BBC's "Scale and Scope" to Be Reviewed, U.K. Government Says

BBC London headquarters HQ - H 2015
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Governance and funding issues will also be part of talks about a new charter for the U.K. public broadcaster as the government publishes a "green paper" on its future.

Just over a week after it put the BBC at the center of a dispute regarding its financial arrangements, the British government said Thursday that it would have to review its "scale and scope," along with its funding and governance, as the two sides start negotiating a new charter for the U.K.'s public service broadcaster.

In a "green paper" published on Thursday, it said the BBC's future, size and activities would have to be closely reviewed. But the government stopped short of making specific proposals, while signaling that singing competition The Voice should maybe be among the types of shows that the BBC should not buy in the future.

The paper marks the start of a process that will see the BBC and the government negotiate a new royal charter that defines the broadcaster's duties once the current charter expires at the end of 2016.

The paper was published by culture secretary John Whittingdale.‎ He has in the past criticized the BBC for targeting mass audiences with such broad entertainment shows as The Voice and Strictly Come Dancing.

Whittingdale on Thursday lauded such popular BBC shows as Sherlock and The Great British Bake Off. But the green paper also signaled the need to review content decisions based on whether they make the BBC distinctive. "This does not mean that the BBC should  not be entertaining; it is about the BBC providing distinctive programming across all genre types," the paper said. "For example, the BBC
acquired the format for The Voice. This was a singing talent show developed overseas, bought by the BBC at a reported cost of around £20 million and similar to ITV’s X Factor. This is in contrast to Strictly Come Dancing, which was developed by the BBC in-house and then
sold abroad."

“The BBC is at the very heart of Britain. It is one of this nation's most treasured institutions - playing a role in almost all of our lives," he said in parliament in presenting the paper. "Ten years ago, the last time the government ran a charter review, the media landscape looked very different. The BBC has adapted to this changing landscape, and remains much-loved by audiences, a valuable engine of growth and an international benchmark for television, radio, online and journalism."

He added: “However, we need to ask some hard questions during this charter review. Questions about what the BBC should be trying to achieve in an age where consumer choice is now far more extensive than it has been, what its scale and scope should be in the light of those aims, how far it affects others in television, radio and online, and what the right structures are for its governance and regulation.”

Observers have predicted that the BBC would have to scale back its operations once the new charter is set.

"Twenty years ago the BBC had two television channels and five national radio stations," Whittingdale said. "It is now the largest public service broadcaster in the world, with nine television channels, 10 national radio stations, and a major online presence. The consultation paper looks at whether this particular range of services best serves license fee payers and the impact it has on the commercial sector given the current and future media environment."

Whittingdale said there was "concern" that public funding "should not undermine commercial business models tv, radio and online."

In response to the announcement, Rona Fairhead, chair of the BBC Trust, the broadcaster's external governing body, said that while there were "big questions" to ask about the future of the BBC, "the debate must not be a narrow one and the clearest voice in it must be that of the public."

"We will carry out our own research and consultation to make sure of that, and we welcome the Government’s statement that they will work with us and will take full account of our findings,” she added.

The green paper comes after recent news of more than 1,000 BBC job cuts and news of a new bill worth $1 billion-plus to cover free BBC services for people 75 and older. So far, Britain's Department for Work and Pensions covered those people's license fee payments.

On Tuesday, BBC director general Tony Hall had said: "As we enter a period of charter review it’s inevitable that there will be much discussion about the programs we provide." He added: "I believe that the BBC should continue to make programs for all our audiences. Everyone pays for the BBC and it is right that we continue to make programs for everyone. A BBC that doesn’t inform, educate and entertain is not the BBC the public know and love."