Blog Post

BBC’s Regulator Isn’t A ‘Cheerleader’, It’s A Heckler

The BBC Trust is facing increasing calls for reform from Tories and commercial rivals who consider the BBC’s regulator to be also its “cheerleader” – but its rejection of the BBC’s iPlayer sharing proposal shows the body is anything but

In fact, the ruling hurts not only the BBC itself but also the very commercial public TV peers which Auntie had hoped to help by relieving them of their VOD investment burden…

Far from championing the BBC’s every request, the trust, which replaced its own board of governors and scrutinises the broadcaster at arm’s length, has racked up a rich track record in curtailing the BBC’s online ambitions since its inception in January 2007…

Jan 2007: BBC iPlayer delayed, scaled back: The trust limited availability of shows from 13 weeks to 30 days and pegged back availability of “series stacking” – before consenting to 15 percent of shows via stacking after some 10,500 public respondents told it they actually liked the idea. Devised in 2003, the idea was only finally approved in April 2007.

Mar 2007: BBC Jam closed: Commercial rivals won a suspension order on the education site, with the loss of over 200 jobs.

May 2008: Overspend safeguards: Lambasting “ineffective management” for overspending BBC.co.uk by £36 million (48 percent) in 2007/08, the trust ordered an exec reshuffle that led to the movement of some veteran chiefs and the addition of a COO to better control Future Media & Technology. Though it also increased the 2008/09 budget by £30 million.

Nov 2008: Local video turned down: Adding three daily news, three sport and three weather videos to each of its 65 region-specific sites seemed harmless enough – but a vociferous campaign from local papers, investing in their own video plans, convinced the BBC to block the proposal outright.

Jun 2009: Canvas sent back: Eight months after the executive first publicised its open IPTV VOD plan, the trust rejected its spartan proposal, asking instead for a more detailed submission. Re-submitted a month later, the plan gives us a much better idea of exactly what Canvas is.

Oct 2009: Education budget frozen: Bitesize, Learning Zone Broadband and Learning Portal had their budgets frozen after the trust ruled the executive “failed to conduct appropriate competitive impact principle assessments”.

Other trust decisions include banning classical music and audio books from podcasts and forcing the BBC to build platform neutrality in to iPlayer. This kind of scrutiny is right and proper and, at the most, you can argue the trust is really doing its job

But something is wrong with the way the trust operates – and it’s not that it’s too close to the executive

When asked detailed questions about BBC proposals, trustees, mindful of the need to keep their distance, refuse to prejudge the executive’s related applications and insist they can only assess plans on individual proposals’ merits. This separation can mean innovation is held up and lengthy delays to projects that could benefit the BBC, its licence payers and, now, even commercial peers.

If trustees, while maintaining their independence, worked more closely to advise BBC Future Media & Technology as it develops proposals, the delays and regulatory tennis match between the two sides could be significantly slimmed down in the public interest.

What more do Erik Huggers and the BBC executive have to do to innovate within this ecosystem? Or, as the Canvas and Open iPlayer rulings suggest, is Huggers’ team failing to formulate its proposals in a simple enough way that trustees can understand them?

Whatever the problem – you can’t accuse the trust of being in the BBC’s pocket.