Jana Bennett, Director, BBC Vision
Not Dead, but Different: Public Service Broadcasting in the 21st century – safeguarding the cultural commons
Speech given at the London School of Economics
Tuesday 27 October 2009
Check against delivery
Thank you Jimmy. I'm delighted to be back, joining you in this stunning new building.
I have a lot to be grateful to the LSE for.
I came here to do an MSc in international relations in the late 1970s and had a great time.
I used to follow my Professor of International Relations, the beloved Geoffrey Stern, as I was moonlighting across the road at the BBC World Service, where he was a presenter of Twenty Four Hours. There I first experienced the thrill and adrenalin of broadcasting. Both the LSE and the World Service had a tremendous energy and internationalism which I loved – though I have to say that the World Service canteen was much cheaper than the LSE in those days – and served great curry.
My grounding in this place has served me well – among the things I studied here was international military strategy, and it turns out that that provides a great route map for corporate life.
Tonight I want to talk about public service broadcasting and the contribution it can make to the lives of people in Britain in the 21st century. But let me start by telling you a bit about what I actually do.
I run television and multiplatform at the BBC and I am Director of the part of the BBC known as Vision.
I oversee seven BBC Television channels – BBC One, through BBC Four and the Children's channels CBBC and CBeebies and the HD channel – and I'm responsible for working out the best way of investing the £1.4 billion that goes into programmes for those channels as well as online content. That involves deciding how investment should be split between different genres – current affairs, drama, science, arts, children's, comedy and so on – and how they should be scheduled to best serve our different audiences.
Four thousand people work in my division, many of them programme makers, located in four production bases all over the country. One of the reasons it's called Vision and not simply Television is that it includes multimedia commissioning and production, which is designed to give audiences great programme content whether they are watching on a TV or anyother screen.
Just over a third of the licence fee comes to Vision. In return, people in this country get a multimedia powerhouse that's unique in the world. We commissioned around 20,000 hours of programmes last year, and invested an estimated £1.1 billion in this country's creative industries.
Our channels and services are performing extremely well at the moment: appreciation scores are high, audiences are buoyant and programmes are winning scores of awards.
But, despite the strength of our output, over the past 12 months the BBC has been subject to unprecedented criticism from rival media groups and politicians. Many of them want the BBC to be smaller. Others want it to concentrate on a few genres and revert to its traditional radio and television platforms. A few, perhaps, would be happier if it didn't exist at all in the end.
Now, of course, licence payers have the right to expect that we'll ask ourselves searching questions about the scope and scale of the BBC. That's why we've launched a major strategic review of the public service side and a commercial review, focusing not on finding sacrificial lambs to slaughter but on clarifying and defining our purposes and scope – and where appropriate drawing clearer boundaries around our activities.
Tonight I want to touch on a larger question beyond the BBC – how is public service broadcasting relevant for the future? A 20th century invention, no longer needed in the complex multimedia world we now live in? Indeed, what do we want broadcasting in this country to be like over the coming decades, in the light of significant economic and technological change in the media sector?
One of the similarities between the LSE and the BBC is that they both exist within the public space. That is, they're neither rigidly state-controlled, nor driven by the profit motive. Both are situated on a sort of cultural common land – available to all, funded and maintained by everyone, there to serve the public good.
This idea of a common space, created and run and accessed for the benefit of everyone in our society, informs many precious aspects of life in Britain: libraries, schools, the NHS, museums and galleries, Lincoln's Inn Fields, to name but a few.
The BBC has been a vital part of the cultural commons of this country for the past 80 years – but what is its value to the people of Britain today?
Interestingly, commercial competitors like James Murdoch, as well as some MPs and ministers, tend not to ask those kinds of questions. They focus on markets and costs rather than public value and benefits.
But, just like those other parts of our social and cultural commons, the BBC isn't there to make money – whether for advertisers, platform owners, search engines or media moguls. Its sole motive is to offer something of real value – to all those who pay for it.
Because of its guaranteed income and universal mandate, the BBC has always had a commitment to research, development and innovation – a duty to take risks. It has commissioned home-grown content for British audiences across a wide range of genres and subjects – and not just those with guaranteed mass appeal.
It invests in things like challenging investigative journalism, mould-breaking comedy and large-scale children's output, without having to analyse the commercial return at every stage of development, commissioning and production.
With the advent of ITV in 1955 a unique public service ecology developed in Britain, further enriched by the launch of Channel 4 in 1982. High quality content from two, then three different broadcasters improved the offering to viewers and kept the BBC on its toes. This was followed by channel Five, then by the multichannel explosion of choice. Our system was marked by creative competiton and separate funding streams. The BBC and the licence fee conditions the market to expect quality – and that's why per capita spending on television is still significantly higher in Britain than any other country in Europe.
But more recently, as a result of the sharp downturn in advertising revenues an estimated £500m is leaving the system. A half billion pound hole is projected in programme-making funds in the commercial sector.
As a result of this and digital switchover in 2012, Britain's PSB ecology is changing dramatically. ITV has said it wants to move away from many public service obligations and is moving towards a US-style drama and entertainment-led schedule. And although it will continue to reach mass audiences through big, well-funded pieces, there will be less range and diversity in its output.
That means Channel 4 is more important than ever as a pillar of public service broadcasting and vital source of creativity and experiment outside the BBC. I welcome its pledge to plough the money saved by axing Big Brother into original drama and comedy – it will give viewers, quality, choice, another tone of voice. But, looking across the sector, we should be in no doubt that the system we've taken for granted for the past half-century is under severe pressure.
And by the way, please don't believe mischievous suggestions that the BBC has driven the advertising slump. Our market share in television has actually fallen in recent years - from 50% in 1989, to 39% in 1999, to an expected 33% in 2009. In the debate about BBC market impact, here are some more facts.
Ten years ago the BBC represented 35% of broadcasting spend in the UK, today it's just under 25%, and soon it will be less than 20%.
In 2009, it's expected that the part of the BBC licence fee allocated to TV will reach £2.6 billion, with another £3 billion flowing into the industry through advertising and £4.9 billion through television subscriptions. And it's likely that subscriptions will continue to grow, exceeding £6.5 billion by 2013.
The total licence fee income of £3.5 billion is a fraction of the revenue of the dominant international TV and media players: 14% of Time Warner's; 17% of Disney's; 21% of News Corporation's.
The weakening of the familiar public service commissioning ecology – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five - has serious implications for sustained investment in many types of originated British programming.
We used to think of Religion, Current Affairs, Music and the Arts as the classic market failure programme genres – areas of output which the commercial sector found to be unprofitable. To those, we could now legitimately start adding Children's programmes, Comedy, Specialist Factual and high-end Drama.
All are or could be endangered species in the tougher commercial world we now live in. We recently announced that investment in children's programmes would be increased by £25 and a half million across the next three years and that BBC Two's drama spend would increase by 50% over the same period. These kind of investments, achieved through tough efficiency savings across my division, are now more vital than ever before.
Analysts believe that the television market will remain robust in the medium, and possibly the long, term. Indeed, total TV viewing is going up at the moment by an hour a week – and advertising revenues are showing signs of recovery. But all the evidence is that these genres are likely to wither.
The BBC has in the past has been there when the market has failed to protect diversity and range of output. In so doing, it has ensured the survival of specialist programme-making, keeping production groups, both in-house and indie, viable.
But what about the future? Well, the BBC must continue to invest in market failure genres during the downturn, focusing on their public value rather than short-term commercial return, because they are major parts of our cultural common ground whether that is the political monster that is Malcolm Tucker or BBC One's Life series, with its unique film sequences of mud-spinning dolphins and hunting Komodo dragons.
But in considering the future of PSB we shouldn't just be thinking about market failure and how to conserve programmes and other content that's precious.
Public service broadcasting should be dynamic, providing a place for new talent, new ideas in our common culture.
The BBC obviously has a vital role in this but the BBC should not be alone – creative compeititon, suppported by different funding models enriches the public cultural space.
As I said earlier this country has been incredibly inventive about how it has approached funding PSB. But we are at a critical junction now and we need fresh levels of inventiveness to create new models – that are viable in ensuring plurality – from new players as well as old. Old and new public institutions can work in new ways in the broadcast and internet space – from TV companies to galleries, academia, local councils and Big Screens. Commercial organisations make valuable contributions too – like Discovery or Sky Arts.
That's not to say there aren't a lot of ideas out there, but there is a tendency to look back rather than forward coupled with the necessity of focusing on immediate commercial problems rather than the quantum and quality of output the public deserves. There is a degree of paralysis in the face of frankly bewildering technological change. I am not offering a magic solution tonight but I am urging all those involved in the debate to focus on how we fund high quality original production in this country, which in the end enriches our culture and celebrates our character, diversity and creativity.
That is why partnership ideas must play a role – whether that's technology-sharing, bringing back-office costs down and sharing resources to support regional news, or other ideas, such as micro payments or copyright charging to find new ways to raise investment in content.
Partnership thinking also has a vital role in helping new structures of broadcasting emerge from this perfect storm of technological change, digital switchover, recession, political instability and regulatory change. The BBC wants to continue to be actively engaged in this thinking with the rest of the industry, because it really does matter what kind of television we have here.
And it's in the intelligent development of the opportunities that new technology offers that we can see some of the shapes that Public Service partnerships may take in the years ahead, whether that's Channel Four's 4IP, or the educational partnership on Hamlet that the Royal Shakespeare Company is doing on the web with the BBC this Christmas.
So I believe that the BBC has an equally important role to play in harnessing the technological breakthroughs that have taken place recently.
Historically, the BBC has served audiences by exploiting new technologies. At first it did so through radio. In the 1930s and Forties it pioneered television. It played a defining role in the development of colour TV, NICAM, digital broadcasting and, most recently, High Definition, internet, red button and mobile services.
The BBC's repeated reinvention of itself through different media has enabled it to remain relevant over eight decades. New technology has transformed services provided to viewers over the past five years. The BBC iPlayer is establishing itself as a major viewing portal and currently attracts 600,000 visitors a day. Our website attracts more than ten million people a week.
Let me just give you a picture of one exciting area of development that brings together ideas of dynamic Public Service and cultural commons. This is the introduction of a separate page with a permanent place on the web for every episode of every series we have broadcast, whether on radio or on television. It's a bit like laying down the DNA for everything we do from now on, and it will also serve as the spine for the BBC's future archive strategy. Core data, made available and accessible. Open and in the public domain.
It's the potential for new technology to unlock our public archives and make them available to the public that I believe is going to give an entirely new meaning to public service broadcasting and to the notion of a cultural and creative commons.
The BBC's 80-year-old archive is one of the largest – and possibly the most significant – media archives in the world.
It includes: 2.5 million hours of film and video; 5 miles of documents – files about programmes, staff, finance, correspondence; 6 million photographs; 4.5 million pieces of sheet music; 200,000 word pronunciations; these are stored in 26 sites all over the UK.
This archive is so vast that no one person could ever look at all of it. And even we don't know most of what it contains.
What we do know is that it's part of our collective heritage – a backdrop to all our lives. It contains the programmes that were made by, with and for the people of Britain, experienced by them in the intimacy of their homes, paid for with their licence fees.
It's a fabulously rich resource. It shows Britain changing, in terms of class, accent, landscape, architecture, social mores, race and gender relations. It's a national aide memoire. A vast anthology of sounds, images, information and stories for and about millions of individuals. It's the index and imprint of the BBC's role within our culture and heritage through four generations.
We want to open this resource up over time to the public, so that they can search through it, enjoy it, find out what it says about them and their families, make things out of it, create applications for it.
There are all sorts of challenges to overcome before we can do that: digitising the mountain of material, working through rights issues, dating and authenticating it, protecting privacy... and so on. The list is long.
But we would like to move ahead with the creation of the catalogue as soon as possible, essentially building a skeleton by listing every programme broadcast to date and cross-referencing that schedule information with our internal programme database. We hope to have this available for the public to see by Christmas 2010 and then we will really go to work, collaborating with organisations and individuals to put flesh on the bones.
It will take years, if not decades, but it's a gigantic piece of infrastructure that can be achieved only through a multitude of partnerships, large and small, professional and amateur. We're already talking to other institutions with large archives up and down the country as we start to agree common standards and software.
Once people begin to access the archive, we know they'll use it in a huge variety of ways, and find many different kinds of value in it – things we ourselves can't even begin to imagine. New commercial and non-commercial models will emerge. Micro payments, open source sharing of material, free or very cheap sampling. There won't just be the current stark alternatives: commercial or free.
The project will be democratic: everyone could be a curator or researcher, a cataloguer or inventor. The archive could turn into a giant apps store. The nature of what could be created and its potential cultural value are almost infinite. The more people get involved the bigger and richer and stronger the archive would become.
As the magic of internet technology begins to bring to life the BBC's archives, there will be an explosion in the size and richness of this country's cultural and creative commons which could mark a new epoch in public service broadcasting – one in which Britain has a chance to lead the world.
To return to my original question: what kind of broadcasting do we want in future? Do we want to rise to this challenge – or should the BBC pull the plug on this and other online possibilities and concentrate instead on radio and television?
That seems to me as absurd as suggesting that the LSE should abandon this stunning, modern building and confine all its teaching to its historic home in the Aldwych.
Institutions must either change or die – and it would surely be an abrogation of responsibility for us to turn our backs on the opportunities offered by digital technology? The BBC occupies a privileged and precious place in British life. Seventy-seven per cent of people say that it's "an institution we should be proud of" – that's up nine percentage points over the past five years. They also trust the BBC, that figure has also risen nine percentage points since 2004. Increasing numbers say they'd miss it if it disappeared.
They've a right to expect that we'll repay that trust by continuing to evolve, by exploring new opportunities to connect with them, by being innovative, bold and imaginative. We have the opportunity to lead yet another revolution in broadcasting: the opening up of current and past content and assets using the tools of the internet age; and the mass engagement of audiences in using, enriching and co-creating the vast cultural space that belongs to them.
At this time of turbulence in the media industry, it is not in the interests of licence payers for the BBC to reduce its ambition or its provision of high-quality output and services in order to appease competitors or politicians. Public service broadcasting will change, but it matters more than ever before and the BBC is its cornerstone.
Search the site
Can't find what you need? Search here