istock_hares2The Japanese have a saying that “you cannot chase two hares”. What this means to business leaders is that organisations with conflicting objectives are not sustainable. At some point you must make a choice or watch your company wither on the corporate vine.

The BBC, for example, is stuck between its twin objectives of (1) meeting specific public service commitments (covering areas such as education, creativity, and citizenship), and (2) achieving national reach and remaining relevant to the nation (i.e. able to attract large audiences).

Modern TV is essentially about entertainment, which is why programmes like the X Factor and Coronation Street top the ratings. There’s nothing wrong with that, but pure entertainment is not part of the BBC’s public service objective.

Sure, there are times when great public service broadcasting also delivers big audiences, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. As a result, the BBC is forced to include pure entertainment programmes with little or no public service element to them, particularly at peak viewing times. Last Saturday night’s schedule, for example, included these programmes:

  • A game-show, where people have to jump 50 feet into a pool if they get a question wrong;
  • A light entertainment show, where members of the public get a chance to sing with celebrities;
  • A lottery draw;
  • Two stand-up comedy programmes; and
  • Two football highlight programmes.

Not one of these programmes could be said to be pure public service broadcasting, and could just easily be delivered by one of the many other commercial channels now available. Indeed, the media choices that consumers now have ­– alternative commercial channels, specialist channels, internet TV, cable and satellite broadcasting – make a ratings objective and a general programming remit increasingly difficult to sustain.

The time is coming, therefore, when the BBC executives and governors will have to make a choice. Either they must focus the organisation on entertainment and ratings, in which case it should forego its public and government funding, or pursue its public service objectives more single-mindedly, in which case the nature of its programming should be radically changed and its pursuit of ratings drastically reduced.

The BBC’s management will fight making these choices but at some point they must choose. If they fail to make a clear choice the corporation will continue to fall short of both of its objectives, and the pressure on it will increase. There is simply no escape from this reality.

The consequences of either choice are enormous, but at some point they must be faced into. As with any other organisation or business, it is generally better to make the choice early and then determinedly and creatively pursue it, than it is to defer the painful, but inevitable D-Day.

© Stuart Cross 2010. All rights reserved.