Hunt: 'BBC must justify digital TV costs'

Friday, September 18 2009,

Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that the BBC must justify the large amount of money it spends on digital channels such as BBC Three and BBC Four, reports The Guardian.

Speaking yesterday at the Royal Television Society's Cambridge Convention, Hunt said that the two channels cost a lot of money to support but actually deliver relatively low audience figures in return.

Therefore, he warned that the corporation must make the case for this kind of expenditure, as well as its spending on imported programming and extensive online operation.

Hunt also criticised the BBC's decision to pitch Strictly Come Dancing against ITV's The X Factor on the Saturday night peak time schedule.

"It was an extraordinary decision to disappoint thousands of licence fee payers," he commented. "There will be thousands of viewers who are very angry at that decision."

Following culture secretary Ben Bradshaw's recent broadside against the BBC Trust's ability to appropriately regulate the corporation, Hunt added that licence fee payers want an arrangement which best represents their interests.

However, he restated his opposition to plans for sharing the 3.6bn licence fee with other broadcasters as a way to fund regional news, a process known as top-slicing.

Instead, Hunt believes that the disappearance of ITV regional news would not be a bad thing if it was replaced by a more locally-focused alternative. He added, however, that it would be "completely wrong" for the government to fund this type of arrangement.

"I believe regional news is a model that viewers don't want. They want local news. We want to work out how you can get a proper network of local stations," said Hunt.

"[Top-slicing] would create the wrong relationship between broadcasters and the state. What I want broadcasters to do is focus on viewers and compete to get the largest audience share."

Hunt revealed that Ofcom's remit would be reduced under a Conservative government as part of efforts to limit the regulatory burden on broadcasters. The Tories would also usher in greater freedom for cross-media ownership.

"We have a sector that is dying on its feet because these people who own newspapers are prevented from owning other media," he explained. "We are preventing the emergence of new models by having rules like this."

Back in July, Ofcom announced that the rules governing cross-media ownership would be relaxed to enable companies to own combinations of local radio stations, newspapers and TV licenses in one area.