Many of the far-reaching ideas proposed by the Culture Secretary may not have made it into the BBC White Paper, but the coming Charter period marks a moment of change for an organisation that needs to reestablish its role as a champion of wider public interests.
The BBC White Paper published by John Whittingdale last week will have brought a sigh of relief to the BBC senior guard and those who support the organisation. Threats of non-compete with commercial broadcasters at primetime and selling off the stake in UKTV came to nothing.
The hint of anticlimax shouldn’t distract from the underlying essence of a Charter proposal that starts to set the BBC along a different path to those of previous White Papers. Yes the licence fee has been protected for another 11 years, rebuffed by the strengthening of legislation closing loopholes around the BBC’s online service and the concession that licence fee payers will see their bills increase in line with inflation. But there are signs that this Charter paves the way for a more transformational review next time round.
One of the quietest yet potentially most significant proposals is the freedom the BBC will now have to explore commercial opportunities, previously a domain held exclusively by BBC Worldwide. Under the White Paper, the BBC will be free to explore new subscription offerings which will feed into the next charter renewal process, however it will be for the “BBC to set the scope of these plans”.
The prospect of the Public Service arm of the BBC developing commercial services sets up an intriguing dynamic for the coming Charter period. If these commercial services are successful, there could be a battle to defend the licence fee in 2027. Why should the BBC continue to enjoy a mandatory subscription if it can demonstrate its ability to supplement that income commercially? Should these commercial services fail on the other hand (or not launch at all), the continued surge in content availability through online services such as Netflix, YouTube, Hopster, Twitch, etc. providing a ubiquity of access to every conceivable consumer interest group will only strengthen the argument that a £3.5bn market intervention is no longer necessary. Whichever way you look at it, this feels like a Charter period of transition.
When I think of the BBC, I’m reminded of conversations with foreign broadcasters who eulogise about the incredible work the organisation has done and how lucky we are as the UK to benefit from it. Consistently, they cite three key attributes that in their own markets they struggle to achieve:
- World-class original programming, from BBC News and World Service to shows such as Planet Earth, Luther, The Night Manager and other ‘hits’ that showcase the best of British production and home-grown talent;
- Technical innovation, from the roll-out of the DTT transmission network to the launch of the iPlayer and other initiatives funded through the freedom of an R&D department;
- Inclusion and community appeal, which in an increasingly ‘blockbuster-minded’ commercial landscape provides an outlet for those audiences with niche interests.
Could these attributes be delivered elsewhere in the market today? Of course they could. You don’t need to look further than ITV and Sky’s recent investments in UK Drama or the arguably superior technical innovation that is now coming out of the US. Even small communities with specialist interests can build an audience online.
Yet there is one important attribute of the BBC that is hard to replicate: trust. In a world of ubiquitous media the need for trusted curation becomes essential, helping audiences to filter out the noise from the voices of authority and allowing the great storytellers to rise to the top.
The BBC has already started doing this to great effect over the last year. When covering the launch of the Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to go to the International Space Station, the BBC partnered with Seenit to provide a voice to a passionate community of well-wishers and admirers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUfmqSWkK84). Similarly for George Osborne’s announcement of the 2016 Budget, the BBC used Seenit to capture the opinions of the UK public to provide added commentary and context alongside professional News broadcast (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-35831733).
Speaking as individuals these members of the public would struggle to be heard amongst the plethora of other media fighting for attention. By uniting their voices under a trusted brand such as the BBC brings a level of credibility and trust that allows their story to reach a wider audience.
Community-driven storytelling is increasingly becoming an important component of today’s media diet, and delivers a highly compelling narrative alongside traditional production. Putting the community at the centre of the conversation brings a level of authenticity to storytelling that is difficult to replicate through traditional means.
Trust is a prerequisite for anyone wanting to build an engaged audience. As the curator of the conversation, the BBC brings a level of credibility that should not be underestimated and offers the community a position of authority to compete alongside mainstream media.
Looking ahead to the coming Charter period, the BBC can play an important role as a custodian of these communities, helping to facilitate the conversation and guiding audiences with particular interests towards the content that is relevant to them.