Could Gerry Robinson save the BBC?

What a bunch of jokers they are at the BBC!

I’ve been using their new iPlayer to try to catch the odd programme I’ve missed. Such as “Can Gerry Robinson Save the NHS? – One Year On”, originally broadcast on 12th December 2007. I downloaded it on 13th December and it stayed in my iPlayer library until I realised it was about to timeout (why? – yes, exactly, why?) on 11th January. So I dropped what I was doing and tried to watch it…

Guess what? The wallies had only let everyone download just the first 24 minutes and 7 seconds of a 60 minute programme. They’d known this for some weeks before I tried to watch it of course. Did they do anything about the people who’d downloaded the defective file? Did they heck!

To cut a long story short, I tried to log the problem and got error codes on their problem-reporting “webform” (they don’t just provide an email address, that would be too simple). I eventually rang them, and found out that yes, they had put a short file up for download, and, no, it didn’t occur to them to actually do anything to put the problem right. The period when the download was available was allowed to expire after 7 days, as usual, and the DRM would prevent anyone watching it after 30 days. They didn’t try to contact those who had downloaded the duff file. No special arrangements were made to extend the programme’s availability. To cap it all, I was cut-off when I tried to log a complaint.

What concerns me most, though, is not the BBC’s typical public-service attitude to customer-service, but their whole strategy, of which this is a symptom. They are a public-service broadcaster with a monopoly bolted on the side.

What do I mean by that? Well, if they were a pure public-service provider, they would surely:

1. Maximise the availability of content to licence-payers.

2. Produce as much content as they can afford from the licence-fee, and not try to boost their income by selling DVDs, using 0870 numbers for tech support, etc.

But their mission is totally compromised by trying to make a bit of extra money on the side. By doing this, they reduce the value of their content to the licence-payer by a vast amount, in order to make a relatively small amount in extra sales. For example, any fool can see that in future we will consume most content on-demand. If the BBC is to maintain the licence-fee model – and compete with other providers – it has to remove all restrictions on when viewers can watch this content. Trying to keep it free (to licence-payers) AND restricted (so further sales are possible) is incoherent.

And then, like all monopolies, Auntie treats its product as a cash-cow. Monopolies tend to shrink, because, due to one of the irresistible laws of the grey science, you maximise your profit (especially when people have very unequal ability as well as willingness to pay) by selling fewer items at a higher cost. Ideally, you’d just sell one copy of Doctor Who, for about £10 million – to Bill Gates, say. This is why BBC DVDs are so expensive, when they have already been paid for by the licence-payer. And the BBC’s public-service mission is undermined, because, to ensure a market for the DVDs for popular programmes they have to limit the number of times they are shown (despite the availability of BBC3, 4… to show them on). As we move to on-demand viewing, there is a complete contradiction between DVD sales and public-service broadcasting.

OK, I know there are 3rd parties involved – production companies – but the BBC is not there to create a market for DVDs. They should buy programmes outright. This would maximise value for the licence-payer. And if people didn’t need to buy DVDs, we might find they were prepared to pay a bit more on the licence fees.

Even worse, when it comes to programmes like “Gerry”, there is a limited after-market, so it is madness to restrict access to 7 days to download, 30 days to watch.

The BBC needs to decide whether it is a public-service broadcaster or a business. It can’t be both.