21 May 2020
Money and the Beeb
A question of ratings.
By Robert Kilconner
Secret agendas, calculating cabals; to read last week’s articles in the Shaw Sheet you would have thought that the BBC and indeed the rest of the media was engaged in conspiracies to push the public towards one political creed or another, the only difference being one of direction. Yes, the Daily Telegraph pushes them to the right, the Guardian pushes them to the left and the BBC fluctuates from time to time, no doubt as the result of career assassinations worthy of the Borgias taking part in some back room. It made great copy – we all love to write and read about conspiracy – but I hope the authors will forgive me if I focus on something slightly less dramatic: money.
The media is about money, and its revenues and solvency depend upon its readership and viewing numbers. That is obvious in the case of newspapers and the commercial television channels, but, slightly less directly, it is true about the BBC as well. Its prospects of retaining the licence fee, and having it increased from time to time, depend upon its ratings. If the ratings fall it will contract and disappear with direct financial loss to its staff and stars. If the ratings roar ahead, the licence fee becomes easier to justify and its income from selling programs internationally will go up too. Everyone involved, therefore, has an interest in the ratings and those who manage the BBC must look at them every morning, just as the proprietors of commercial stations and newspapers do, and must choose the fare which they are to present to the public accordingly. Of course that includes some quiz games. The public like quiz games and they are cheap to produce. Commercial tick for quiz games. Detective dramas work well commercially and then there are those period dramas for which the BBC is renowned. They are more expensive to produce so involve more risk, but then, if they work well, they can be sold to America, to Australia, to Canada and to New Zealand.
Precisely the same considerations dictate the political profile of news programmes. Like any other businesses the BBC must decide where to place themselves politically by assessing what will boost their ratings. It is a sophisticated judgement call. Merely looking at opinion polls et cetera is not enough. The question is not what the public at large thinks but what those who are likely to watch the BBC’s news programmes think, not the same thing at all. To illustrate this, look at the daily Telegraph and suppose that we were on the eve of a general election with the polls showing massive public support for a hard Labour majority. Would it make commercial sense for the Daily Telegraph to go all left-wing? No, obviously it wouldn’t, because the type of people who read the Daily Telegraph are unlikely to be included in the left wing majority. A pasta manufacturer changing his recipe for pasta will design the changes to retain and expand his existing customer base. He will not abandon his existing market to court a majority who as yet do not like pasta at all.
It is impossible to divorce commercial imperatives from the media’s decisions on political profile. Even at the Shaw Sheet, decisions are taken by reference to what will increase our readership rather than out of a desire to push public opinion in some socially desirable direction. What about the writers themselves? Put yourself in their place. Would you follow a line which you thought the public would find interesting or an uninteresting but politically correct one? We all have our own prejudices and of course these will influence our views but if we were to pretend that we would follow those prejudices without being influenced by the effect on readership, we would be telling a lie.
It is surprising how common it is for people to ignore commercial interest when discussing political and social matters. An interesting example is the left-wing analysis of the City of London. You’ll often hear it said that it is an “old boys network” or that people “like to appoint colleagues who are like themselves”. Well no doubt there is some of that but you will then hear the same people go on to talk about the ruthless pursuit of profit. That is having it both ways. Those who ruthlessly pursue profit will hire employees who are most likely to create revenues whatever their background or race may be. Appointing people from some social network or a particular background is a luxury for those who put profits second, not the image of a modern successful firm.
Carry this across to the BBC and one ends up with two conclusions. The first is that it is likely that audience figures drive profile far more than do the personal inclinations of the journalists. The second is that if this is not the case, people should certainly be sacked, but those sackings should not be for political bias, but rather for incompetence.