I Want Colin’s Sandwich!

It’s “have a go at the Beeb” week here in the UK, after Sachsgate (I always feel I should provide a bit of background for my Martian readership).  Why the leader of the Old Etonian party (who are, perhaps, starting to look like an Eton mess, methinks, if I may permit myself a jolly jibe at the expense of Messrs Osborne et al) decided to argue that BBC executive pay levels have anything to do with it is completely beyond me.  Let’s remind the voters that some are more equal than others, shall we?  That’s bound to play well for the Tories, that one.  Novices.

I did, though, find Eton Dave somewhat less vomit-inducing than Paul Gambaccini trying to somehow exonerate the one executive, Lesley Douglas, who did the decent thing and resigned.  “Lesley Douglas was brought low by Russell Brand”, opined the ageing DJ.  I would have thought she was “brought low” (I expect she’ll work again, the media look after their own, don’t they, Andrew Gilligan?), by the mistake of hiring a comedian edgier – to modify a Fred Truemanism that comes to mind – than a broken piss-pot and then not implementing common-sense management controls in case he went too far.  Even if the humour of Brand’s must-read column in the Saturday Guardian is as perfectly judged as that George Best chip, it’s not as if every past attempt at humour by the hirsute, but slightly effeminate and studious, though paradoxically studdish, truly enigmatic comedian has been perfectly appropriate for the politically-correct inhabitants of Beebworld. It’s not about executive pay, Cameron Minor: the problem is the deep-rooted arrogant culture that’s developed at the BBC over many years.  Unfortunately, the Corporation is of course a public-sector organisation which makes it very difficult to fix, because you can’t just appoint a new management team to carry out a change programme – which generally involves “letting go” a lot of those who don’t feel like changing – because you can’t fire anyone without a public inquiry.

Actually, I wasn’t planning to write any of the above when I sat down at the keyboard.  It does bring me to my point, though.  The BBC is a public sector organisation but in recent years it has started trying to behave like a private company, to the detriment of the licence payer.  Prompted by an FT piece, Corporation Rampant, I was going to develop an argument in forensic detail showing how the goals of BBC Worldwide are contradictory to those of providing value to the BBC’s customers in the UK.

The trouble is, I thought I’d do a little research on the 1988 and 1990 sitcom, Colin’s Sandwich, just to confirm that Mel Smith’s little gem is not available on DVD, before using it as an exemplar.  You’ve probably guessed what happened next… yeap, it’s not quite the real thing, but some Sandwich clips are available on YouTube, so I had a look at Best Man Speech.  Then I noticed links to real best man speeches.  After a bit I realised that it’s probably possible to spend your entire life watching best man speeches on YouTube, since they’re likely being put on there faster than you can play them…

Anyway, the FT reports that the BBC currently receives £3.4 billion p.a. in licence-fee revenue (a £139.50 regressive tax on each TV-owning household) and that this is supplemented by a further “£200-250 million” from BBC Worldwide, which gets to exploit the BBC’s content overseas and in the UK, for example, by selling DVDs, licensing programmes abroad and even operating channels such as BBC World (not apparently available in the UK for reasons that are totally beyond me).  Now, £250 million is 250/3400 = less than 1/13th of the licence fee, that is, around a tenner per licence-fee payer.

My point is that restricting access to BBC content costs licence-fee payers more than £10 a year in lost value.

It’s perfectly valid to ask why the licence-fee payer who misses a series on TV should have to pay a premium price for it on DVD.  The BBC recently broadcast a 6 part series about the Amazon.  I downloaded a few episodes via iPlayer, but didn’t get round to watching them before all that bandwidth was wasted and they expired and were deleted after 30 days.  Before the sectors on my hard-drive had even cooled down, I saw the BBC advertising the Amazon series on DVD for the princely sum of £19.95.  Rather than, say, broadcasting them end-to-end in the middle of the night on BBC channel 73 so that the interested viewer – who’s already paid for them – can make a recording.  Or simply not letting them expire on iPlayer, which must be less effort, IT-wise, than deliberately making them unwatchable after a certain period.

It’s also easy to argue that there is a loss of value of at least £10 loss per licence-fee payer if we just consider access, or lack of it, to the “long tail” of BBC content. Colin’s Sandwich would definitely be worth more than £10 to me.  Per series.  Another example – attentive readers will recall – was the Gerry Robinson NHS programme.  This is also not being marketed to the public, as far as I know.  There must be thousands of programmes we are denied access to, but for which there is no business case for the BBC to produce on DVD (all that box design) and distribute.

I would find the BBC’s current-affairs and documentary content (news, Panorama, Horizon, etc.) an invaluable research resource, but it’s simply not available, though the technology is now there to make it so.  In fact – and sorry to harp on about it – programmes that you’ve actually gone to the trouble of downloading are deliberately made unavailable in iPlayer after 30 days.

There must be a better business model.  The funds BBC Worldwide generates for the BBC licence-fee payer are not worth the cost in terms of the lost opportunities to provide more generous access to content for the BBC’s viewers in the UK.  Personally, if I had access to the BBC’s entire archive I could manage without the 1/13th more programming supposedly enabled by the profit from BBC Worldwide.