The Exchange Lab’s Chris Dobson, formerly executive vice president and general manager at BBC Worldwide, argues that in order to stay current, change is required at the Corporation.
The BBC’s controversial Charter Review is now under way, which leaves the structure of the BBC open to scrutiny until early October. Let’s make no mistake, the BBC’s output is probably the best in the world. However, the world has changed beyond recognition since the original Charter was drawn up in 1927.
Even though the BBC’s mission is reviewed in 10 year allotments, it can be argued that the exponential changes in media supply and consumption makes the last 10 years the most significant in its history. During that time, the significant entrances of media players such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix has taken hold of consumers lives and their attitudes towards content has changed as a result.
With that in mind, what will the proposed areas of assessment outlined in the Green Paper mean for the future of the BBC? And should the BBC be worried?
Looking back to the inception of the BBC’s licence fee in 1922, content was created and distributed with a focus to inform, educate and entertain. Almost a century later, the world’s media mantra has completely changed to be much more about user choice, as embraced by the BBC with channels such as iPlayer.
Content is at the heart of the BBC and it continues to lead the world with genres such as drama, documentaries and natural history. As an example, Radio 4 output is unique and precious for the particular audience group that enjoys it.
You could argue that there is nothing comparable in any other country and celebrate this fact. But a fundamental mainstream question remains – should shows like The Voice be battling for ratings with The X Factor? And should the BBC care about an audience group that is already well catered for in the modern media landscape?
The commercial world has created an opportunity for users of all kinds to access content they can opt-in to, covering almost the full spectrum of the original charter. We know that audiences are willing to trade-off free content in return for advertising and are also willing to pay significant monthly subscriptions for entertainment packages such as sports and movies. Look at how much consumers spend on a Sky subscription – easily more than £50 per month in many cases. We also know that Netflix is a model proving to be hugely successful and it is a system that adjusts its content to each subscriber. Overlay this with the next generation consumer, who embraces a new world of YouTube channels and has little contact with the BBC in its traditional form, and you can conclude that it is crucial that the BBC picks its battles. Against this backdrop, it is easy to see that it will be difficult for the BBC to fulfil the original broad charter, as many of the audience groups are already catered for.
One of the major sticking points for this Charter Review is the prospect of advertising or a subscription type service in place of the existing licence fee model. One common misconception is that advertising is an ‘alien’ concept for the BBC. In fact, the BBC is no stranger to it – parts of UK output has been funded by advertising almost from the word ‘go’. The Radio Times, for example, first carried advertising in the mid ’20s. Even World News and bbc.com (in the precious ‘editorially impartial’ area of news) have advertising as their core model and could not exist without it. Audiences accept and understand the reasons for its presence and both can co-exist, if handled with care.
The BBC’s content output is incredibly valuable, but distributing it at scale in the modern world of multi-device use can be difficult. The BBC owning their content distribution channels may not be the best solution in every case. This method is expensive and doesn’t necessarily expose content to the widest audience possible. BBC Worldwide has done a great job of bringing content value back to the BBC in real terms. It buys content and then sells it on, later returning the profit of that sale back to the BBC – in effect giving the BBC two revenue streams that are then returned back into UK content production.
The considered middle ground for the future of the BBC debate is hard to find, with pretty obvious agendas being set out on both sides. It will be very interesting to hear what a full-survey of the British public opinion will reveal about change, as initial survey responses conducted on smaller target groups have so far been varied. What is important is that the British public are kept a part of the debate and that policy changes do not to occur behind closed doors, as has recently happened. It should be public choice driving change, but with a realism that nothing comes for free. The world is constantly changing and the BBC has to embrace the fact that it’s ok for its original mission to evolve to something fit for the 21st century. If it is willing to take part in that debate, it will be less of a victim at the conclusion.
Ultimately, it is essential that with all the change, we don’t destroy or catastrophically change what is one of the UK’s best global assets. What must remain is the BBC’s editorial impartiality and quality. I was proud to work for the BBC, but a view from the inside prompted questions about how things should be done. I hope those running the BBC recognise that in order to stay current, change is required.