Disney's Paul Robinson argues that in order for the BBC's PSB remit to be convincing and the licence fee to be justifiable, the corporation needs to focus on reach rather than share.
With the merger of Carlton and Granada given the greenlight and the cr*eation of a third gorilla to compete with the BBC and BSkyB, the issue of defining public service broadcasting temporarily went away. Then along came Ofcom with its proposal to survey 6,000 households to ascertain their views about PSB services. Add to that the£5 hike in the licence fee and the issue is headline news once again.All the channels must be part of the debate but one question which people are failing to ask is why ITV's competitiveness, and for that matter the competitiveness of Channel 4, Five and the satellite, cable and DTT channels, is to be determined by the muscle of the BBC and Sky.One of the problems in the ecology of UK broadcasting that is in urgent need of addressing, as we begin the run-up to Charter review, is the remit of the BBC. What is PSB? What is it that is special about the BBC that underpins the licence fee? No one has cracked this yet. The BBC's point of view appears to be that PSB is what it does, while the corporation's competitors, at best, will argue that the BBC should be confined to genres that satisfy market failure criteria. Who is to say whether EastEnders or Panorama or Songs of Praise are integral to the BBC's purpose, and are more or less public service?At the heart of the problem is the lack of any objective measures which could be used in an analytical approach to the BBC's programme mix. Each week Broadcast publishes two pages of Barb data, listing the top performing programmes by network and genre, and highlighting the peaktime and daytime shares of the terrestrial channels. When BBC1 achieved a higher share than ITV1 the story was widely reported, and even though ITV1 is performing strongly and beating BBC1 in peak, the battle of the two big networks for supremacy is hot news. And that is the crux of the problem. Should BBC1 (and BBC2) be competing to maximise share? Is market share the performance indicator for the BBC?Recently, the BBC was criticised for dropping Trevor's World of Sport (pictured), a new comedy from Hat Trick scheduled at 21.30 on BBC1, after only three episodes. This might appear to be a matter of little significance, but it is fundamental to the issue of the performance metrics. Nigel Pickard acting this way at ITV1 would have been an entirely different matter.ITV1 is a commercial (public service) network whose responsibility to its viewers and shareholders requires it to quickly remedy bold scheduling that isn't working. David Liddiment's response to the lacklustre ratings for The Premiership in its early Saturday evening slot was to move it to late evening - an entirely proper managerial action. But BBC1 isn't ITV1. Its licence fee funding requires it to behave differently in order to be innovative, take risks and nurture new programming, especially if the initial audience ratings are below expectations. But in chasing audience share, and too often maximising ratings in too many slots, BBC1 is often indistinguishable from a commercial broadcaster.So am I suggesting that the BBC should cease to compete and accept inevitable decline? Actually, not to do so would upset the delicate ecology of UK broadcasting whose unique mix of licence fee, advertising and subscription advertising puts it second to the US in the world in terms of spend per head of population. The correlation between spend and the high quality of UK television is inescapable.There is another way. The BBC quite rightly argues that its universal licence fee requires it to serve every licence fee payer in the country.The concomitant of this is that nil viewing licence fee payers are not being served, and could justifiably argue exemption from the licence fee.This endgame is blatantly the demise of the licence fee. The goal must be to ensure that the reach of the BBC is close to ubiquity. The good news is that BBC1 alone reaches more than 90% of the UK population, without taking into account BBC2, the BBC's digital channels and analogue and digital national and local radio. The question therefore is what happens to the BBC's mix of genres and programmes if its key performance indicator is maximising reach instead of chasing share.Does the corporation need to achieve the best share it can or even the share it enjoys now to maximise reach? The answer is probably not. EastEnders alone, which represents less than 2% by hours of BBC1's output achieves a reach of around 50% and if you add together EastEnders, drama and news and current affairs, the BBC achieves a reach of about 80%. The conclusion: increasing the distinctiveness of BBC1 by adding more programmes of ambition, risk and genuine public service would not negatively affect the BBC's reach and public service remit. The licence fee would be safer as a funding mechanism and people would genuinely feel that the BBC was earning that privileged funding.And next time a show like Trevor's World of Sport disappointed in the ratings the BBC might not be so quick to drop it.