The BBC has been heavily criticized by UK lawmakers for ducking hard choices about content cuts and for being too relaxed about fewer people paying for the license fee.
A report by British Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee concluded that the BBC appears “complacent and unconcerned” about a number of financial and commercial challenges at a “critical juncture” in its near-100-year history.
The BBC bristled at the findings, arguing that they do not reflect the evidence it provided to the committee. “There is no complacency at the BBC. We have taken great pains to stress, including to this committee, that the jeopardy for the BBC is high. We have also explained very clearly how the challenges we face are directly driving our strategy to deliver more value to all audiences,” a spokesman said.
The 18-page PAC report said the BBC has “deferred difficult measures and ducked the hard choices necessary over cuts to frontline content.” It follows a bleak report by public spending watchdog the National Audit Office that said the broadcaster has been delaying inevitable programming cuts.
The BBC needs to make £950 million ($1.3 billion) of savings by 2022 against the backdrop of significant financial and strategic pressures. The BBC’s £3.5 billion ($5B) in license funding is in decline (it fell 8% last year), while future negotiations with the government over its funding and intense competition from the likes of Netflix will result in further pressure on its finances.
The PAC said: “The BBC is candid about its view that, having driven down costs in back-office functions, it now sees no scenario in which it can avoid making tough choices about frontline services such as content. While we recognise that these choices are difficult, the BBC was unable to name any recent content cuts or future plans to cut content, despite plans to only produce 80% of its current programming. At this stage, we would expect to see a clearer articulation of which programming the BBC views as a priority going forward. This seems to be part of a general pattern of avoiding hard choices.”
The PAC pointed to the BBC delaying redundancies in its news, and nations and regions units. Furthermore, it signaled cutbacks at BBC Four for a year before finally confirming that it will transform the TV channel into an archive service, moving away from originals such as BAFTA-winning Detectorists. The PAC wants the BBC to put in writing more detailed savings plans within six months.
The group of MPs also said the BBC “appears complacent about the threat it faces from declining audiences,” with more people opting not to pay their license fee. “The BBC recognises that the rapid shift to online media and changes in consumer habits during the pandemic has seen people discover more choice elsewhere. However, it does not appear to have a sufficiently detailed plan for how to address this,” the committee said.
The PAC argued that director general Tim Davie’s vision for the BBC does not “adequately” address the financial challenges facing the corporation, not least “unambitious” proposals to increase BBC Studios’ financial returns by 30% over five years. It also slammed the BBC’s plan to shift £700 million ($988M) of spend out of London as “unclear and disjointed.”
PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “The BBC has enjoyed a truly unique position of privilege and trust, it should have been capitalising on the cosy buffer of its guaranteed income from taxpayers. Moving bits of this Titanic organisation around the country, reorganising the deckchairs, just won’t cut it in the face of intense and rapidly changing global competition. The BBC needs to radically re-engineer its offer.”
A BBC spokesman said: “Our commitment to reform is beyond question. We are taking tough choices. Our ‘Across the UK’ plan represents the boldest and most ambitious reshaping of the BBC in our history, and it has been warmly welcomed by MPs from all parties and in all parts of the country. Our latest efficiency programme is on track to deliver nearly £1 billion of annual recurring savings by March 2022. In one year, we have reduced our headcount by over 1,000 roles.
“As the NAO report notes, the BBC is the UK’s most used media brand – reaching over 90% of adults on average per week and 80% of 16-34 year-olds. It pays tribute to the new initiatives we have introduced to capitalise on the opportunities of the new marketplace, most recently with BBC Sounds and improvements to iPlayer. We are the most trusted source of news in the country. We believe the case for the BBC remains compelling, but we know we must earn the right to exist through the value we provide.
“We understand that the committee will want more details of our plans and we will be able to provide them once a financial settlement is in place.”