MEDIA: BBC news carries the nation as the Balkan war continues

This is a week of reckoning for broadcasting, one in which coverage of the harrowing Balkan conflict is serving as a reminder that TV has more importance than simply acting as an entertainment medium, a conduit for Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

This is a week of reckoning for broadcasting, one in which coverage

of the harrowing Balkan conflict is serving as a reminder that TV has

more importance than simply acting as an entertainment medium, a conduit

for Who Wants to be a Millionaire?



There could hardly be a better or swifter illustration of the newly

gaping hole in ITV’s output caused by the ending of News at Ten than

this terrible European war.



It also underscores the canny common sense behind the BBC’s widely

reported desire to look different and ’dumb up’ rather than ’dumb down’

in the new market conditions. This is partly window dressing, but it’s a

message which many seem to want to hear, and which the BBC has a great

interest in advancing too.



On Tuesday, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) published its

annual performance review of commercial television. Although News at

Ten’s demise fell outside the review period, the ITC which allowed it to

happen, has a real public affairs challenge ahead.



It has certainly not endeared itself to the Government or opinion

formers in recent months. The Observer reported last Sunday that

Culture, Media and Sports Secretary Chris Smith believes that ITV has

not shown a sufficiently diverse schedule recently. I think it’s too

early too say - ITV’s summer schedule has spark and ambition - but he’s

thrown down the gauntlet.



Chairman of the BBC Sir Christopher Bland, never one to miss a trick,

used a recent speech to point out to the ITC that it needed to take a

’broad view’ of its responsibilities, to ensure ITV kept up its public

duties and served the real needs of audiences.



Meanwhile, Wednesday saw the official deadline for a flood of

submissions to the Government’s (Gavyn) Davies committee on the future

funding of the BBC beyond 2006.



Its role, to find ways the BBC can enhance its public service remit with

a supplemented licence fee - while improving concessions for poorer

people - is provoking a considerable argument behind the scenes. There

are three issues: what is public service broadcasting; how can the

commercial operations of the BBC be used more effectively, but fairly;

and should there be a surcharge for digital?



Much of this translates into where the BBC should be positioned, and how

to draw up a budget to sustain its programme as talent and rights costs

go through the roof. This is the context in which Alan Yentob’s remarks,

about how the BBC would never abandon peak time news or simply aim at

being popular, were made.



And of course, the Balkan war further helps make the BBC’s case: how can

you have a democracy without an accurately informed population? In fact,

the BBC’s spin doctors ought to have a pretty easy ride.



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