Jana Bennett, Director, BBC Vision
BBC Vision Forum
Speech given to BBC Vision staff and independents at an internal event to set out the creative and business priorities for BBC Vision
Tuesday 22 September 2009
Welcome to Vision Forum – two days of discussions, masterclasses and workshops which are designed to stimulate, entertain and inspire everyone who works in and for Vision. Whether you're able to attend some of the events in person, watch live on the intranet or download the sessions afterwards, I hope you'll find things that provoke new ideas, deepen your understanding of our audiences and provide a window on trends in our industry. And I would like to thank Gabby, Amanda Gabbitas, and our communications team for all their work in bringing this together.
With me in Studio 3 at Television Centre are people from all parts of Vision and from our partners inside and outside the BBC – channel controllers, commissioners, programme makers from Vision Production, Nations and Regions, Learning and the independent sector. And, coming next, Michael Lyons and Mark Thompson will be talking to Evan Davis about the current challenges facing the BBC and how they see our future.
Before that I want to talk about Vision. What shape is it in, three years after it came into being? What's it for? And what's its role in the life of this country and in the broadcasting industry at this particular moment?
The division was created in order to be where the audience was – on TV and the web – the convergence of 21st century media. We decided in 2006 that the moment was right to turn a decade of strategic thinking into reality by bringing BBC Television channels and commissioning together with TV and web production – to provide a fuller, more satisfying public service for audiences wherever, and however, they watched.
We wanted to unite teams under one roof and encourage multiplatform commissioning. To make programmes and content available to audiences across multiple media and platforms. And to create simpler structures and processes that would enable our creative people to make the very most of every editorial project. It was named Vision simply because we make what people watch.
Today, just over a third of the licence fee comes to Vision. And, in return, licence payers get a multimedia powerhouse which is unique in the world. Television channels, online products, red button and joined-up viewing experiences. A vibrant in-house production base for programmes and content. A magnificent archive which is being opened up to the public in new ways for the first time. Partnerships with hundreds of independent production companies. We commissioned over 20,000 hours of programmes last year, and invested an estimated £1.1billion in this country's creative industries.
In terms of performance, we have a great deal to be proud of.
On BBC Television, AIs are at an historic high. BBC One remains Britain's most popular channel and BBC Two is performing strongly, with very high scores for quality – just look at the example of this autumn's superb business series The Love Of Money on the Lehman Brothers and the crash. Or Pyschoville this summer.
BBC Three is really hitting its stride: it now attracts more 16-34 year olds than any other digital channel with big success from serious factual like the Adult Season, as well as comedy and drama. BBC Four continues to grow in audience numbers, editorial strength and reputation – again just watch this autumn's line-up of single dramas.
CBBC and CBeebies have kept their lead in an increasingly tough market place. BBC HD is the UK's favourite HD channel, with audiences up 90% year-on-year and Top Gear, I can say, is just going HD too.
More and more people are experiencing our output in ways other than the traditional linear broadcast. Our online offering draws in over ten million people a week and is growing fast – for example, five times as many people visited the Strictly site this year as last.
And, on the subject of Strictly: it's worth pointing out it's our job to make the best possible shows for our audiences and schedule them at times we think they'll enjoy them on a Saturday – and indeed over the weekend as a whole – from Merlin to Casualty, the National Lottery and Match Of The Day. Not so long ago everyone was bashing the broadcasters because of the dearth of Saturday night TV entertainment. Today we are enjoying choice and a heady array of talent and excitement which brings back memories of Light Entertainment battles of days past – Two Ronnies and Morecambe And Wise, Blind Date vs Noel. I'm really delighted that both Strictly and X Factor have done so well.
Back to this year – all of these achievements have been acknowledged by audiences, reviewers and our peers. Vision has already picked up 81 major awards so far this year, including Channel of the Year for BBC One at Edinburgh and Sunday night's extraordinary haul at the Emmys for Little Dorrit, House Of Saddam, Churchill and Mad Men.
I'm enormously proud of everything we've achieved together over the past 12 months. And I want to say thank you to all of you in Vision, to our partners inside the BBC and to those in the independent sector who have worked with us – for your commitment, your skill and your talent.
Of course, this year of outstanding achievement has also been one in which the BBC as an organisation has been held up to greater scrutiny than perhaps at any time in its history.
Some of the scrutiny and criticism has come from concerned friends of public service broadcasting – and we should listen hard to what they have to say. Commercial broadcasters and media groups and politicians criticise us too, sometimes fairly, sometimes not – and we should listen to them as well, while bearing firmly in mind that their objectives can be different from ours.
For example, at the RTS and Edinburgh, apart from headline-grabbing declarations about the scheduling of Strictly, politicians – and James Murdoch for that matter – barely mentioned the most important part of this whole debate: quality programmes.
All the talk about the public or the consumer too often ignores the need for excellent output which audiences want to watch.
They want to be entertained, to laugh, to be moved, to be caught up in the excitement of exploration. To be part of that gang going off to Papua New Guinea discovering new species. To be on that dance floor. To remember what it was like to be a Land Girl or Tracey Beaker.
TV – great TV – makes life special.
Television and other original content doesn't just arrive fully-formed, there's a process – a creative process – involving everybody in this forum.
And what makes that process different at the BBC is that our shows aren't transmitted to make money for advertisers, for platform owners, for search engines or media moguls. Our motive is to offer something special – something of real value to all those who pay for the BBC.
I know something about the pressures that operate in commercial broadcasting because I've worked there. However committed you are to range and distinctiveness, there is also huge pressure to schedule something familiar, something which you know will work in that slot.
It's the BBC's duty to take more risks with new forms and ideas. To commission home-grown content for British audiences. To offer different windows on the world. To be committed to a wide range of genres and subjects – and not just those with guaranteed mass appeal. We can invest in tough investigative programming, new kinds of comedy, groundbreaking children's drama, without having to analyse the commercial return at every stage of development, commissioning and production. That is the privilege the licence fee gives us.
Now of course some of our colleagues in the commercial sector have a formidable track record in public service broadcasting, but they don't have the continuous, dogged commitment to R&D that has always characterised the BBC. Indeed, at the moment they are finding it harder than ever before to meet some of their public service obligations.
Falling advertising revenues have become more acute in what's been a rapid and deep recession. ITV, for example, has struggled to maintain programming investment across a range of genres, so there has been a decline in new commissions.
I welcome Channel 4's announcement that it will put the money that it has saved by axing Big Brother into original drama and comedy. That's good news for British viewers and good for the BBC – competition keeps us on our toes. But we should be in no doubt that investment in UK production is under intense pressure.
We used to think of Religion, Current Affairs and Music and Arts as the classic market failure genres – areas of output in which the BBC had a special responsibility. To those, we could now legitimately add Children's, Comedy, Specialist Factual and Drama. All these genres could be endangered in this tougher commercial world.
Incidentally, I should make it clear that, despite the rhetoric from some commercial players and newspapers, the BBC's television channels have not driven this crisis. Vision's market share has actually fallen in recent years – and more rapidly than that of our PSB competitors. The gap has been filled by multi-channel entrants to the market.
And the budget of the BBC's Televison services is not growing – it's reducing. Shrinking almost in tandem with the budgets of our public service commercial colleagues, because of the significant savings that we are making in the wake of the last licence fee settlement – £1billion of cumulative savings over five years.
I believe we're entering uncharted territory: a dangerous era in which a combination of the financial difficulties of our competitors and the BBC's own perfectly proper efficiency agenda means that certain areas of programme making – both inside the BBC and in the independent sector – could wither.
Analysts believe that the television market will remain robust in the medium, and possibly the long, term. And, indeed, total TV viewing is going up at the moment. It's therefore vital that BBC Vision continues to invest in range and quality content during the current downturn, so that afterwards there is still a healthy production sector to provide audiences with great British content.
Our audiences trust us, and increasing numbers say they'd miss us if we weren't here. They have a right to expect that we'll have the courage and confidence to repay that trust by being innovative, bold and imaginative. Now, when it really matters.
Audiences also have the right to expect that we'll ask ourselves tough questions: Are we the appropriate size to deliver our core purposes? Are we spreading ourselves too thin in some areas? Are we clear about what all of our services are for and that they deliver accordingly?
Two weeks ago Michael and Mark announced a major review of the BBC's strategy. Together with Caroline Thomson and Mark Byford, I shall be leading one part of it – the Creative Review – which will look at the needs of our audiences during the period following digital switchover and will ask what the scale and scope of the BBC should be.
Now there's been quite a bit of speculation in the press about which bits of the BBC are for the chop. As if we already know the outcome. Well, I want to assure you: there is no secret agenda. No hitlist.
We shall conduct a thorough, orderly, evidence-based review of everything, from Local Radio, to Television, to Online. And once it has been completed we have to be prepared to make some tough choices in order to safeguard the future of public service broadcasting.
We will do that. What we must not do is to reduce our provision of high-quality output and services for the sake of it. Nor indeed the range of our ambiiton to serve the broad UK audience. There must be no sacrificial lambs to appease competitors or politicians. At this time of turbulence in the television industry, the BBC must stand firm, as the cornerstone of public service output.
Public money has gone into building specialist centres of excellence in production and into creating diverse services which are valued by audiences. They must not be cast aside lightly. To do so would be to vandalise the public space that Mark talked about in his speech in Cambridge last week. The public broadcasting space that people in this country have taken for granted and which has been an outstanding forum for creativity and programme excellence.
Take Occupation, the drama series about British soldiers in Iraq we transmitted earlier this year at 9.00pm on BBC One. It certainly wasn't a commercial proposition, but it was important and illuminating. It took five years to bring it to the screen, we put a huge amount of marketing energy behind it and scheduled it imaginatively on our main channel in peak. I doubt that any other mainstream broadcaster in the world would have done that.
It made a huge impact, provoked conversations up and down the country. One of the actors, Stephen Graham, who played Danny, was approached in the street by the mother of a soldier who had served in Iraq. She said that when her son returned, several years ago, he was withdrawn and angry, and refused to talk about his experiences. After watching the drama with her, he spoke for the first time, at length and with great emotion, about what he'd seen and been through. She felt she'd finally got her son back.
That's one of countless stories and letters that have been fed back to the production team in Northern Ireland, and for me it articulates the transforming power of the work we do, across all genres, and of its ability to touch, change, inspire, inform, millions of people across the country.
Our comedy – made in the UK for British people, celebrating our experiences, our sense of humour, our culture, is an equally unique BBC phenomenon. We give writers, producers and performers the space to innovate and experiment. Sometimes they fail, sometimes the results are spellbinding.
Who would have thought, for example, that a part-improvised sitcom heavily dependent on child performers would take off on BBC One in Saturday night peak? It's now hard to remember what a risky project Outnumbered was – it has established a new idiom with such panache and confidence, and raised the bar for all other makers of sitcom in the process.
Public service broadcasting is a fantastic endeavour, but when when we're focussing on the programme or project in hand we can often lose sight of the scale and impact it has. It's when we're far enough away to get the whole organisation into perspective that the sheer magnificence of the enterprise swims into view.
It happened to me last month. I was on holiday in Brazil and, while there, I gave a lecture to Brazilian broadcasters and scientists and the public about the BBC's Darwin Season. And, no, I didn't claim expenses!
They were astonished that the centrepiece of our season was an hour-long exposition of evolutionary theory delivered to a mass audience on BBC One at 9.00pm by David Attenborough. They wouldn't dream of scheduling anything but telenovelas in prime time and couldn't believe we had the temerity to offer a serious factual subject in that slot, the ingenuity to make it appeal to a mass audience of six million, and the scale of online resource to enable viewers to embark on further, individual journeys of discovery.
It brought home to me yet again just what the BBC is capable of when it puts all its creative energies behind a project or a programme, and of the preciousness of the public service tradition which has been built, nourished and protected in Britain over the past 80 years.
The work that Vision does sits at the very heart of that tradition. We touch the lives of the largest number of people. We reflect their own experiences and take them into other worlds, very different from their own. We enable them to pursue niche interests and to share in big national moments. We give them access to the talent and expertise of great journalists, presenters, performers and writers.
I want to tell you about six of the areas that I am prioritising over the next year, which I believe will help strengthen Vision's vital role as custodian of the values and standards of public service broadcasting.
Firstly, I want us to clarify further how our channels and services are designed to serve different segments of our huge audience. The BBC Trust will conduct service licence reviews for BBC One, BBC Two and BBC Four over the next nine months and this process will ensure that we are crystal clear about their individual remits and purpose. We will continue to define the channels roles even more explicitly, so that development teams, commissioners and producers know how and where to provide value to different audiences in whichever genre they are working.
Secondly, I want BBC Two – the channel that brought us Boys From The Blackstuff, This Life, Our Friends In The North, Edge Of Darkness and House Of Saddam – to reclaim its place as the home of signature television drama. I'm going to address this immediately by making a substantial increase in the channel's drama spend – more than 50% extra funding over the next three years. This investment has been found after a tough re-prioritisation of funds within Vision because – as I have already indicated – I believe this area of drama needs investment. This will be targeted at distinctive, authored series that will continue the great tradition of BBC Two drama, with the aim of providing the next generation of television classics.
In addition, I want to give BBC Films pride of place on BBC Two in order to create a core of distinguished fiction on the channel and to ensure that the BBC's enormous support for the British film industry is both visible and recognised.
Thirdly, and in response to a firm recommendation from the BBC Trust that we should strengthen our role as the cornerstone of children's output in the UK, I'm pleased to say that we've identified more funding for Children's – at least £25million over three years – which we'll be formally discussing with the Trust. This additional funding, derived from efficiency savings, once again recognises the particular pressures facing this genre and it will be used to reinforce the creative strength of BBC Children's.
Fourthly, I want to speed up our progress towards a world where television and the web will merge. It was brave of the BBC to commit so early to the Vision structure of multiplatform development, commissioning and production and some of the offerings from Factual, Comedy, Learning and Children's already give us an exhilarating glimpse of the future. Have a look, for example, at the Knowledge Wildlife Finder, which is going live this week, the Comedy Extra website, Lab UK, the animated Doctor Who web series, or the Switch site for Teens and you'll see what I mean.
But I think the most important development so far has probably been the introduction of a separate web page with a permanent place on the internet for every episode of every series we transmit. It's a bit like laying down the DNA for everything we do from now on, and it will serve as the spine for the BBC's future archive. And I'm very pleased to announce today that we're introducing a Multiplatform Foundation Course for people in production to develop skills in new technologies, using tools that will enable them to enhance their own programme websites.
But, in order to move to the next stage, Vision needs to feel more like an integrated multimedia outfit. And, to put it bluntly, at the moment it doesn't – quite. We've made huge strides in integrating multiplatform commissioning and production teams, but haven't yet achieved our original goal of aligning our strategy and spend with that of our partner divisions, and making sure that great teams are empowered to do great work.
The Vision board is committed to delivering on the promise we made in 2006. And in the coming months I will be working with colleagues across the BBC to bring greater clarity and speed to what we produce for bbc.co.uk. Because what we mustn't do is squander this historic opportunity to become the most creative multiplatform media organisation in the world.
Fifthly, Learning sits at the heart of the BBC and I want the next 12 months to be the start of a new era in our Learning strategy and provision. I'm very pleased to announce the appointment of Saul Nassé as the new Controller of Learning. He will start in January and his first task will be to draw up a new education strategy, building on the great work that has already produced things like BiteSize, Breathing Spaces, Springwatch and the big literacy campaigns.
Finally, as I've said, this is a time for more boldness, innovation and experiment than ever before. I want Vision to lead the way and so we're going to create four Vision Bursaries every year – starting next year. Their aim will be to allow assistant producers or producers to step away from regular production schedules to pursue groundbreaking ideas and to produce pilots that will air on broadband, or on one of the TV channels. Full details of this scheme will be announced when Pat Younge arrives in the New Year to take over as Chief Creative Officer of Vision Production.
So, those are some of my priorities for the year. And I want you all to know that I am fully committed to achieving everything that I have laid out today, to fighting for, enabling and celebrating all the amazing services and content that Vision is providing – now and in the future.
And I'd ask all of you not to get distracted by industry politicking and sniping in the press. But instead to focus on our core public service purpose, to remember the trust that licence payers have put in us and to work to give every one of them something from BBC Vision that repays that trust.
I want to finish by giving you a glimpse of some of the great programmes which will be aired by Vision between now and the end of the year.
Congratulations to everyone who worked on those programmes.
I'm now going to hand over to Evan Davis.
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