I’m in danger of becoming a bit of a crank when it comes to the BBC, the national broadcaster here in the UK. Disdain for the BBC is rife amongst both poles of the political spectrum — the right think it is institutionally leftist, the left think it is fundamentally conservative — and so whenever I express my frustration about the BBC, people rush to assume that I am situated at either pole. The reality is that I think the BBC does about the best job it can do of its (impossible) task of presenting politics without bias. That said, it does also make its life needlessly harder through a series of bizarre operational decisions.
So I caveat all that I’m saying by reiterating that I like the BBC’s output: they make great TV, great radio, great podcasts. I use their website every day; it is my default news source. I like the product, sure, I just have reservations about how they arrive at that product — why they arrive at that product– and what they’re planning to do next.
With the news that Tony Hall is stepping down this summer, amidst suggestions that Boris Johnson might reform the way the license fee is collected, the future of the BBC is on the table once again. And every suggestion for the broadcaster’s future seems to focus on increasing digitisation (an understandable buzzword in the current climate). With all this uncertainty about what the BBC should be doing, I’m here (like, say, Superman, or any other regular, everyday hero) to humbly offer a few suggestions.
- Understand the position of a taxpayer funded broadcaster in the marketplace. This sounds sort of crankish and right-wing, but it’s important that the BBC recognises, in everything that it seeks to do, that it is an extremely big fish in a small(ish) pond, and one that doesn’t even need to eat the other fish because it is being regularly taken out of the pond, dosed up on piscine steroids and dropped back into the aforementioned pond as a hulking, muscular menace. The metrics that apply to the BBC’s competitors do not apply to the BBC; indeed it would be good for the BBC not to see itself as surrounded by competitors, as it engenders an unhealthy mindset in a state-funded organisation.
- Fill the gaps not well catered for by the private sector. My main concern, with all, this whispering about digitisation and the news of cuts to TV shows like Victoria Derbyshire, is that the BBC is going to move away from TV and radio, and ever more into areas like podcasts and streaming video/audio. Ultimately, beyond fellow megaliths like Sky and ITV, the BBC was providing a service in TV that could not be easily provided by independent private sector organisations. The move into digital versions of this might seem like a no-brainer, but suddenly the territory, the competition, is very different. If the BBC announced that it would be using taxpayer money to start publishing a print newspaper, the outcry from the print newspaper establishment (already struggling to make ends meet without a competitor with no real financial bottom line) would be enormous. The outcry from podcasting over the increasing monopolisation will be much tamer, so perhaps they’ll get away with it, but British podcasting faces a real danger of being consumed by the BBC. And there are some things that the BBC does very well, but they have always been the bread of a sandwich where the real tasty, feisty, polarising filling has been the independent, free press.
- Enough with all this clickbait. Last week I was inundated with BBC reportage about the #TradWife phenomenon, which is largely bollocks. Who is telling the BBC to produce these sort of clickbait features? Who is telling them to write deliberately misleading headlines in order to get people to click on articles where Betteridge’s law inevitably applies? There has been a strategy memo circulated at BBC HQ about getting online traffic up, seemingly with no consideration of the cost to accuracy or quality. Why? The whole point of the BBC is that they can rise above the petty race for clicks. Quantity of traffic or market dominance should not be the metric of success for the BBC.
- Forget about technological imperialism. The BBC Sounds project may well succeed, simply because it has been rammed down our throats so relentlessly and the BBC is a big enough player that not bowing to their will is more trouble than it’s worth. But it’s an irritating trend. Again, the BBC serves an audience that also funds it; their primary focus should be on delivery of the content in the most convenient way possible. Their bizarre decision to develop smart speaker software (but, crucially, not hardware) is also symptomatic of this. Clearly someone has said “we need to be doing something with this smart speaker lark” and the answer they’ve stumbled upon is wasting taxpayer money developing what will inevitably be subpar, non-competitive software in an overstocked market. Their skirmishes with the private sector in the content game look one-sided in their favour; in the tech game they’ll surely be overrun.
- Try a narrower approach that retains the BBC’s traditions and prestige. All of this ultimately leads to my belief that a narrower approach, focusing on investing in the things that the BBC does really well — its radio stations, its current affairs broadcasting (largely), its comedy (especially new writing, acting and bringing in a diverse performers and audiences), its primetime drama, its news website, its re-runs of probably the world’s best archive of television — would make taxpayers feel like their value for money is being respected. The license fee may well have to be reviewed in a world where terrestrial television is on the decline, but I don’t believe that digitisation is *the* answer. Digitisation is seen as a synonym for cheaper (or, amongst more deluded executives, ‘popular’) but it doesn’t answer the fundamental question of what the market is asking for, and what the BBC is best placed to provide. The corporation is not involved in an existential scrap, indeed in acting like it has to modernise or die it has stumbled into traps — such as pissing off the Conservative incumbents — that might actually, eventually, be an existential threat. The reality is that scaling back the things that you’ve done well for for almost a 100 years in favour of expansionism into unknown territories is not the approach to take at a moment of crisis.
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