BBC drama costs fall but auditors unclear on value for money

Joseph O'Halloran | 23-03-2011

Even though a National Audit Office report has revealed a fall in the BBC's management of the costs of producing continuing drama, the auditor has been unable to ascertin whether the BBC is delivering value for money.

The report recommends the BBC strengthens its approach to achieving value for money in continuing drama by being more systematic in comparing and challenging production costs and processes.

Top line data from the independent NAO report released by the BBC Trust showed that in 2009-10 the BBC spent £102.5 million making six continuing dramas or soap operas—namely Casualty, Doctors, Eastenders, Holby City, River City, and Pobol y Cwm (produced by the BBC for broadcast in Wales on S4C) — a fall of £6.1 million on that revealed in the 2002-03 period. The review found that production costs on these long running shows are ‘tightly controlled’, and that the average cost of producing an hour of continuing drama had fallen by a fifth in real terms over the last eight years, with the programmes being delivered on time and largely within budget.

Yet at the same time the average cost per viewer hour across the six programmes increased in real terms by 8.9% eight years as a result, says the BBC, of falling viewer numbers.

Furthermore the NAO concluded that absence of formal audience-related performance objectives for individual dramas meant that it was unable to say whether the BBC was delivering value for money.

Commented Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office: "The BBC is doing a good job of applying basic financial controls and achieving steady cost reduction across its portfolio of continuing dramas. However, it should take a more holistic approach and compare the cost of these programmes with audience levels and opinions, both targeted and achieved, as these are critical measures of broadcast performance, and a key guide to whether the continuing dramas are delivering value for money."

In repsonse, the BBC Trust said that even though some objectives suhc as budgets could be set at individual programme level, it did not believe that it was always appropriate for the BBC to set audience-focused objectives for individual programmes. The BBC currently sets these objectives at a channel or genre level. Yet the Trust argued that to set objectives at an individual programme level could risk creating not only perverse or unintended consequences but also of unnecessary bureaucracy.

Insisted Anthony Fry, BBC Trustee with lead responsibility for value for money: "We accept the majority of the NAO's recommendations, with the exception of the suggestion that the BBC should set targets at drama level. We believe there is a risk that this could harm the BBC's ability to produce distinctive programming by acting as a disincentive to take creative risks and creating unnecessary bureaucracy."