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  • The BBC and Producer Choice: A Study of Public Service Broadcasting and Managerial Change
  • Martin Harris (bio) and Victoria Wegg-Prosser (bio)

Forward by Victoria Wegg-Prosser

This paper is a birthday tribute to Erik Barnouw, a friend and colleague over many years. We first met at the British Film Institute in 1972. Everyone needs gurus—Erik is one of mine. The British Broadcasting Corporation has been an inspiration, or a guru, to millions of people around the world for almost as long as Erik has been alive. I came to study the BBC from a managerial perspective after producing programs there in the early eighties. I returned in 1991 for three years in the role of “manager” not “producer.” I found a New World, dominated by the discourse of corporate strategy, empowering some and disabling others. What on earth was going on?

Text by Martin Harris and Victoria Wegg-Prosser

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Figure 1.

“Teletubbies,” a production of the BBC Worldwide. Images from the BBC Worldwide Annual Report and Accounts 97/98:

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Figure 2.

“Teletubbies,” a production of the BBC Worldwide. Images from the BBC Worldwide Awards webpage:

Producer Choice was the title given to the trading system designed around an internal market which was introduced at the BBC over the years 1991–94. [End Page 151] The adoption of Producer Choice reflected a philosophy based on choice and competition which would drive costs down. It was anticipated that these measures would ensure the BBC’s survival as a public service broadcaster, funded by a license fee levied on all households with terrestrial television receivers. Producer Choice involved the biggest organizational change in the BBC’s history. The command economy of the old days was replaced by an internal market which separated purchasers (commissioning executives) from providers (producers and technicians). We knew that marketization was a fashionable trend; we wondered how it might impact on creativity?

Looking back at the days of the command economy before Producer Choice, and scrutinizing the ways in which resources were allocated then to program makers on command, we must accept (as many corporate strategists then did) that not all BBC resources were “fit for purpose.” Too many studios were “Rolls Royce” outfits, likened to “cabs on the rank,” waiting to be used, when less expensive facilities were available outside of the BBC’s resource base. We might argue that the BBC required over-resourcing in order to transmit programs of consistent excellence so that the BBC could retain its reputation as “the least worst broadcaster in the world.” However, remaining over-resourced was no longer an option for the BBC. Not only did the British government want efficiency in the use of public monies, but because of rising costs and a plateaued license fee revenue, more programming had to be made with fewer financial resources. By the summer of 1991, new advertising-funded Independent Television (ITV) licensees were in place, operating on reduced program budgets. New commercial radio, cable, and satellite television entrants took an increased share from the terrestrial channels. On the horizon loomed convergence, the strengthening of interlocking between the telecommunications sector and the information and entertainment sectors. All these outside indicators and the BBC’s own resource audit in the summer of 1991 indicated that the BBC’s critical mass exceeded its production need.

BBC Producer Choice was launched in the fall of 1991 as a “new way of managing resources.” 1 At the launch, Deputy Director General John Birt explained that under Producer Choice, resources would be managed so that producers would have the right to negotiate resource provision themselves, spending [End Page 152] money internally or externally of the BBC. 2 When the money was denied to any internal resource because of the outcome of these negotiations, the internal resource would fail to break even on its targets or resource utilization; if the situation could not be corrected within a year, plant closures and redundancies would follow. Although John Birt might be described as the architect of Producer Choice, it would be wrong to...

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pp. 150-163
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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