Should we welcome a commercial BBC World Service?

The director of the BBC World Service caused a stir by revealing in a missive to the House of Lords that the international broadcaster would become a commercial operation. Will it be welcomed?

At least that’s what the chattering classes and their favourite broadsheets would have you believe. The truth is that this was to be a very localised proposition, based in Berlin, that would act as a test bed for the BBC’s FM channels to see if it could make up for the shortfall once the Foreign Office pulled the plug on funding for this most venerable of institutions.

Advertising has also been introduced in the Spanish, Arabic- and Russian-language editions of the BBC website.

Despite this being virgin territory for the World Service, the BBC’s television channels outside of the UK, along with its websites, have accepted advertising for some years now. That it has not yet begun to introduce advertising to its radio assets is arguably the anachronism.

BBC Global News (the corporation’s foreign news channels and digital sites) made a loss of £800,000 in 2012/13, compared with an operating profit of £4.2 million during the previous period.

The World Service cannot afford the negative publicity such a loss attracts when its funding switches from the Foreign Office to the licence fee and nascent advertising revenues this month – an agreement negotiated on the back of the last renewal of the BBC charter with the then newly elected coalition government in October 2010.

For some, this hints at a creeping commercialism across the BBC’s radio assets (which has been vehemently ruled out by the BBC in the UK and is not allowed under current charter rules).

The commercialisation of the World Service will almost certainly mean increased competition for some regional broadcasters and will in­evitably change the listener experience with the BBC. But, with a sharp focus on its finances, is the World Service carrying advertising the thin end of the wedge or just a controlled evolution of BBC funding? And, just as important, should it be welcomed?

According to Howard Bareham, Mindshare's Head of Radio,"This opens a wider debate about BBC funding and a possible two-tier system involving government departments or the licence fee and also advertising. This would be dangerous for commercial radio broadcasters that don’t have that luxury."