suggestions for saving money AND improving output. So much so that one wonders why a lot of it wasn’t implemented years ago…

One other surprising thing to emerge from Thompson’s press briefing today was how he played down the impact of the licence fee settlement on the BBC, describing it as a ‘cash flat’ settlement.

The real concern, he added, came from inflation. He said the BBC’s income “will rise significantly” over the licence fee period, despite the fact that the licence fee itself has been frozen at £145.50 per household until the end of 2016.

Thompson put this down to: the growing number of households in the UK; existing savings; reduced licence fee collection costs and evasion; as well as increased revenue from commercial activities. He added that “if increased commercial revenue is strong, it will more than pay for the additional obligations” the BBC has taken on under the licence fee settlement, notably running the World Service.

However, on a day that the official annual rate of inflation hit 4.4%, Thompson said that “inflation is the big challenge.” The danger, Thompson said, is that “the take increases but is eroded by inflation.”

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