Bringing the Best to Everyone - Caroline Thomson's speech for the Voice of the Listener and Viewer
It is a great pleasure to be here today with the VLV. Just before I start on the substance of my speech, I would like to pay tribute to the work you have all done to uphold the idea of public service broadcasting and above all in support of quality programming, the subject I want to explore today.
I have spent my professional life in public service broadcasting, first as a BBC producer, in radio and television, then as a Channel 4 commissioning editor and manager and finally for the last decade or so at the BBC. There have been a number of constants throughout that period - the marriage of quality with audiences, my subject today, has been one; others have included innovation, the quest for creative change, the balance between minority tastes and majority, between accountability and independence have been other constant strands. But through it all the VLV has also been a constant voice and watchdog. It isn't always comfortable as you hold us to account, I haven't always agreed with everything you have said, but your effect has undoubtedly been for the good and when the chips are down those of us who care about the public service in broadcasting have always known which side you were on. Thank you.
I have called my speech today 'Bringing the best to everyone' and I want to focus, for a change, not on BBC governance, or our market impact but on how we deliver the essential job we are here to do - great Programmes to the largest possible number of viewers and listeners. If I was a vicar, my text for the day would be the memorable phrase of Huw Wheldon's that our challenge is to make 'the good popular and the popular good'.
Let's start with Putting Quality First....
When we announced the BBC’s strategy of Putting Quality First in 2010 and more recently its daughter Delivering Quality First, some people accused us of pursuing what they saw as an elitist approach – taking us to the so-called ‘Himalayan heights’ of broadcasting and away from more popular programming. As one MP put it, ‘to me this feels like London elitism of the worst kind’. In the way of these things, still others thought we were doing precisely the opposite: dumbing down under cover of a strategy with quality in its title. As another critic remarked, ‘what we have here is the pretence of quality against a reality of more repeats and populist rubbish’. In my darker moments I sometime think there might be only one perfect strategic posture for the BBC – and that’s to remain statue-still and make no changes at all!
Such critics should take the time to actually read our strategy and more importantly and perhaps more realistically, they should take the time to watch and listen to a broader range of BBC programmes. If they did either then they would realise that the idea that quality and popularity are opposed, or somehow two discrete categories, is just plain wrong.
If it weren’t wrong then the BBC would be in real trouble. Because being high quality has always been – and I hope always will be – at the very heart of what drives the BBC’s popularity.
But to take apart the Huw Wheldon phrase a bit more – I’m willing to bet there’s a consensus in this room about what we mean by 'popular' but 'good' is harder to define. Many of us will feel we know it when we see it. But in this day and age, that is not quite enough. The BBC Trust has done some interesting work in this area. As a result in the BBC when we seek to measure whether or not we are achieving 'quality' we look at a number of different things all of them unashamedly audience based. Most importantly we examine the audience appreciation indexes for Programmes, how much people have valued them. But in addition we ask people what they rate to be of high quality and what they rate as fresh and new.
Crucially this gives us a way to evaluate programmes with small audiences as well as those with big ones. Our definitions of success are varied and while this makes running the BBC more complicated because there is no simple single bottom line - it is key to delivering a successful public service schedule, with a variety of programmes bringing value to all audiences, whatever their age, income or interests.
Take Frozen Planet - and it is so remarkable that I won't apologise for mentioning it.
This staggeringly beautiful series from the BBC’s world-renowned Natural History Unit has attracted massive audiences on BBC One – around 9 million a week. As I said we ask audiences what they think of our programmes, so every programme ends up with an appreciation index score out of 100. Frozen Planet scored an incredible 94, just one off our highest ever individual programme quality score. Moreover, 72% strongly agreed that the programme was ‘fresh and new’ and breaking new scientific ground with six academic papers written. Marking the popular good or the good popular? I’m not sure which way round…
You might expect me to praise such an obvious success as Frozen Planet! But making the good popular and the popular good happens right across the BBC. Frequently on the very services some critics accuse of ‘dumbing down’. BBC Three, for example, has had a phenomenal run of outstanding titles recently.
Alex, a Life Fast Forward featured the heart-breaking but ultimately inspiring story of Alex Lewis, who was diagnosed with bone cancer shortly before his eighteenth birthday. After three years of intensive treatment, Alex realised he was running out of options and decided to cram as much as possible into the time he had left. It’s the sort of programme you might expect perhaps a half-a-million audience to tune in for, going on to win knowing praise from commentators who lament that there is not ‘more of this sort of thing on the BBC these days’.
In fact over the week that it was first shown on BBC Three, one-and-a-half million people tuned in to see Alex’s story – a fantastic audience for a digital channel. Not only did audiences tune in their droves, but they also really appreciated what they saw: it’s the one that beat Frozen Planet in Audience Appreciation scoring 95 out of a hundred for quality.
And in case you imagine this was a one-off success for BBC Three, Alex shared its magnificent quality achievement with – yes – another brilliant BBC Three documentary: Women, Weddings, War and Me. This documentary was about a young woman returning to Afghanistan to discover how her life might have turned out if her parents hadn’t come to the UK when she was six. And if you were lucky enough to catch Our War, a ground-breaking BBC Three series featuring footage captured by young soldiers on their tour of duty and recently repeated on BBC One, then you will also have been in good company: for more than two million people watched it over the week it was shown and gave it an average quality score of 94.
These are just a few examples of the fact that, on the BBC, quality and popularity are not opposing but positively reinforcing forces. Even where a type of output is widely perceived to be the preserve of the few, such as classical music, you will find the BBC seeking connections with ever-wider audiences and pushing boundaries in the process.
What other broadcaster – what other organisation for that matter – could put on something of the sheer scale and ambition of the BBC Proms? High quality content with a permanent home on Radio 3, but nonetheless finding connections and relevance right across the BBC’s output including television. Again, somewhat against conventional wisdom in an era of fragmenting audiences and increased competition, we find audiences flocking to quality.
The Last Night of the Proms reached more than 11 million people on TV alone this year, in addition to its audience on Radio 2 and 3 and the Proms in the Park festivities around the UK – its highest audience for at least five years. To put this in perspective, it would have filled the Royal Albert Hall more than 2,000 times over.
And who else could create a blockbuster science series like Wonders of the Solar System and its sequel Wonders of the Universe, which regularly pulled in around four million eager new students for the nation’s favourite professor, Brian Cox? And no, not on BBC One but on BBC Two.
At the heart of the BBC’s commitment to quality is also a commitment to keeping current affairs in peak time on our most popular channel, BBC1. The recent Panorama special on benefit fraud attracted no fewer than 4.5 million viewers.
Moreover, whilst the BBC exists to bring the maximum audience to any particular subject, that does not necessarily mean – indeed it does not usually mean – a mass audience. Whilst 1.5million for Alex's story on BBC Three is a great success, just 300,000 for Symphony on BBC Four can also count as a real success. We want to introduce as many people as possible to subjects they would never have thought of; to writers they would never have heard of; to music including pop music they would never have known about; to areas of the world they can never visit.
So I believe that we are not just meeting Huw Weldon's challenge of making the good popular, we are succeeding at it in a wide range of genres.
But it’s crucial that we also live the other half of his description – that is, we make the popular good. Whether with Strictly Come Dancing, Children in Need, EastEnders, or a host of other popular titles. The great programme-making values which make these shows so good underpin exactly the same culture which produces programmes like Symphony or The Great British Bake Off or even our coverage of things like the General Election. Values that also, crucially, underpin our entire relationship with the British audience, so that when we cut Eastenders to cover David Cameron’s drive to the Palace and appointment as Prime Minister 9 million people watch it. We are the place people turn to.
We are there for all audiences – not as an esoteric, upmarket service, but one which is for everyone; one which delights as well as informs; one which is good for you but with which you can also relax. That relationship with audiences, with all audiences, is what the BBC exists for. Indeed, much as the BBC might exist by the say-so of a Royal Charter, the depth and width of its relationship with audiences is arguably an even deeper guarantor of its legitimacy and independence.
However for all the BBC’s success in making the good popular we cannot and must not become complacent. All broadcasting can too easily slip into 'identikit' programming where a new format is introduced, it works well and so is shamelessly (and sometimes badly) ripped off until it is rung dry. Am I the only person in the room who a few years or so ago thought if they ever saw another property makeover programme they would scream?? Equally with different genres. One minute you can't switch on the television without seeing a history programme, the next minute there is nothing but cookery. Great programmes many of them, by the way, but sometime it is as though we are all no better than a herd of sheep!
Now, often a successful format can be taken further with value, innovation can stretch it or by applying it in a different context it can bring new audiences to different subjects. The Gareth Malone programmes are a good example. Their format is a traditional reality documentary - take a group of people, get them to do something new together and see the impact on their lives, filming the meanwhile. And yet, and yet - they are just brilliant, life enhancing, music teaching output. I defy anyone watching last week’s final episode of The Choir: Military Wives not to have tears in their eyes at their performance in the Royal Albert Hall. Factual television at its public service best.
We have also been able to use technical innovation to bring new and bigger audiences to our programming. One of the things about the centrality of the BBC in all our lives is that most of us have in our minds that one memorable moment the BBC brought us, often when we were young. The point at which you were really thrilled or introduced to something new. For me, it was watching Kenneth Clark's great series Civilisation as a teenager. This documentary of 1969, is still often cited as definitive and ground breaking. Yet when it first aired on BBC Two in a world of just three television channels, remember, it was seen by just one and a half million viewers. Contrast this with Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe – it had an average audience of 3.7m. So not only ARE we making the good popular, we are getting better at it!
But I repeat, no complacency. The BBC has a particular duty to question itself continually about its programme standards. Are we adding something new? Is it really quality? Is there something distinctively ‘BBC’ about how it’s made? These are high bars, and of course not all Programmes will pass them, but this should always resolutely be our ambition.
One of the areas where broadcasting is most challenged is comedy, a genre which we made a key editorial priority in our putting quality first analysis because we recognised that its very risky nature means it can present at some points a real challenge for commercial broadcasters.
I speak to you at a time when many are lamenting an apparent lack of original UK comedy writing. Whilst I share the sense of challenge in this ever-risky genre, based on the evidence I am a good deal more optimistic than many. Certainly, investment in comedy is a volatile thing. And there have been times when the BBC was heading towards being the only game in town as advertising-funded broadcasters took refuge in less risky genre. But to my mind we seem to be seeing a new vitality in comedy on television including new takes on an old favourite, the sitcom.
Whether the slapstick of Mrs Brown's Boys, the structured improvisation of Outnumbered, the uncomfortable reality of Miranda or the social observation of Rev, the BBC is most definitely on-form with new material. And so too are other broadcasters. Channel 4 has seen success with the In-betweeners, including with an eponymous feature film, and Misfits is now in its third season. Sky is investing too, with Trollied and Mount Pleasant both being re-commissioned for second series.
Indeed with such a vibrant comedy industry, and with broadcasting playing only one part in a growing world of live shows, one might ask what unique role there is for the BBC.
Well the BBC will always be in the business of giving the best and funniest a stage for their talent and their writing. Our audiences expect that from us and we are therefore committed to continuing to invest in comedy. And there are two things that will continue to set us apart from the rest. First, we are here for the long-term – including when the economic cycle turns against the commercial sector. Second, we are here for the next generation of comedians – ready to take a risk with new talent and new ideas; ready to fail, get back up and try again. And one of the things we have been anxious to safeguard as we worked through Delivering Quality First was our ability to use our different channels, across Radio and television as nursery slopes for new comic talent. It's a policy which has encouraged and produced some of the finest comic talent of our generation, for example Miranda started on Radio Two, and we are determined to continue with it.
Investment in content
So far I have talked to the success of the BBC’s content story, but I know what many of you will be thinking. How are we going to keep this up when we must make such deep savings to live within the new licence fee settlement?
Well, every year the BBC spends around £2.5 billion directly on making content for television, radio and online: nearly 80% of the licence fee. Our ambition is to continue to increase the proportion spent on content so that combined with the costs of distribution it accounts for more than 90% of Licence Fee spend, and we’re making good progress towards that aim.
Ofcom’s recent Public Service Broadcasting Report showed, for instance, that the BBC’s network television programme spend increased to £1.45bn in 2010, a 3% increase in real terms.
The BBC’s investment in radio programming has also been trending higher for several years, rising to £483m in 2010-11 – an increase of 4%.
As the BBC’s Chief Operating Officer, I am determined that we will continue this trend. I have this year approved plans to deliver 25% savings across the BBC’s overhead and support areas to to release money into content. These savings are already being delivered in many support areas including my own, where 20% staff reductions are expected to be completed within the next 18 months. Its difficult and it involves individual pain, which one should never forget, but it is unfortunately absolutely necessary and right.
By taking this difficult action we can spend more of the licence fee on what has always mattered most: the highest quality content available when and where audiences want it.
So to conclude. I hope that I have managed to share with you all today something of the sheer scale of the BBC’s commitment to the highest quality content and to making this content not just available to everyone, but have it so well made that it is attractive to them too. The BBC has to be popular, if we are to deliver real public civic value to Britain/ For this we have to have a broad remit alongside news, arts and documentary, and one that very much includes entertainment. But this combination is not as difficult as you might think because quality and popularity are not in conflict, indeed they are increasingly frequently and often synonymous. Put simply, you should never underestimate the audience. Our viewers and listeners want the best – they want to be delighted but also stimulated. If the BBC can continue to make this link, then we can keep faith with audiences and that is what really matters – both for delivering value and for guaranteeing our future independence.
When I brought the first programme on Chaos Theory to UK audiences in the Equinox strand on Channel 4, I remember people telling me that it just wouldn’t work. The complexity of the underlying concepts and the sorts of people who had to be relied upon to explain them would be just too difficult, too abstract for television, I was told. I knew that was wrong then and, thanks to many more such projects now, we know it remains wrong now.
As the BBC lives within its new funding settlement you can rest assured that we will ruthlessly prioritise quality content above all else. Our strategy and our audiences demand that we do this, and we will not let them down.