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April 23, 2008

Big Brother boss says: Kill off TV news to fund my Chirac-style folly

By Peter Kirwan MM blog

Whatever happened to David Elstein?

Once upon a time, Elstein was head of programmes at Sky. As part of his job, he regularly called for the abolition of the licence fee.

In the market for ideas, Elstein’s purpose was to say the unthinkable — and get it incorporated into debate, to his employer’s advantage.

These days, Peter Bazalgette, the former public school boy responsible for a raft of trash TV, including Big Brother, seems to have taken Elstein’s place.

There’s only one slight problem. Like a lot of blokes in their mid-50s who have made lots of money from Big Media, the founder of Endemol hasn’t got much of a clue about the emerging digital universe.

At a Royal Television Society dinner last night, Bazalgette blithely called (among other things) for the government to abolish the news and current affairs obligations of both Five and Channel 4

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By doing this, both channels would (presumably) become cheaper to produce and more popular.

HM Government, Bazalgette suggested, could then cream off some of the resulting expansion in profits by charging both channels for their use of digital (Freeview) spectrum.

In addition, Bazalgette proposed the privatization of BBC Worldwide, BBC Radio 1 and 2 and Channel 4.

After raising £3bn+ from such ruses, Bazalgette wants the government to launch something called, er, Boggle.

What Bazalgette has in mind is a “public service distribution platform and search engine”.

And its purpose? As Bazelgette sketchily framed it, Boggle would “link the existing online offerings of museums, galleries, theatre companies, opera houses and concert halls”.

It would also give all of these venues “seedcorn monies” to “improve” their “content offerings”.

But that’s not all. Boggle would also allow the “next generation of comedy talent” to post videos. The most popular would attract “some Boggle funding”. Last but not least, Boggle would create “a search engine to market it all”.

Confronted with this dim-witted slew of half-baked concepts, it’s hard to know where to start.

“Seedcorn monies” for museums? Fine. A few hundred million wouldn’t go amiss. But do we need a new quango to distribute it? What does the Arts Council do for a living?

Hasn’t Bazalgette heard of YouTube? Remarkably enough, young comics already use it to post videos of their gags. And then there’s Google, which owns a perfectly good search engine already. . .

In his haste to embrace a broadband future that he patently doesn’t understand, Bazalgette — the free market provocateur — actually ends up sounding like former President Chirac, who decided that French taxpayers should foot the bill for a French language search engine designed for French people.

A blizzard of straight-faced reports accompanied Bazalgette’s speech. Somewhere in them, I read that Ofcom will “study” this plan for a new quangocracy whose birth requires the death of much of what remains of news and current affairs on independent television.

Toss it into the nearest litter bin, more like. If this reflects the standard of debate within the TV industry, Big Media is in more trouble than we thought it was.

Come back David Elstein; all is forgiven.

PS: According to his biography on the Royal Television Society web site, Peter Bazalgette is currently “building a portfolio of investments in digital growth companies”. On the evidence of last night’s speech, widows and orphans would be well advised to invest their money elsewhere.

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