Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General
Putting Quality First: The BBC and Public Space – speech to Financial Times Digital Media & Broadcasting Conference
Tuesday 2 March 2010
Check against delivery
Today we're launching a set of proposals which chart a new long-range direction for the BBC. Even more than today, we want the BBC of the future to put quality first; to do fewer things better; to guarantee access for all not just to its own services but to the wider benefits of digital; to make the licence-fee work harder; and to set new boundaries for itself.
The proposals are our answer to a set of challenges laid down last summer by our governing body, the BBC Trust. From today, the Trust will take the proposals and consult the public about them before arriving at its own view about the strategic way forward for the BBC.
Of course, if you'd read press speculation about the proposals over recent days, you'd assume that the only questions the strategy review was set up to answer was about the BBC's size and what it should stop doing.
No. The right first question – and it's the question every review of the BBC's strategy should begin with – is: what is the BBC for? It's from that answer that the answer to every other question – editorial priorities, size and scope, role online – flows.
So let me answer the question. The BBC's mission is to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value. Our constitutional and financial independence, our heritage, above all our relationship with viewers and listeners and users give us a unique opportunity to enrich and sustain what we call 'public space' here and around the world.
In uncertain times, the British public want us to remain central to their lives and the life of the whole UK – accurate, impartial, creative, original, passionate about what we do.
But as everyone in the room knows, over the last two years the environment in which we all operate has changed beyond recognition – you'll all be familiar with the forces at play, new technologies which are being rapidly adopted around the world, striking changes in consumer behaviour, a commercial sector facing real strain and new pressures.
It is exactly because the media is changing so fast that we must articulate our public service mission and our values more clearly and consistently than ever before. We must explore new ways of delivering our mission – and of ensuring that the benefits of digital can be enjoyed by all.
But we also have to listen more acutely, more closely, to legitimate concern about the size and scope of our activities, and recognise the profound challenges facing much of commercial media. While some attacks made on the BBC are destructive and baseless, others represent legitimate concern about the boundaries of what we do, and about our future public service and commercial ambitions. We have not always been clear enough about our boundaries or recognising where the market should lead.
Now we're lucky enough not to be starting with a blank sheet of paper – we have an established digital media strategy, called Creative Future that we developed three years ago. Creative Future set the basic digital direction for the BBC - it delivered services like BBC iPlayer to the public, and set us down a road to liberate the BBC's enormous archive. Today's proposals build on that vision of the BBC's role in the digital age.
But the fact that we've needed to do a new review so quickly does reflect the incredible extent to which our world has changed. Creative Future, for instance, scarcely mentions social media and predates the whole world of the iPhone and the AppStore. Even more significantly, it was written against a backdrop of a UK media sector where questions of the BBC's market impact could be seen alongside a story of commercial profitability and growth. All of that has changed.
So last summer, the BBC Trust and I agreed to bring forward the next piece of strategic thinking and to formulate proposals for the shape and direction of the BBC in the second half of the Charter from 2012 to 2016.
Some people rather hoped that as a result of the work the BBC would throw in the towel or shrink to a fraction of its current size – those people will be disappointed. In the research we've done for this project, the British public have told us very clearly that that is not what they want.
Nonetheless the proposals do represent a step-change with the past. In them, we acknowledge that we can't do everything and, after years of expansion of our services in the UK, we are proposing some reductions. The point of the reductions is not to diminish the service we offer to the public, but rather to focus the licence fee and the creative energy of the BBC on delivering the highest quality and the maximum public value. This is, above all, a strategy about quality. Defending it. Improving it. Sharing it – with the public and with other organisations.
The strategy begins with editorial choices. And for the first time, in addition to the BBC's broad public services, we are spelling out a set of editorial priorities on which we want to focus creative energy and investment. There are five of them.
So – five central editorial priorities for the BBC:
- The best journalism in the world.
- Inspiring content that brings knowledge, music and culture to life.
- Ambitious UK drama and comedy.
- Outstanding children's content.
- And events that bring communities and the nation together.
We're not saying that every single programme on every existing linear service has to fall within one of the priorities – viewers are still going to want to see great feature films on BBC One on Christmas Day for instance. But we are saying that more and more of the licence fee should go to high quality content within these five priority areas – and that all original content for the web and other digital media must be within one of them.
By 2013, we propose reprioritising nearly £600million of the licence fee, that's about a fifth of our total existing licence fee income, into higher quality content within the five priority areas.
Within that, there will be more money for international newsgathering, for children's output and for more distinctive output for BBC Two, among others.
And from 2013, once digital switchover and some of our other big projects are over, we want to commit that we will never spend less than 90p in every licence fee pound on creating high quality content and getting it to the public.
Identifying the five priorities and deciding to do fewer things better has pretty profound consequences for our services. I'm not going to go through every single service – from BBC One to Radio 3, there are many BBC services where opting for higher quality and more space for originality and new talent means significant but evolutionary change.
I want to concentrate on those services where we propose structural change – and I'm going to start with the web.
In many ways, BBC Online is the future of the BBC. It now has 28 million unique users in the UK and tens of millions beyond for whom it's a vital daily service. With BBC iPlayer, we're seeing real convergence between the web and TV and radio. Canvas, our plan to bring the web to every main TV in the country, will take that a step further. One day, the web may be the principle platform for all the BBC's services.
Whatever you may have read before today, let me be explicit – although it may be what some of the market purists in commercial media would like, the BBC will not retreat to an analogue past.
But after a period of rapid expansion across the BBC website, it's also the right moment for some focus and rationalisation to make sure we deliver quality here every bit as much as on our linear services. Whereas BBC TV and Radio have natural boundaries, you can do almost anything on the web. Some of our critics have got a point when they say that the limits of what the BBC will and won't do in the online space are unclear.
So, over the next few years, we're going to make sure that all original content made for the web fits clearly under one of our five editorial priorities.
We're going to halve the number of sections on the site, concentrating on the priority subjects, and shutting down extraneous and lower-performing parts.
We're proposing that, while we focus the site, we also spend 25% less on bbc.co.uk. The 25% will not be applied evenly. Our commitment to critical priorities in journalism will be maintained. And we're going to work much harder to pass users of our website onto external sites, doubling the monthly rate of click-throughs.
In TV, we are proposing a major emphasis on greater quality and distinctiveness, with big shifts required by BBC Two and the daytime schedule, as well as extra money for children's services.
In radio, there is a recognition that – while it is already a much-loved and very popular service with its listeners – Radio 2 needs to sharpen its distinctiveness further and to emphasise more than it does today all the ways in which it differs from commercial radio, in its range of music, its speech, its documentaries and so on.
We looked hard at our TV and radio portfolios and concluded that, generally, they are working well for audiences. But, as rumoured we are proposing a few changes.
6 Music has some distinctive programming and some very loyal listeners, but is expensive given its current audience size. We could fix that potentially by doubling or trebling the number of listeners, but the problem then would be that – given 6 Music's demographics – it would be competing hard for the same audience as mainstream commercial radio.
So we're proposing to close 6 Music and serve the British public with a really diverse musical mix with our two existing popular music stations, Radio 1 and Radio 2. There's some great talent on 6 Music on and off the air. Where we can, we'll find a home for them elsewhere in our services. And we'll keep our overall investment in digital radio where it is today.
We're also proposing shutting the Asian Network as a national service. We would never try to reach one entire group in one service – so we should look at more effective ways of reaching the British Asian audience with relevant, high quality BBC content.
And we're going to work to increase the quality of local radio, boosting investment in local news and breakfast and drivetime, sharing more content across regions at other times of the day.
Finally, we're proposing that we close our two young teen offerings, BBC Switch and BBC Blast. That doesn't mean we're turning our backs on Britain's young teenagers. We will still have Radio 1 and plenty of content across TV, radio and the web which they will find valuable and enjoyable. But we think that these two services will always be too small to punch through. We accept that the lead responsibility for reaching young teenagers with public service content on TV should be Channel 4.
We are also pledging to guarantee access. This is an important point as distribution channels proliferate. We will ensure that the public always has access to independent, impartial news and other forms of high quality content, free at the point of use, across all platforms.
We will continue to back open standards and getting behind projects like Freeview, Freesat and Canvas to make sure that we end up with a digital world which is open to all and not controlled by a few powerful commercial interests.
We will commit to opening up the BBC's programme library – this is one of the big themes in the strategy – and to working with lots of other institutions like the British Library and the BFI to help them open up their archives as well.
Of course the big question is how are you going to pay for all this? The fact of the matter is that we can only afford to do all of this if we make the licence fee work harder.
The BBC has been implementing a tough efficiency strategy for many years. It's been hard and has led to thousands of jobs going, but it's paid for new services like BBC iPlayer and – so far at least – audiences tell us it hasn't affected quality.
But soon we will have run out of ways of achieving straightforward year-on-year budget savings in many of the BBC's content areas without damaging quality. So instead we will have to allocate our resources more effectively and, if we have to choose between quality and quantity – in other words, how much TV, radio and web content we make – we should always choose quality. But we also need to run the BBC more effectively.
Ten years ago, overheads and infrastructure costs used to absorb around a quarter of the licence fee. That figure today is 12% – no mean achievement. But by the end of the current Charter, we want to reduce it by another quarter to no more than 9p in every licence fee pound. The prize is great as the money saved will go into quality content.
We're committed to reducing our senior management pay bill by a quarter and reducing senior manager numbers by nearly 20%. We will see if we can use simpler structures to go even further. Again the money saved will go into programmes.
The same too with what the BBC spends on talent, especially top talent where the process of reducing costs has already begun.
We're going to take an axe to the vestiges of the BBC's bureaucratic past, again to save money, but also to create an organisation which is easier to understand and work in, with job titles that pass the common sense test and with fewer layers of management.
One of the most intense areas of external debate over the last 18 months has been the BBC's market impact. It's a debate with a broad range of views – from those who would clearly like to see the outright abolition of the licence fee and the BBC, to those who have reasoned and legitimate concerns both about the BBC's existing boundaries and about its future ambitions. We are right to stand up to the first group – the public would not forgive us if we didn't. But the second group deserve answers, and specifically clearer boundaries which define what the BBC will and will not do. Today's proposals begin to lay out those boundaries.
As I have said, we have to recognise the profound challenges facing much of commercial media. We now need to create more space for others. We can't do everything. Alongside the changes to radio and online, we propose making a number of other commitments:
To reduce spending on imported programmes and films by 20% and to cap that spend in the future at no more than 2.5p in every licence fee pound.
To cap our sports rights spending at no more than an average of 9p in the licence fee pound – that doesn't imply a decrease, but does mean containing sports rights costs at present levels.
To guarantee never to go more local – undertaking never to launch services more local than our existing ones in England. And to set out publicly a list of the editorial areas which our website will not cover.
In addition, I believe the way the BBC behaves and interacts with the rest of media and other public institutions needs to go on changing.
We want the BBC to become the most open and responsive public institution in the UK.
We want to guarantee always that we consider potential market impact before making major decisions.
We want partnership to be the 'default' setting for everything new we do – whether that's big on-air initiatives like A History Of The World In A 100 Objects, or new technical advances like Canvas.
And we want to make sure the BBC's values – trust, a commitment to audiences, quality and creativity, mutual respect and a determination to act as one BBC – informs every part of the implementation of this strategy.
Finally we intend to ensure that the new tough limits to BBC Worldwide's activities set out in last autumn's Commercial Review are fully implemented. In the future, Worldwide will focus in particular on international, as opposed to UK, business development, on evolution rather than merger and acquisition, and over time will move away from exploitation in physical media like magazines.
So what happens next? Well, as I said at the start, today the BBC Trust publishes these proposals to the British public and over the coming months, the Trust will be asking for reactions to them from the public and the industry – indeed I very much hope that many of you in the room will participate in the consultation.
At the end of that process, it will be for the BBC Trust to decide which proposals to accept and which to amend or reject.
The strategy we're announcing today is not a piece of politics – it's rooted in a really clear vision of what the BBC is here to do, and the value it delivers every day to audiences here and around the world.
It is not a blueprint for a small BBC, or a BBC which is in retreat from digital or from anything else. That is the last thing the British public want. They want – and I want – a BBC which has the confidence to concentrate on what it does best: which is to deliver services of outstanding quality and originality and to be a beacon of creativity and excellence for audiences everywhere.
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