The David Elstein Interview: Part 2 - The BBC
Elstein, 60, is currently chairman of Sparrowhawk Media, owners of the Hallmark channel. Previously he launched Channel 5, worked for Sky as head of programming and held position as a senior editor at the BBC.
Today he discusses the BBC, defending his stance on the abolition of the license fee.
Alan Jay: If you were offered the job of Director-General, would you take it? What would you do with the thing?
David Elstein: Well, it's a completely academic issue. The last time I applied, or the only time I ever applied, the only time I applied, I didn't get a final interview. Maybe because my views about the BBC are sufficiently radical to cause apprehension or maybe I'm just not seen as a particularly good manager but there you go. The BBC is the BBC - it will do what it's going to do. I will say what I have to say from the outside. There isn’t an opportunity to say on the inside.
Alan Jay: You are very anti the license fee.
David Elstein: Yep. Have been for a long time.
Alan Jay: If you, in a hypothetical world, had gotten the job, would you have still been anti the license fee?
David Elstein: Absolutely! Look, the license fee is a fact of life for several more years, probably to 2012, maybe a bit later, but the BBC should be weaning itself off the license fee. It should be listening to what the Burns committee says. It should be listening to what Ofcom said. It should be looking to develop a mixed economy. It should be putting all its digital channels onto subscription and it should plan for a post-license fee funding resource. There's no evidence of that going on at the moment.
Alan Jay: Do you think that what we get from the BBC is a good deal?
David Elstein: It's impossible to say. If you've got no choice it's no deal at all.
Alan Jay: But if you compare it to other countries that have a license fee but a more mixed economy, some people would say that the quality of programming is not as good. Do you think there's a relationship between those two? Would the BBC continue to produce good programming?
David Elstein: If the BBC didn't produce good programming, there should be somebody in jail. You know you can't take three billion pounds forcefully from the population and not generate some good programming. It would be a national scandal. Anyone who had three billion pounds of guaranteed income every year would generate some good programming. I can tell you that.
Alan Jay: But there are very few people in the world who have that...
David Elstein: No, I think German television, German public television also has about three billion to spend between them. ARD & ZDF. It's a bigger population obviously. Look, the BBC has been able to extract a very large amount of money. I don't think it offers particularly good value even if you take away the compulsion element. If you put in the compulsion element, it's... just a blot on the landscape. It shouldn't be allowed. You know we are able to generate a huge amount of content in this country without compulsion. It's been an acronymisum which will become much worse as we move to a more to a more digitized transmission system. [So] if you think about it, in a fully digital environment, why on earth would we have a license fee?
Alan Jay: I don't disagree with you. Do you think that they should not be producing the popular stuff that commercial broadcasters bring us or should be doing everything?
David Elstein: I just don't think they should have a license fee. I mean the simple fact of the matter is the license fee is the wrong way to fund popular programming. The market can fund that - and it's the wrong way to fund unpopular programming because the government should fund that. The license fee is unfair to the poorer households. It's a very wasteful mechanism. It's expensive to operate. It's expensive to operate and expensive to collect. It involves hundreds of thousands of people every year being threatened with jail. It's outrageous how... anyone can work at the BBC knowing that their salary is based on threatening single mothers with imprisonment if they don't pay their share. I don't know. That's a moral choice that anyone at the BBC has to make.
Alan Jay: Sure. But do you think that the concept of having public service broadcasting is a good thing?
David Elstein: Very good, yes.
Alan Jay: If the BBC didn't exist, and we wanted strong public service broadcasters with excellent programming, how would we fund it?
David Elstein: Well, we have a number of public service broadcasters. The issue is how ... you fund public service content. ITV is a public service broadcaster, [but its] requirements are ... actually more onerous than for Channel 4 if you add them all up, in terms of religion and regional programing and current affairs in peak etc. If you read the broadcasting policy group report on the future of BBC, what we recommended was a public broadcasting authority, which is virtually identical to the Burns Public Service Broadcasting Commission. Very similar to the Peacock proposal for a public service broadcasting Council. Basically you fund a central body which hands out money either in lump sums or by whatever means to the key broadcasters who want to fund the content that the market wouldn't fund or wouldn't support or that consumers wouldn't support.
We have to recognise that license fees are really dangerous mechanisms if we are concerned about public service broadcasting. Ofcom has reported a number of times ... that we're in real danger of ending up with 95% of all our public service content coming from one source. Now that's a really dangerous thing to do in any democracy. It's why the BBC monopoly was broken in 1955 and that's why we've got to be really careful about relying on the mechanism to deliver public service broadcasting which is going to deliver no pluralism of view. Now, you know one way to deal with that is to slice the license fee itself and that's why Ofcom and Burns recommended that the BBC Trust shouldn't be called the BBC Trust but should be the Trust and should in due course be the holder of public monies, be it license fee monies or other monies, and distribute them to the BBC and to other would-be suppliers of public service content. But what we have at the moment isn't going to get us there, so we've got to think our way through how we transit not just from compulsory subscriptions for the BBC to voluntary subscription, but using the license fee from public service content when we need to find a different sourcing of that money.
Alan Jay: Do you think that in this future world the BBC should take advertising?
David Elstein: I wouldn't rule it out. The first thing to do is to get the BBC to recognise that [it has] got to have a more direct relationship with its consumers and the way to do that is to give them choice as to whether they pay for the BBC or don't pay for the BBC. It's a very unhealthy relationship to have with your consumers when they have no choice as to whether they pay for you or not. Now, whether you then decide that you'll serve your consumers best by reducing their subs and taking ads or doing what HBO does or Disney does, which is having no ads and only having subscription revenue, that's a judgment call which you make primarily on commercial considerations. HBO and Disney ... don't let advertisers have any influence over their content. HBO looked at the networks and the impact that advertisers have on the networks, and said that frankly, the audience is not getting content that it wants, it's getting content that the advertisers want, and therefore it's much healthier for us to have a pure subscription relationship. That way we have no extraneous interventions in our editorial decisions. My guess is that... for the most part that's a judgment the BBC would make if it were 'no subscription' mode. There may be services where it's immaterial. There's no reason why the BBC with dozen of radio and television channels would take exactly the same view of every one of them. So it's a possibility, but it's not the first step in the chain.
Tomorrow: David Elstein on developing Channel 5