Should the BBC recapitalise British Culture?

posted by Steve Bowbrick

Is Mark Thompson a good proxy for Gordon Brown? Should the BBC move to rescue struggling media companies as the government is saving struggling banks? Should the BBC recapitalise British culture by taking stakes in bust public service providers?

Call this a flight of fancy but consider the circumstances. 1 We’re at the beginning of a (presumably) longish recession that will certainly shred advertising revenues across the board. 2 We’re a couple of years into the net’s final demolition of various critical media business models (let’s start with small ads, packaged recorded music, paid-for newspapers, expensive console games and <insert your favourite here>). 3 We’re about to start losing public service provision all over the place: market failure looms.

So what if the BBC took on the task of refloating the entire sector? Not a strategic subset—the whole lot. What if Thompson decided to follow through on his recent statements about sharing and open the doors to provide unconditional access to its bank of content, code, infrastructure, talent, processes and standards to all-comers?

Here’s an example (fanciful too: just stay with me on this): C4 Radio (deceased). Could the BBC revive C4 Radio by opening its production and distribution infrastructure to the startup, leaving C4 only to come up with ideas and sell ads? C4 Radio could shrink back to a sliver of its more ambitious self and might quite possibly thrive, boosting the value of DAB in Britain and potentially rescuing a doomed multiplex.

And if all this sounds terribly radical and anti-competitive, just take out your cheque book and contemplate the fact that you now own a largish chunk of the bank that issued it. Gordon Brown was a loser a week ago but a few days and an outrageous market intervention later and he’s a bona fide superhero: a Roosevelt figure cloaked in glory. Mark Thompson’s principle legacy could be the translation of the BBC from a lofty, closed and hesitant creature of the inter-war establishment to an engaged, open and bold actor in the next wave of British media and culture.

And to bring this particular flight in to land, here’s another example: could the BBC’s grassroots developer network Backstage be beefed up to provide a real platform for media and tech startups? A blend of open source content and code with the hard web services needed to launch an online business (we used to call these things ‘incubators’). Could BBC Backstage become an agent for recovery in difficult times for UK Plc?


Comments so far.

  1. Posted by Tom Watson on Wednesday 15th October

    A fascinating post, Steve. This American history reader immediately recalls FDR’s de facto capitalization of American culture during the Depression, putting vast public employment projects to work in the arts, funding painters, writers, photographers etc. This created an incredible cultural wave of creation, which is underrated in its influence on art and literature (the war tended to obscure what came before, I think).

    I love that last idea – it’s very “social entrepreneur” and fits the start-up mentality that has fueled our creative generation.

    Like to hear/read more about this!

  2. Posted by Dave Birch on Wednesday 15th October

    Why doesn’t the BBC just chuck everything on BitTorrent and let other people mashup to kick start the creative economy?

    By the way, I don’t get the “open” stuff. I don’t see anything “open” so far — iPlayer won’t even let me copy stuff to my iPhone to watch on the train.

  3. Posted by Alex Murray on Wednesday 15th October

    Less a case of “refloating” the media sector as “stopping it from drowning itself”? There’s plenty enough indies who make a nice enough living from their work with the BBC, in particular the broadcasting super-indies with their regionalised production bases to ensure they get the best from the commissioning process. In FM&T there’s already a few companies who are seemingly reliant on the BBC for a share of their income and who’ve done well from ensuring they can deliver simple services that the internal BBC teams either don’t have time or ability to do.

  4. Posted by Nick Reynolds (BBC) on Wednesday 15th October

    Dave – Because of a little thing called “rights”.

  5. Posted by Briantist on Friday 17th October

    Could the BBC’s grassroots developer network Backstage be beefed up to provide a real platform for media and tech startups?

    Yes indeed it could.

    Another suggestion that was in the Media Guardian the other day is to allow the iPlayer platform to be used for commercial radio and Channel 4.

    I know it would be a bit of a pain setting up another couple of versions of the site – and the infrastructure of course – but allowing C4 and commercial radio to leverage the excellence of the BBC iPlayer makes sense from a ‘cultural’ point of view.

  6. Posted by Paul Murphy on Tuesday 21st October

    Certainly access to infrastructure and distribution would be a huge step forward. The danger is around the actual content stuff and the way we make it. Would we end up with an even bigger BBC producing more BBC type content, strong in some areas, piss poor in others? The point of C4′s speech radio was not that Radio 4 wasn’t already doing an excellent job, it’s just that without competition we all risk becoming complacent as both producers and consumers.

  7. Posted by Mike Dorey on Wednesday 22nd October

    I am not sure what the parallel is between Mark Thompson and Gordon Brown, BBC and Government? The government did what it needed to rescue a particular sector (banking), but that is what the government are there for. If there is a need to re-float other sectors (and this, again is what governments can and should do. (as long as voters are happy) then thats fine. It isn’t and should not be for the BBC to do that, though. I am puzzelled as to why you think the BBC should do this?

    Also, who has chosen to categorise the BBC as ‘a lofty, closed and hesitant creature of the inter-war establishment’ ? Who are you speaking on behalf of here?

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