Why multiple choice is no choice at all

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It’s no good. I have wracked my brains to find a solution but the fact is there just isn’t one. No matter how hard I try I can find no reason to exercise my democratic right on 8 June. Apart from the obvious undemocratic waste in a seat that unless you are a Conservative, Maj 28,000 any other vote lacks any meaningful point anyway. What else is there to put off the voter?

CONSERVATIVE – Current catch phrase a vote for “strong and stable leadership”. Well there have been many strong and stable leaders, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, Franco, Ian Smith on one side and Robert Mugabe on the other together with countless others. All have displayed strong leadership but the benefits to the societies on which they imposed their strong leadership was negligible to non-existent. There have been beneficial strong leaders, Mandela, Gandhi and Adolfo Suarez to name three but these leaders sought not to impose their individual views but to persuade and be inclusive to those who lie outside of their own support base. What is being asked for by the Conservative rhetoric is for Theresa May to be given a blank cheque to operate as she pleases in all realms without being told what these actions will entail. The results of Brexit will be what they will be for example. The voter has to trust her to bring the “right” result however “right” is defined. There may be unspecified changes in the tax system but we the voter will not be told what these will be. Again she will do the “right” thing but as voters we have no right to know what that is. Details of what the Conservatives intend to carry out post 8 June are sketchy to say the least. The voter is to take on spec that Mrs May will do the right thing because she is the only one able to provide “strong, and stable leadership” but the voter is not to be told what that right action entails. At its heart Conservatism is a party that entrenches the rights of the elite. It represents big business, the professions, land owners and those with wealth.  Expect more of the same.

LABOUR – A party struggling to reflect a true identity. The current leadership knows it needs to appeal not just to its membership but also to a majority of voters if it is to have any hope of achieving even a modicum of success at this election hence the vote catching policy ideas of scrapping tuition fees (first time voters), tax increases for those earning in excess of £80k and a substantial increase in council housing both of which will benefit lower income groups forming a majority of people in this country. The problem is there is more than a whiff of underlying agenda when it comes to the Labour Party. Partly this is down to the party’s abject failure to present itself in a modern way. Its MP’s are at loggerheads with the membership and the leader. Its leadership and spokes people are viewed as shambolic and the voter perceives this would be carried into government. There is also a view that the party still adheres to outmoded 19th century ideas of politics and that beneath the veneer lies a cadre of revolutionaries bent on bringing radical Marxism to Britain. Labour was never a revolutionary party but one formed to advance the well being of the majority and especially the working class as opposed to those of privilege. In the obverse of Theresa May’s impression of being a strong leader Jeremy Corbyn exudes weakness not helped by his inability to whip his party MP’s behind a coherent agenda and portray a well thought through vision of the future for Britain.

LIBERAL DEMOCRAT – A party which again portrays an image of somewhat weak leadership. Nick Clegg was and would be a far more effective leader than Tim Farron. His religious faith, and this is not a criticism of his right to faith, also undermines his ability to represent a secular society. Strict religious dogma often finds intolerable what a modern secular society is willing to countenance. That puts Mr Farron in a difficult position if he has to defend more liberal views than his faith would not ordinarily tolerate. Tony Blair’s holy crusade in partnership with his fellow Christian George W Bush against Saddam Hussein did much to undermine his legacy and lead him along a path that was largely against the views of the majority of voters. The LIBDEMS also suffer from a very low base of support and were by and large an electoral irrelevance until 2010. Their part in the ill judged coalition which saw the Conservatives easily out manoeuvre them leaves them open to accusations of naivete.

GREEN – A single issue party. Conservation and ecological impacts of human society has to be an issue for every party. There are probably better ways of ensuring these issues are in the fore front of our politicians than a small and ineffective parliamentary party.

UKIP – Just no.

 

 

 

 

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TV Trends

 

Television in the UK has changed beyond recognition from the early days of a single provider in the shape of the BBC. But where is it heading. Here is some visionary input (guesses) from me.

Sports

Sports rights are probably the key drivers for both Sky and BT. Currently rights are licenced by the IP owners to national broadcasters on a country by country basis. In the past IP owners had to follow the licencing model because the distribution pathway in any individual country was controlled by a small number of national broadcasters. The income generated for the rights owner is massive. The likes of Sky and BT have driven all major sports barring a few specially protected events from Public Service channels. Technology will make that IP even more valuable for the IP owners. New technology will allow the rights owner to directly control the distribution of their product to individual viewers and revenues will be collected directly by the rights owner. There is now no longer any need for host nation broadcasters.
FIFA, UEFA, the IOC, Formula One and others with global sports brands will tap into their customer base directly and control their own advertising and sponsorship without having to touch a third party distributor.
This is potentially bad news for companies like Sky and BT but opportunities could be available in secondary rights packages (highlights, delayed transmission etc) and the creation of less high profile sports brands.

High End Drama

In the absence of sports rights drama will become the main driver for subscription channels. This is already happening with the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime. Both have moved into direct commissioning whilst still providing a secondary window for their initial business model as a distributor of Hollywood movies. The investment by these new entrants in drama output has seen a rise in production values coupled with an inflation in production costs. High end television drama production values are now on a par with features but still at a fraction of the cost both in terms of production and marketing. Public Service Broadcasters will struggle to compete with subscription services although it is possible that both the BBC and ITV could set up drama subscription services to capitalise on their existing brands. Such a move would need to happen quickly to avoid the new players grabbing market share and customers.

Lifestyle, food and travel

Traditionally cheap to make these style of programmes lend themselves to being directly distributed by large retailers on their own direct to consumer channels. Retailers could shift marketing spend away from traditional spot advertising campaigns and into ‘television’ production of their own lifestyle series fronted by their own talent. Retailers are already comfortable with having their own brand ambassadors and some have even ventured into advertising funded programming on regular TV outlets. Big retailers also have large databases of customers gleaned from loyalty cards. It is certainly not inconceivable to imagine a Jamie Oliver series transmitted by Sainsbury or Waitrose marketing their business and products via a Heston vehicle. It would probably cost a fraction of their current spot spend once the mind set for it changes both in the retailer head and that of the agencies which understandably are currently against any ad spend being diverted away from their hands. Is this behind the recent news highlighted in Broadcast of creative agency Beagle looking to expand into original content production?

Amazon is ideally placed to be at the forefront of this initiative with it already providing a huge retailing offering coupled with an existing television operation and a tech based infrastructure and knowledge base to deliver content to its massive database of customers all with credit cards already registered with the e-tailer. A range of subscription, micro payment or free services awaits to be exploited. Potentially good news for talent agents and producers.

Existing broadcasters

Where does all this leave the existing broadcaster model? Not in a good place I would suggest. Opportunities still exist in low cost serials (Soaps) where brand loyalty still exists in fairly large numbers. News will also be an area that traditional outlets will succeed. The continued viewer engagement with “constructed factual” and youth programming may also an area PSBs can continue to be a leader, as well as the exploitation of secondary windows for advertiser funded projects, older feature films, sports highlights packages and local output. Of course many of the traditional broadcast companies have been expanding their production capacity and would be ready to exploit any growth in production requirements for new outlets. Their existing channels provide an ideal test bed for new ideas and the skill base acquired over many years makes these companies ideal targets for well funded tech giants to buy into a ready- made production and distribution outfit.

When all is said and done producers should do well as there will remain a need for a well constructed, professionally produced product. The existing broadcast model will largely be absorbed into a new construct although a rump will remain much like the print newspaper industry exists today in a much smaller capacity.

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Songs of Praise

It seems odd that a series that certainly on the face of it lacks commercial value should be transferred to an independent producer whilst more commercial offerings such as “Holby City” remain with a tax payer funded BBC.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with commercial production companies producing any type of show and indeed they do. Some argue that transferring BBC produced programmes to commercial producers simply means profits are being made by dastardly shareholders from taxpayers money but it could equally be argued that those profits simply represent inefficiencies within the BBC being driven out. If the overall budget stays the same or falls then the taxpayer has not been exploited any more than it is already.

But there is a wider issue at stake here. What is happening is an inexorable drift towards privatisation of BBC assets. Firstly BBC Worldwide has a fully commercial remit and is run to all intents and purposes as a private commercial enterprise albeit owned by the BBC.

Next and inevitably BBC Studios is being commercialised and in fact it is the stated aim of Mark Linsey as reported in Broadcast in October last year “that he wanted BBC Studios to “mirror” the structure of superindies such as Endemol Shine and All 3 Media.”

This process of commercialisation is underway highlighted by the announcement of 300 BBC production redundancies in October 2016 and more will follow as less valuable programming is pushed out to the independent sector and BBC Studios takes on a more “Indie” structure causing a transfer of full time production jobs into less secure and shorter term freelance roles. The reality is that independent producers are more financially efficient solely because they do not have to carry all of the costs of full time staff and benefit from the ability to offer short term contracts and extract the tax benefit of not having to pay employers national insurance on a significant part of their freelance workforce and front of camera talent costs.

What then for the last piece of the BBC asset jigsaw, the commissioning bit?

One of the many things a publicly funded broadcaster, as opposed to a producer, can and should be doing is fund programmes which ordinarily the commercial sector would not find viable. This would be perfectly possible even with a commercial BBC Worldwide and a commercial BBC Studios if the commissioning stayed independent but is it likely?

To the criticism that the BBC would stop showing niche and specialised programmes of little commercial value but justifiable in terms of social cohesion and public information a government could point to Channel 4 and claim this remit is adequately catered for by its Charter at a zero cost to the tax payer.

We know that politicians of all parties dislike the BBC’s impartiality. Labour over Hutton and the Conservatives over election coverage in 2015 to name but two. The dominant Conservative Party, the current party of government, also has an ideological hatred of nationalised corporations. The triumvirate of BBC Worldwide in distribution, BBC Studios in Production and BBC Broadcasting as a commercial enterprise with the potential to add a billion or two into the national accounts (Sky has been valued at £18.5bn) under the auspices of a Conservative lead Government must for the blue party be making them positively delirious at the prospect.

The downside is that the costs for users would go up but this wouldn’t be a problem for politicians. The value would be settled by the market not by the government. The current services provided by the BBC are extremely good value given that it covers substantial radio, TV and online services because of the fact that all owners of a television fund all services. A privatised business would have to offer “choice” leading to a radically different payment structure. Possibly this could be advertising but more likely some form of subscription. Some free to air television content might continue much as we currently have with Sky 1 but for premium content the charge would almost certainly increase. The corporation would be forced to compete more and more head on for rights with the likes of BT, Sky, Netflix and Amazon if it were to maintain a pre-eminent position. The proposed takeover by Fox of Sky is partially being justified by the claim that Sky would be better able to compete for rights with the backing of a financial heavyweight. Likewise the BBC privatisation would put it in the frame for a takeover by a well funded overseas investor and for a government intent on generating the highest value this would almost inevitably become the preferred source of suitor.

The biggest potential loser of any privatisation would be radio and especially local radio. Whilst the large audiences of Radios 2 and 4 could be used to cross promote other services it would seem difficult to justify the non-revenue or revenue lite potential of the other radio assets in the wrapper of a commercial television company.

Much like Scottish Independence there seems to me to be a certain grim inevitability about the privatisation of the BBC. Not an if but a when.

Move C4 to Birmingham. Why not?

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There is nothing inherently wrong with moving Channel 4 out of London and to the Midlands or anywhere else of similar size with appropriate transport links for that matter . Yes there will be some relocation costs but there is significant value in the freehold of the HQ at Horseferry Road to defray much of this cost.

George Osbourne talked of creating a northern powerhouse and moving a significant cultural and commercially oriented enterprise would do much to boost that.

London is too hot. It sucks money and young people into its core like a demented super hot hypergiant and starving the rest of the country from investment and talent. London is hugely expensive for young people to live in and means businesses that rely on people at their core have unnecessarily high costs. As London prices for everything from property to transport spiral upwards at a faster rate than elsewhere so too does the pressure on wages especially for people hungry businesses like television production. A move outside London would mean production costs are reduced.

Many argue that it is not where Channel 4 is based that counts but where it spends its cash. To some extent that is true but the majority of production companies are London based. Even where these companies produce outside London any profits are repatriated back to the centre. It is not unusual for London producers to perform huge contortions to get shows commissioned as part of a regional quota which although technically within the rules bend the spirit of the rationale for the quota.

A large commissioning hub outside London would aid the spread of production to a region. Production companies locate themselves where the money is and where it is easy to have a face to face meeting. Television commissioning is networking and much of the business is done in expensive restaurants and bars rather than at the office or on the phone. That means producers have to be near commissioners and that means London. By far the easiest way to boost production outside London is to move the commissioning money and those who decide how it is spent.

London doesn’t necessarily represent England and even less so does it represent Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The “nations” do have greater diversity of commissioning with regional commissioning teams in the BBC and regional companies in UTV, STV and S4C. But for the rest of England nearly all commissioning emanates from London and a small coterie of people make those decisions. Inevitably these people have similar backgrounds, hold similar views and mix with the same people. This can only create a certain uniformity in programming and worldview. Many criticise what they perceive as the metro centric viewpoint of a London elite.

Arguments can be set against this view in that many programmes carry a regional flavour. “The Fall” was set in Northern Ireland, “Line of Duty” although not specified is clearly not London, “Vera” is set in the North East and three of the 4 recognised “soaps” are set outside London. Partly this is down to economics. London is very expensive to film drama. Even “Eastenders” only just makes it inside the M 25 at Elstree. Only a curmudgeon could argue that programming on terrestrial channels be that Channel 4 or others is not hugely diverse in terms of geographic location.

News and Current Affairs is perhaps a more pertinent criticism of a perceived elitist viewpoint and it would be interesting to see what changes would happen if a large national television news organisation based the editorial staff outside of London.

The idea that television would become less elitist if it were based outside the Capital is probably a fallacy. Television is inherently elitist given the current institutional basis of its recruitment. White, upper middle class, often public school and Oxbridge educated television’s elitism comes not for its failure of regionality but from its education and class bias.

There are potential drawbacks to the relocation of Channel 4. One is that those producers who lie outside the new commissioning area will potentially be disadvantaged by having to focus on two separate hubs. Already incurring costs to come to London to pitch, further costs arise from having to focus on a secondary commissioning location. Potentially this could even reduce the number of different regional producers as a new clump forms around the new base and commissioning is directed at the nearest supplier. Would Channel 4 have to operate a London quota? Or would commissioning become a free for all giving an advantage to those bigger production groups with London financing and with regional production companies? These questions would need to be addressed.

A second drawback could arise if any relocation is only nominal. It can easily be envisaged that a commissioning team is left behind in London because, it is reasoned, London has the greatest  locus of production companies thus arguing commissioning is more efficient if at least some is based in London and to reduce the cost consequences for regional producers discussed above. Such a situation would totally negate the effects of any relocation and make the exercise costly and futile.

Furthermore it could be argued that the concept of having a regional television industry has been tried before. Granada had a significant base in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool with a strong North West based management culture and a loyal and strongly regional viewership. It was ideally placed to create a television powerhouse in the north. But when push came to shove Granada chose to base its operations in the Capital. That in itself is probably evidence enough that any relocation of Channel 4 will be costly and ultimately a failure.

I hold the view that business consolidates in certain areas for a reason, from natural causes. Silicon Valley formed naturally not because governments told tech companies to go there. Likewise television production companies clumped together in London because the circumstances were right for the creativity to flourish there. But it is becoming ever more ridiculous for workers to travel from places like Brighton, Cambridge, Norwich and beyond into London solely to work because to live anywhere near the city is too expensive. Increasingly television production facilities are dwindling. ITV is closing its studios on the South Bank, BBC Television Centre’s facilities have been greatly reduced to accommodate more lucrative housing projects. Fountain Studios in Wembley, former home of X Factor is closed and been sold off to a property developer.

Despite this you cannot base part of an industry somewhere else and expect it to flourish when the core remains in London. Industries rarely flourish because of direct government intervention. Industries grow because of circumstances. The prevalence of resources, talented people and markets. The Government is limited in the amount of influence it has over most industries. The exception is broadcasting. It must be hugely tempting for the Government to use that influence to help stimulate a regional economy at little cost but pushing Channel 4 out of London is not the way to do it unless they push the BBC out too and ultimately encourage ITV to join the party. It would have to be all or nothing and that ain’t gonna happen.

Purveyors of False Optimism

Sales of snake oil are on the rise

We are losing our discount to trade within the single market. Leaving the single market will damage Britain’s economic prospects. The question is by how much. No one can know that answer. Just as we can be too pessimistic it is also likely that we can be over optimistic. The absolute best we can hope to achieve is to stand still and be no worse off than we are now. With luck with a general increase in worldwide prosperity the UK can follow it up. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” as the saying goes. It would be naive however to believe that the UK will experience growth in excess of the rest of our world trading partners. In terms of negotiating strength if we were unable to obtain the limited changes demanded by David Cameron from the EU when Britain was part of the organisation what hope have we got that our negotiators will extract anything substantially beneficial in order to exit? The likelihood is that as a nation we shall be poorer even if it means Europe is poorer too.

Here’s why.

Leaving the European Single Market is a bit like handing back your discount card and paying full price. Whereas previously the UK enjoyed certain beneficial rights when trading with our EU partners these will now be withdrawn. The optimistic view of David Davies et al is that the EU has more to lose than we do. It is true that the UK trade deficit with the EU amounts to £61 bn. This breaks down as a surplus of £28bn in services and a deficit of £89bn in goods. This is our only bargaining chip. If Europe makes the UK poorer then all Europe becomes poorer. In some ways this makes our negotiating stance easier. With only one card to play there is not much to think about.

Conversely Europe can give concessions on trade while extracting the largest benefit for their position on everything else. If the UK wants to retain a beneficial relationship on trade then concessions will need to be made on levels of immigration, the role of European courts and financial contributions to maintain the EU structures.

By far the biggest exporter to the UK is Germany equating to approximately £25bn of our deficit. Germany is the dominant party within the EU and Germany will not want to see a fall in their economy caused by Brexit. The next highest is Spain at around £10bn, significantly less than Germany but still high enough to matter to them given the broad economic problems Spain has faced and should also mean their stance towards the UK will be mitigated by trade factors. Next come Belgium and The Netherlands at roughly £7bn. Both countries have been traditionally supportive of the UK. Next is France at £5bn. Below this the differences are small. So for 5 countries trade balances are significant and for 22 the trade balance is less of an issue but all 27 countries have a say. That means politics will play a significant role in determining the likely economic outcome of Brexit. The British population voted on a political choice not an economic one and there will be political consequences. Those consequences will have an economic effect.

Logically if the current trade arrangements are beneficial to the EU members as a whole prior to Britain leaving then after leaving these same arrangements would be equally beneficial all things being equal. Britain needs to keep its comparative advantage in Financial and Other Business Services which account for over 50% of our surplus in services just as Germany will want to maintain its surplus in manufactured goods. Even in manufacturing although Britain runs a deficit with the rest of Europe the overall export trade in goods for Britain at £134bn is higher than our export in services at £96bn. The fact is that any changes which reduce the trade in goods and services between Britain and other EU countries will be consequential for everyone but the danger is that for Britain being the 1 as opposed to the 27 the consequences will be more severe and its room for manoeuver made more difficult. Figures from Civitas suggest the impact of tariffs would be more damaging to the EU than the UK especially in overall value for motor manufacturing. (http://www.civitas.org.uk/reports_articles/potential-post-brexit-tariff-costs-for-eu-uk-trade/)

A real economic danger for Britain is the potential for the transfer of some of our existing trade to Europe principally in the manufacture of vehicles and financial services. Any transfers from these areas would make Britain poorer whilst transferring earnings to the EU and offsetting any negative impacts of imposing trade sanctions on the UK. The EU could incentivise US, Japanese and European car manufacturers who currently manufacture in the UK to move those operations to other European countries. Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy or any number of other EU nations would jump at the chance to boost their economies by taking on these current UK operations. Likewise in banking services the EU could engineer a transfer of Euro trade out of London to other European cities such as Frankfurt, Paris or Madrid. The multinational businesses that trade in London have no intrinsic loyalty to the UK and would have every incentive to move their operations if it were economically profitable. Goldman Sachs has already stated it has contingency plans to move parts of its business if necessary.

Britain’s annual contribution to the EU is reported at approximately £13bn after rebate. Based on recent demands from EU sources Britain will have to pay between £50bn to £100bn as part of the exit negotiations. It also seems highly likely that some ongoing payment will be payable should the UK wish to be a party to continent wide security structures including European border controls, science initiatives and other programmes. In addition Britain will need to pay compensation payments internally where EU funding currently is made in areas like agriculture and the Arts. The promised savings it would be appear are likely to be substantially less than promised at the time of the referendum.

Many in the pro Brexit camp claim that any negative impact on trade with the EU can be compensated by trade with the rest of the world. The much cited claim is that the EU consists of only 27 countries but that there are over 187 countries outside the EU to trade with. Not withstanding the fact that there are currently at most only 195 countries in the world meaning there are only 167 other countries to trade with it is a fact that only a very small number of nations are of sufficient size to be major trading partners. Sudan is number 62 in the global GDP figures (according to World Bank data) which would suggest that in reality there are at most 30 significant trading partners outside the EU.

We already trade with the US, China, India, Australia and others. The likelihood is that these trade flows will stay more or less as they are in the near future. The best scenario is that we may pick up some additional trade to compensate for any losses from trading within the single market. But the fact is there is nothing to stop us trading with these nations now in any substantive way and that leaving the single market will not suddenly give rise to new trading opportunities. It is easier to trade with your near neighbours than with those geographically further away. The negotiation of more advantageous trading positions will need time and involve a two way dialogue to create mutual benefits. Such negotiations are never easy. Donald Trump espouses an “America first” mantra and the UK and others will harbour similar nationalistic desires.

Many criticised those that campaigned to remain in the EU as proponents of Project Fear and that beyond life in the EU there existed a brave new world of opportunity to “make Britain great again”. Maybe it is not Project Fear we should be concerned about but the purveyors of false optimism.