Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Save 6Music. At the expense of what?

If anyone has ever scrolled all the way down the side of this blog to the LastFM widget, they would probably guess that I listen to 6Music as well. It's basically where they let all the most opinionated and passionate music fans on the BBC payroll (Steve Lamacq, Marc Riley, Lauren Laverne, Jarvis Cocker, etc) do what they want, in return for doing what the BBC wants the rest of the time. And as has been widely reported, and widely criticised, the BBC are closing it as part of a radical programme of cuts.

To me this raises are few interesting questions. Firstly, the fact that popular and cross party political opinion leaves the BBC no choice but to make cuts to defend its licence fee. Before the recession an ambitious BBC could defend its increasing commercialisation of brands like Top Gear and CBeebies (which owe their popularity to having initially been licence-fee funded) by having to compete with ad-funded competition. Since ad-funded competition has all but disappeared in a perfect storm of disappearing ad revenues and pension deficit disasters (not to mention a distinct lack of leadership/recruitment crisis at critical moments from the main terrestrial competition), this argument has vanished, and probably won't return.

So the BBC is left with a healthy licence fee income while ITV and C4 slash programming budgets and staff. As the newspaper industry goes to town on stories of rampant expenditure on salaries (management as well as Wossy) and Broadcasting House refurbishment, defending the BBC's sole use of licence fee income becomes impossible without cuts of some kind.

On one hand, 6Music is exactly what the BBC should be producing - things that appeal to niche audiences where there is no commercial alternative. While the remit of a licence fee funded media company has to cover the whole country, there is no excuse in the 21st century for thinking that this has to be in one place. The BBC shouldn't need to care about the ratings of individual programmes, simply about their cumulative reach across the whole country every month. In lots of little, personally relevant chunks.

Looking at it from that perspective, the cost saving opportunities become more obvious. ITV makes better soaps that the BBC (or it makes, Corrie, which is better than Eastenders). It also makes better Saturday night peak - Pop Idol vs Celebrity Come Dancing. So those are my opinions, but they are backed by viewing figures most weeks. Anyway, there are more popular alternatives commercially available. Why not cut the expensive stuff that commercial broadcasters do better, and concentrate on the niches.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that there would be commercial alternatives to the niche personal stuff that the BBC makes, if only they didn't make it. ITV still has a business model when BBC1 exists, as does News Int to compete with bbc.co.uk (although Murdoch doesn't seem to agree). Perhaps the commercially funded 6Music couldn't exist as it could never escape the shadow of Radio 1. All 6Music really is
is an aggregation of the music tastes and opinions of some well respected music industry professionals, backed by the marketing support of Radio 1. Intriguingly, the barriers to those individuals continuing to curate their opinions and tastes for an hour a week are pretty small: Ricky Gervais pretty much wrote the manual on this in podcasting terms, but there are all sorts of ways of dicing this up through iTunes, LastFM, and hundreds of other routes. The technology and distribution costs are tiny. The streaming rights are all in place on Spotify. LastFM, We7, etc. So do the people involved in 6Music think it is worth saving?

Personally I'm signing all the petitions to #Save6Music. Not because I like it - I do, but that's irrelevant. We should save it because it represents what the BBC should do far better than Eastenders or anything on Saturday night peak BBC1. But if it isn't saved by the BBC then I hope that the curators who made it what it is can prove that it is commercially viable.


john v willshire said...

I loved 6Music for ages. The Phil Jupitus breakfast show was comfortably the best think on in the mornings... especially when he broke out the calypso. But I also listened through the day, at weekends, evenings

I pretty much stopped listening when the decision was taken that it would try and 'broaden appeal'. In short, George Lamb put me off the station. I should maybe reappraise... before it's too late.

You do get the feeling that the station has been suffering from the John Peel problem; lots of people talk about it, and love that it's there... but then don't listen.

Which means that it's never going to be viable as a commercial opportunity. Hence XFM's continual drift to the mainstream at every review.

Graeme Wood said...

It's still better at publicising new music than anyone else - especially when anyone else is XFM.

I'm not saying that selling the station to Absolute all in will be any more commercially viable than Absolute launching their own expensive but niche station. More that there are lots of brands with plenty of money to buy cultural relevance - and individual curators with an existing audience and established taste credentials(eg @laverneshow) are a valuable property. A few years ago they relied on the music licensing deals that only companies like the BBC could provide. Now they can just create playlists on a whole range of platforms. It would probably need intermediaries, or agents, or media agencies, to bring all this together though.....

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