An insiders view on the BBC’s creative future

As the TV world hears of another BBC leader exiting the BBC, one might wonder what is going on there and why have so many of the most senior management taken the step to leave a secure and well paid job.  I am not going to pretend to read their mind or to spill the beans on my friends and colleagues, but what I do know is that the pressures the BBC is under financially, the scrutiny of a certain type of press and, most importantly, a commercial change plan which brings into doubt the organisation’s Reithian values, can only help to push those who can, to leave.

As I recently stood up to make a keynote speech at City  Business School, I took a deep breath and prepared to win support for the BBC; from a crowd, who if my husband was right, wouldn’t care whether the BBC was in danger or not.  As you can see in this picture, it was 20 years ago that I joined the organisation for its very values which are now becoming harder to deliver. So what’s the challenge?

New audience needs – platforms, technology, expectations

Although TV viewing remains relatively strong, younger audiences are not watching as much, or in the case of my kids, any linear TV!  More and more of us are now on broadband, set to reach 85% by 2021. Four out of five of us have smartphones and the majority of audiences now create or contribute online: 23% easy, 60% are active and a further 17% are intense creators.  This means making the content differently, making it with different collaborators and making it available on any platform, with new gatekeepers in charge.

The BBC is having to invest in new partnerships, with new market players, which will become ever more powerful gatekeepers to the audience.

New competitors – bigger, bolder and financially better

But it’s not just about distribution channels, it’s also about better, brighter content; stand out voices, talent, tone and stories.  We will all know of the rise of the  £2 billion plus Super Indies; from All3 Media to Endemol Shine, Fremantle Media, Zodiak and RDF.  I have worked with many of these and they attract and retain some of the industry’s best talent.  However, this is only the competition within the sector; nowadays Amazon is making Jeremy Clarkson’s next ‘vehicle’ (!),  Youtube has a Creator Space recording studio in London, Netflix is in 200 countries and reaches 40 million people and web producers are creating content that drives as many subscribers as BBC peak time viewing.

New financial pressures – by 2022, the BBC will need to make £800 million a year savings. Licence fee revenue has fallen and BBC Worldwide has experienced a drop in sales.

“By the end of this Charter, our savings (BBC) will reach more than £1.6 billion per year… just 8% is spent on running the BBC”  Tony Hall, 8th March 2016 at Media & Telecoms conference

Consider all of this and rapid inflation in Sports, News and Drama, is it any wonder that everyone, not just the BBC, is feeling the strain compared with the might of buyers like Sky?

This can only mean one thing – massive change.  

The BBC faces one of the biggest structural shake-ups it has ever experienced, compounded by a prolonged period of uncertainty.

Financial pressure, competition and changing audience behaviour is nothing new to the BBC.  Just this year, the BBC gave us Tolstoy’s War & Peace, launched the micro:bit for UK students, the Shakespeare Season and BBC3’s Thirteen, a first in Digital Storytelling.

However, the BBC’s necessity over the coming year to fundamentally change its TV production model to a commercial one, will require a complete change of creative values and beliefs.  For example, I spent some of my time at the BBC selling creative development skills globally; but there were few of me, most of the BBC would not be prepared to take time away from their BBC development work to make money for the organisation.  And the importance of creative purpose has been proven in creative theory, as Daniel Pink in Drive and Goffee and Jones in Clever People tell us…

Creative talent is driven by autonomy,challenge and  purpose.

And here is the main reason, in my mind, that the BBC’s top creatives are leaving the BBC.  BBC talent will not wish to stay in a commercial creative model, which will often be in conflict with the BBC’s Reithian values.  In other words, the drive to create gross-selling, global formats versus an exposing, hard-hitting documentary which will inform but is a one-off with no commercial revenue.  And, if the programme makers believe they will be forced to go commercial, then they also know that with the greater budgets outside the BBC, they are more likely to have bigger creative opportunity for challenge and autonomy.

Going back to the conference, I was delighted afterwards to hear only words of support for the BBC.  In the emails, tweets and Linkedin/Facebook messages, you tell me that the BBC is your BBC, that you do care and you didn’t realise the pressures it now faces.

So, finally, I believe that supporting the organisation means more original British content, impartial news, less US taste makers and a fairer, informed society. The BBC is a means to manage the ever more dominant, fee-raising global gatekeepers.  The BBC is a Beacon of our multicultural, quirky and funny British Culture.  Of course it needs to change, but we are responsible to support this change rather than join the BBC-bashing narrative that more powerful players want us to believe.