The BBC recently put up a Consultation for On-Demand Services on their web page. What does that mean, I don’t hear any of you asking. Basically they are talking about delivering their content over the Internet. There are several worrying aspects to their proposals.
Before I get into the details I should further explain the idea a bit. Those of us in the UK pay a Licence Fee that funds the BBC. Every home with a television must pay this (currently about £130 a year) or risk nasty things such as a fine or imprisonment. That’s not the issue, though. It is more the status of the BBC. They are a ‘Public Corporation’, incorporated under a Royal Charter. Above all they are a Public Service Broadcaster. There are no adverts and the vast majority of the funding comes direct from the Licence Fee (additional amounts come from the BBC selling programmes abroad, DVD/CD/Book/Magazine/etc. sales and some government money to subsidise OAP Licence Fees and the BBC World Service). So in a very real sense the BBC is owned by the people.
For some time now the BBC have had a wonderful Internet presence. That is absolutely within their “inform, educate and entertain” remit, their News site is particularly notable (and respected by people well beyond these British shores). Now they want to take it a step further. Again, for some time (he says vaguely) the BBC have broadcast most of their radio stations over the Internet in, roughly, realtime. More recently they’ve introduced the ‘Listen Again’ service so you can catch up with radio programmes you’ve missed from the past seven days. Now they are talking about doing the same with TV programmes.
So, what’s the problem? Yes, that does sound great but how do these questions sound from the consultation?
- How important is it that the proposed seven-day catch-up service over the internet is available to consumers who are not using Microsoft software?
- The BBC Trust has proposed setting a limit of 30 days as the amount of time that programmes can be stored on a computer before being viewed. As this is a nascent market, there is currently no clear standard on the length of the storage window. On balance, the Trust thinks 30 days is the right length of time. How long do you think consumers should be able to store BBC programmes on their computers before viewing them?
- The BBC Trust concluded there was fine balance between public value and market impact in deciding whether to allow the BBC to offer audio downloads of classical music. While such downloads could help introduce new listeners to classical music, they could also deter purchases of commercial recordings. What is your view on whether – and to what extent – the BBC should be allowed to offer radio broadcasts of classical music as audio downloads over the internet?
Hmm, I don’t like some of that – and nor should you.
Let’s take that first one – How import is it [...] to consumers who are not using Microsoft software? Obviously I’m a Linux user but that isn’t the point. Are they seriously proposing that they force the public to use one company’s software – expensive, closed source (and foreign) software? How can that possibly be in the public interest. As a public broadcaster they absolutely must ensure as many Licence Fee payers as possible can use their services. They should not be propping up a convicted monopolist such as Microsoft. Imagine if they had instead said ‘consumers who are not using an Apple MacOS X’. What an uproar that would have created. Many more people would have complained about them singling out one company and one group of users. Just because the majority of machines come preloaded with Microsoft software (clearly not Apple Macs) that doesn’t make it right. All Licence Fee payers have paid for these programmes. All deserve access to them.
Next up, the 30 day limit. Why should I, as a person that funds the BBC, have my access to material I’ve already paid for limited to 30 days? All Licence Fee payers should have unlimited access to the BBC back catalogue – big fat full stop. We should not be subject to DRM (Digital Rights Management) to limit our access to that material. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to download a programme and keep it forever. In practice I would hope that we won’t ever need to save such content as it will be available at all times. Nonetheless it belongs to the people and if we feel the need to burn it off to DVD so be it – we paid to have that content created in the first place. Yes, there is a danger that this content will fall into the hands of those who don’t pay the Licence Fee (this is already happening with bittorrent and foreign fans of things such as Doctor Who) but the potential damage of that is minimal. In theory foreign TV stations might see a drop of viewing figures and may eventually stop buying BBC programmes. It’s a danger but, from what I can discover, that will only amount to, at most, a loss of about £150M in an annual BBC budget of over £4billion. Small fry and not nearly enough to justify limiting the British public’s access to our own programmes. There’s also the question of DVDs and the like. Well, in the next decade or two, those will be dead, either way. You could make an argument for special features selling the DVDs/CDs but then you get into the murky area of those having to be funded entirely from the commercial arm rather than the BBC proper (otherwise it will be paid by the Licence Fee again). As I said, though, the days of physical media like DVDs and CDs are numbered. Books and magazines may continue for a while but ever those will one day be downloaded to a reader tablet of some kind. Don’t let the BBC go down the road of forcing us to pay for content twice over.
As for the last point ‘fine balance between public value and market impact’, that’s a tricky one. Or is it? Let’s not forget the mantra – we’ve already paid for the BBC content. Yes, if they make classical music available free to every Licence Fee payer that could well cut into sales of commercially funded classical music. This sort of music is a special case, I suppose, as anyone with an orchestra can put out a CD of the same music. The BBC has some excellent orchestras, see my Prom in the Park blog entry for more details, but who pays for them? Us! Commercial competitors will have to differentiate themselves in some way. That is no reason to restrict us to our own paid for content!
Rant over. I urge all you Brits to fill in the BBC On-Demand Consultation questionnaire. According to the unique BBC charter – “free from both political and commercial influence and answers only to its viewers and listeners”. It’s your BBC too.