The debate about the future funding and role of the BBC opened with the publication of its annual report and accounts in the same week as a government green paper as part of review of its Royal Charter. The BBC is of course a national institution of immense cultural self importance, but is it displaying a bold enough vision or ambition to define and defend its long-term future?
The BBC is currently seeking to secure its role for the next decade, which will notably include its centenary, but over that term the way we view television may change beyond recognition.
We may have ultra-high definition video, even on handheld screens. More viewing will be on demand, delivered over data networks. There will be ever more choice of viewing and more people will be paying for television and video services.
Is a compulsory television licence really a tenable and sustainable model for funding the BBC in the future? Is it really sensible to attempt to extend it to online viewing? How can the BBC remain relevant in a rapidly changing global media landscape? These are legitimate questions to pose about the form and function of public service broadcasting.
Equally important are questions about how the delivery of programming may change over the next decade.
The BBC has been at the forefront of developing online services such as the iPlayer, but this still represents only a tiny percentage of its total viewing. Is this really the future of television or will local and network storage and playback of programmes from other service providers be more prevalent?
BBC channels are available in high definition but regional programming is still only available in standard definition. For how long is it reasonable to continue to transmit traditional television in standard definition or expect people to change channels to view local programmes?
There is no stated BBC plan for ultra-high definition, although some programmes are being produced in this format. What about other ways of improving picture quality, such as higher frame rates, enhanced image fidelity or advanced sound systems?
Is it reasonable to assume that traditional channels will continue to be transmitted from tall towers to rooftop antennae for the foreseeable future?
Could there be more efficient ways to deliver services over fixed and wireless mobile networks? How can universal service availability be provided over such networks? How can a broadcaster better engage in a conversation with users that value its services?
Competing services are now driving the adoption of new technology. BT is about to launch an ultra high definition sports service. Sky will surely not be prepared to be left behind. New entrants like Netflix are already offering ultra high definition programmes. Discovery now has the European rights to the Olympics and will surely offer coverage in ultra high definition. The BBC is left playing catchup.
The biggest threat to the BBC is probably not from a government intent on reforming the scale, scope and funding of the organization, but from increasing competition and rapid technological change.
Of course the BBC may plead poverty or that it would be inappropriate to promote technical ambition when it is struggling to justify its current funding model.
Rather than protesting about the possibility of a diminished, less popular service, it might demonstrate a greater confidence in its long-term future if the BBC were to publish a roadmap of how it intends to develop its services over the next ten years.
One thing seems clear, television and video will look very different in ten years. The BBC will ultimately be judged by its programmes but the way these are delivered will be increasingly important.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is inviting responses to its green paper on the BBC Charter Review through the government web site.