Monday, September 19, 2005

Advertising on the BBC

Whenever I ask people I know why they like the BBC (and many of them do, despite my efforts to change their minds), the answer, more often than not, has nothing at all to do with a perceived superiority in quality of the BBC over its more justly-funded rivals. I rarely hear about the unique objectivity or insightful analysis that the BBC brings to news programs, or the great humor of its comedy shows, or of the deep meaning of its dramas. Instead, the characteristic that people most usually mention to me is the much less lofty fact that the BBC does not have advertisements. One can sit down to watch a show without the irritation of regular interruption of someone trying to sell you something.

Which makes this article from yesterday’s Sunday Times particularly interesting. The BBC is not, apparently, as free of advertising as its admirers would like to believe. In what appears to be a bit of a sting operation, The Times has discovered that the makers of BBC programs have been regularly selling “product placement” services to companies seeking to get more exposure for their products.

COMPANIES are paying fees of up to £40,000 to advertise their products covertly on BBC programmes, often in breach of the corporation’s rules.

At least 50 cases have been identified where top brands have bought favourable exposure on BBC television by paying specialist agents.

According to The Times, the BBC itself is not gaining a direct cash benefit from these deals, and the article seems to suggest that it is individual makers of programs who are ultimately benefiting by receiving free products or other perks, although whether or not BBC executives had been aware of the practice is left unclear. The practice is apparently so widespread at the BBC that, according to The Times, an entire industry of product placement agencies has been “spawned” (although, I’m guessing that the industry would exist anyway for the other, non-government funded broadcasters, so the "spawned" characterization may not be quite correct.)

This will presumably prove to be quite a scandal at the Beeb (it is “investigating”), but probably not for the right reasons. Individuals will most likely be blamed and perhaps sacked for breaking BBC guidelines. But such petty “corruption”, for want of a better word, is not the real issue. The real issue is that it exposes the BBC and its policy on advertising, and hence its whole “license fee” funding scheme, as the anachronism that it is. As The Times puts it:
The licence fee payer is the loser from the multi-million-pound trade. By maintaining the fiction that “brand placement” agencies are no more than tradesmen supplying props, the BBC can fend off pressure to sell conventional advertising. But for relatively paltry benefits in kind it hands over promotional slots worth thousands of pounds.
We pay the license fee, according to the BBC, so that its services are “free of adverts and independent of advertisers.” But, it turns out, not only is it not independent of advertisers, it sells its “independence” on the cheap. In this day and age, with the vast array and variety of specialist television stations available from truly independent - ie private - sources (History channel, National Geographic, Adventure, MTV, Weather channel, Cartoon Newtwork, Disney channel, Bravo, Sky Sports to name but a very few) the notion that an advanced and developed nation such as Britain needs a “national” broadcasting network to provide “quality” programming is absurd…and not just because the actual quality is suspect. The licence fee is long past its sell-by date. It is time to throw it away.


Blogger Christerical said...

In addition to product placement, the BBC does, of course, spend a lot of air time advertising itself and it's programs. A lot of the self promotion advertising is irritating but at least it doesn't occur in the middle of programs.

The obvious thing to do with the BBC is to sell it off and go with an HBO style subscription model, then we can all shoose whether to pay for it. Ideally, I'd like to see the news organisation split from entertainment.

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

This sounds like some PBS programs I've heard about. Not all PBS programs do this, mind you. The most famous example is "This Old House", a popular home improvement program that's been on PBS for the last few decades. It's been doing product placement from the start. They do it on the sly too so it's not real obvious. That was one way the program got funding. The word has gotten out and there hasn't been a scandal about it. Apparently product placement doesn't violate PBS's rules. It's seemed acceptable because the products that get shown are actually used to help refurbish a house. The people I've talked to who know about it grudgingly accept it. They'd prefer it not happen, not to mention the company promo ads that show up before the beginning of many PBS shows. Advertising has creeped in on our public network, but you could hardly blame it with the funding cuts its had over the last 10 years. There are some who advocate totally privatizing it, but we haven't gotten to that point yet.

10:53 AM  

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