Thursday, March 11, 2010

BBC strategic review is useful template for the ABC

The BBC Strategy Review of March 2010 (pdf) is an important read not only for those interested in the future of Britain’s premier broadcaster but also for those who follow the fortunes of its antipodean cousin the ABC. Given the tagline “getting the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers” the 79-page document is the BBC Trust’s attempt to steer a course for the public-funded organisation in the likely event of a Conservative win in the forthcoming election and a corresponding serious reduction in government expenditure. (photo: The Guardian)

The Trust said its reference points were the audience and the market. It said its audience is proud of the BBC and willing to pay for a strong and independent voice that delivers original and high quality content. The market meanwhile is more ambiguous. It wants the BBC to fulfil its public service charter but questions where the boundaries lie with private enterprise and also its genuineness in its proposals for partnerships.

The Trust said the time was right to look at its future direction and possibilities of expansion in the framework of four key questions. These were: Is its portfolio of services still appropriate in the digital age? Has its near 24 x 7 expansion caused a dilution in quality and distinctiveness? What is the best distribution model for content? And finally how should it react to the problems of commercial media?

These questions in turn raised five lines of enquiry the Trust put to BBC management. These were: How can the BBC best maintain quality and distinctiveness? Where could it narrow focus and scale? What will a fully digital BBC look like? Can the BBC better define the public space it provides? And finally how can the BBC create the most value from its scale?

The response to all these questions from BBC management called “Putting Quality First” is in the same document. The Director-General’s vision was to create “a BBC focused on quality content and enduring values, keeping open a public space for all”. This would be achieved by five central principles: putting quality first, doing fewer things better, guaranteeing access, getting better value from the licence fee, and setting new boundaries.

The BBC mission statement is worth repeating because it has relevance also in the Australian context. It says, “[the mission] is constant and enduring: to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value. It strives to fulfill this mission not to further any political or commercial interest, but because the British public believes that universal access to ideas and cultural experiences of merit and ambition is a good in itself. The BBC is a part of public space because the public themselves have put it there.”

The BBC is part of an independent public space that include other media, public institutions, libraries, museums, parks, universities, monuments and voluntary bodies. And while the digital age should be a “golden age” for public space, fragmentation of audiences is destroying business models causing public space to diminish. The BBC say their role is to be a main guarantor of public space and its technological underpinning and should also be a catalyst and connector within that space.

Its mantra, says management, should be putting quality first. It will have five content priorities: world-class journalism, inspiring knowledge, music and culture, ambitious local drama and comedy, outstanding children’s content, and events that bring communities and the nation together. That means changing £600m of priorities a year (a fifth of the BBC’s cost base) over the next four years and committing to 90 percent of licence fees on high quality content (though it will be interesting to see how ‘high quality’ will be defined and measured).

This also means doing more with less. Spending on the BBC’s website will decrease by a quarter each year to 2013 and its number of sections will be halved. There will also be more external links with the intention of doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites. Other services to be closed will be Radio 6 Music, Asian Network and teen offerings BBC Switch and Blast! In order to guarantee access to all, BBC management want to make internet-connected television a reality, continue free access to news and also to open its archives and program library and work with its partners such as the British Library and BFI to bring their public archives to a wider audience.

To pay for all this, the BBC is proposing to reduce costs, reduce senior management numbers, freeze pay and suspend bonuses. They will also reduce spend on overseas content, cap sports rights spending, defer to commercial radio and other broadcasters in area in areas of popular music and serving teenagers and to not go more hyperlocal than they already are.

Opponents of public broadcasting here in Australia such as Mark Day have seized on this report as a rationale for trimming down, if not totally removing, the ABC from the media landscape. While this goes too far, the BBC Trust document does ask some very good questions and opens up a debate on public broadcasting and its platforms and contents we do need to have in Australia. Particularly as there is no licence fee, it behooves us to question the direction the ABC is headed (and also ask where SBS fits into the picture). All too often media policy here is reactive. As we stand on the cusp of the death of the analogue age, we could do worse than examine the BBC document. It is a template for honest and mature discussion into what we might want from “our ABC” in the coming years.

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