The Beeb 2

Last week, I attended a lecture at the Annenberg school by David Levy, head of public policy at the BBC. Afterwards, David came over to Wharton for an informal chat about telecom/media policy in the US and Britain.

The BBC is a unique animal. From the US perspective, it’s a hybrid of PBC, CNN, and HBO, all funded by a tax of about $225 on every TV set in the UK. Every ten years, it has to go through a charter review process, which forces a hard look at how the BBC works and whether it should change.

The current charter review process, which David has been in the center of, is coming to a close. It has been even more contentious than usual, because the BBC was caught up in the controversy over the mis-use of intelligence information to justify the war in Iraq. Many of the reforms in this charter review therefore relate to governance, but David’s main focus in his talk was on the BBC’s evolving role as a public service media company. He made a strong case that, although one can certainly challenge the premise of funding TV and radio content through taxation, the system can produce a unique combination of quality programming and social benefits.

I’m particularly interested in the BBC because, in some ways, it’s better positioned than other major video content producers for the transformations of digital convergence. The BBC makes plenty of popular, mass-market programming, but because it sees itself as a public service, it doesn’t have the usual reflexive desire to keep that content close to the vest. It also doesn’t depend on advertising for its primary revenue stream. As a result, the BBC is willing to experiment with opening up its program archive to the Web in ways no US broadcaster will consider. It’s also willing to use the Internet as a key distribution platform, because it’s not as concerned with cannibalization of its TV advertising base. At some point, as I suggested at David’s lecture, there may be a disconenct in funding a non-platform-specific digital media company from sales of TV sets, but that’s probably something that can be addressed.

In talking with David, it was fascinating to hear how different the communictions policy landscape looks in Britain, compared to the US. Network neutrality, the source of so much debate here, is largely off the radar screen across the Atlantic. Digital TV is more widespread in Britain, but high-definition TV (which, in the US, came in with digital) is non-existent. And so forth.

Of course, the Net ignores geographic boundaries. As we move further into the era of digital convergence, the differences among countries and regions will either be sources of tension, or opportunities. If David is any indication (and I know there are many other great people at the BBC), the Beeb is going to be an important testbed to watch.