Caroline Thomson, Chief Operating Officer

Date: 28.11.2011     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.16
Category: Corporate
Public broadcasting in the digital age: A BBC perspective
Speech at the 2011 IIC Canada Conference, Ottawa
Monday 28 November 2011

Thank you so much for inviting me to join you today. It’s wonderful to share this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Canadian public broadcasting. And to debate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for public broadcasters all over the world.

Firstly, on behalf of the BBC I’d like to congratulate CBC and Radio Canada on their 75th anniversary. For three quarters of a century you have underpinned Canada’s national identity, culture and democratic values. And more than that, you have been steadfast and inspirational partners for public broadcasters in other countries.

At the BBC, we greatly value the close friendship we’ve had with you since the earliest days. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say too much about the very earliest days. I have had great fun, in preparation for this speech, pouring over correspondence from the 1930s in our written archive. They show there was close collaboration with BBC officials when Canadian broadcasting was in its infancy. There was a lot of debate – possibly even attempts at interference by the BBC, dare I say control. The imperial mission was difficult to supress!

It was not always a happy relationship. One senior BBC man who had been dispatched to Canada complained that politicians expected that all the key jobs in the new corporation would be given to their party friends!

Which all goes to show, public broadcasting’s struggle for independence is nothing new. It has been a factor right from the start – one that is shared by us all, and which I know CBC has all too recent experience of.

A much less controversial example from our wartime archives is Children Calling Home, when British children evacuated to Canada assembled in CBC studios for a series of radiotelephone link-ups across the Atlantic. They make for sad, slightly forlorn listening for all they fulfilled a really valuable function. The presenter had strict instructions to step in if they raised awkward questions about air raid damage or weather conditions. Parents were warned to avoid upsetting them – and refrain from commenting on their Canadian accents!

Over the years, our partnerships with CBC have ranged from sharing news bureaux around the world to signing the first BBC/CBC co-production in the 1960s and even providing an armoured car for CBC journalists during the first Gulf War! The CBC is home to BBC formats such as How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and The Week the Women Went.

CBC’s hit show Being Erica is one of the top 5 best selling programmes distributed globally by our commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. And for CBC’s 75th anniversary, BBC Worldwide co-produced Conversations With Glenn Gould, which was recently released on to DVD.

So here’s to many more years of close partnership.

Of course we like to mark our anniversaries at the BBC too, and as I was preparing this speech I visited Alexandra Palace, the home of the BBC’s first television service, launched exactly 75 years ago.

On 2 November 1936, the BBC was the first in the world to broadcast a regular high definition television service. Admittedly, in those days HD just meant you could actually recognise people’s faces! But it was an incredible landmark nonetheless.

I thought you might like to have a quick look at how it all began.

I love that line about a mighty maze of mystic magic rays. And just think – we could be here today debating the future of the electric telescope!

Not everyone was happy about the latest broadcasting innovation. When the first transmission took place, the BBC Director General Lord Reith was nowhere to be seen. He hated the whole idea, thinking it would just lead to populism.

Even at that moment of technological triumph for the BBC, clouds were looming on the horizon. The television service only lasted for three years before the Second World War intervened and then it was closed until 1946.

Today, it’s the grim economic news that is blowing the storm clouds our way. We know that we must live within our means – and within the means of those who pay for our services. At the same time – and this is a key challenge – we know that we must maintain our investment in the digital future.

I am keen to hear more about the Canadian perspective on all this. But first I thought it might help if I update you on the steps that the BBC is taking to safeguard public broadcasting in this extremely challenging climate.

Unlike CBC, we can’t supplement the funding of our domestic TV channels with commercial advertising. We depend on the Licence Fee that is paid by UK households. Clearly the whole idea of public funding through the Licence Fee is a huge privilege. We don’t take it for granted, particularly at a time when most household budgets are under such pressure, and it should be a source of some pride for us that in a period when the real value of the licence fee has declined year on year, thanks to considerable progress to improve efficiency. We have nonetheless increased our audience ratings for quality and trust, as well as holding broadly steady the number of people who use our services. This challenge will, however, only get tougher since last year when the BBC and the Government agreed our funding until 2017. What we agreed was that the licence fee will stay at the current level – £145.50 (about $240 Canadian dollars) – until then.

The agreement gave us certainty of funding for six years. It also meant that our income will fall significantly in real terms. The settlement brings with it responsibility for a range of new obligations such as meeting the cost of BBC World Service for the first time and supporting a service in the Welsh language and new local television services. Part of the money is also ring-fenced for broadband roll-out in the UK.

All this means that we are going to have to make 16% efficiencies over the four years to 2016/17. But we recognise that if the limit of our ambition was simply to provide our existing services continually more efficiently, we would, in the long term, be tolling the death bell on Public Service Broadcasting. In an environment with such fast changing technology and audience behaviour, standing still is just not an option. So we have set ourselves the challenge to find extra savings of 4% to reinvest in new high quality output and digital innovation. The challenge then is to save in total one fifth of our costs – no small task!

To do this, we are targeting first the way we are working. The BBC of the future will be smaller and more flexible. We are taking money away from support services and overheads, cutting them by one quarter. Around 2,000 jobs will go. There will be far fewer senior managers and a much smaller property estate.

New digital technologies offer us real scope to transform the way we work in every production area, reducing duplication and bringing teams with complementary skills and output together.

We estimate that productivity changes will save at least £400 million a year by 2016/17, well over half our target. But that’s still not enough. We have to reduce the scope of what we do, while putting money into content that matters most to audiences.

Now this is the difficult bit. How to reduce when every service is loved? How to cut when every producer is passionate? We started by identifying five editorial priorities that the public want most from the BBC. We believe they go to the heart of what makes our public broadcasting stand out.

Not surprisingly, news is top of the list. We account for 27% of TV news minutes broadcast in the UK but 72% of TV news viewing. Then people want outstanding programmes for children, broadcast free from commercial influence; original drama and comedy; knowledge and cultural programmes. And the coverage of events of national importance.

This programme of changes that we’ve proposed to deliver a more effective and simpler BBC is based on these five priorities and then on the simple principle that we should prioritise spending on the parts of the schedule when most people are watching. It’s called Delivering Quality First.

The public consultation process is currently underway. Our challenge is to make the changes while ensuring our audiences still value our services. Our ambition is big – to push our quality ratings up while delivering less volume. The underpinning principle we call ‘fewer, bigger, better’.

These quality measures are already at historic highs. Each week, 96% of the public consume BBC services and average appreciation scores for BBC TV programmes have been going up strongly (currently 82/100). BBC Online is the only UK website in the nation’s top 10.

So this is a world where most households spend a lot of time with the BBC and enjoy it a lot. To maintain this level of approval, I believe we must observe three fundamental principles. Stay close to audiences. Stay absolutely committed to quality content. And deliver it in ways people want and are able to consume it.

To stay close to audiences, it’s essential to listen and relate to people across the whole of the country. I know that CBC and Radio Canada are doing a lot to increase their regional presence and local focus, and so are we. For too long, BBC programme making was heavily centred on London. But in recent years we’ve shifted significant production resources to other parts of the UK.

Perhaps the most visible symbol is our new media centre at Salford Quays in the North of England. This year we are moving whole services there, including our two children’s TV channels, BBC Sport, BBC Learning, breakfast television, the Radio 5 live station and our Future Media and Technology people. An extra 1,000 staff, possibly more, will move to Salford by 2017.

We are going to accelerate the shift of spend and activity to the North of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of our new strategy. Many of the new ideas will be piloted at Salford.

This is shifting the whole centre of gravity of the BBC and distributing it much more equitably around the UK. You can already see and hear the difference in our programmes and the communities they portray. And there is a big impact on the local economy. Investment brings more jobs and more opportunities for independent production companies.

We’re much more aware than we used to be of our impact on the wider economy. The BBC commissioned a study from Deloitte, who found that Licence Fee funding is a vital source of stability across the whole of the UK broadcasting industry. I know they did a similar study for CBC and Radio Canada. I call it 2 for 1.

Beyond economics, the public service broadcasting’s wider role is to construct and work in a vibrant public space. By that I mean one that is universally available. It is a space that everyone is free to enter, where they can encounter creativity, culture, education, and debate. Critically, it is an independent space, free of political and commercial pressures – a place audiences can access irrespective of their income, a space they can trust.

The BBC is working in partnership with other public bodies and commercial media to develop the wider public space. Organisations such as libraries and museums including the British Museum and the British Film Institute are joining us to make this a reality. A summer of arts – next year coinciding with the Olympics will be the first big manifestation.

One of the biggest challenges for public broadcasters is keeping distribution direct to audiences. We have to find the money when times are tight. We have to deal with powerful gatekeepers. And we have to compete for spectrum with mobile operators.

This is a key message for governments. They have to recognise that audiences’ ability to have direct, unimpeded access to our services, for free, is just as crucial as adequate funding.

In the UK, we are much more reliant on terrestrial television transmission than you are in Canada. Though now you have completed your digital switchover (and you beat us to it, incidentally!), I gather there’s growing interest in watching digital terrestrial TV and some people are cancelling their cable and satellite subscriptions.

The reason why we still have thriving free-to-air options in the UK today is because the BBC and other broadcasters got together to make it possible. Freeview and Freesat are the names of the UK’s subscription-free platforms, which deliver digital TV channels, radio stations and interactive services through either an aerial, in the case of Freeview, or a satellite dish.

The take-up of Freeview has been crucial to us. Around 18 million homes across the UK now use it, making it the largest digital television service. Freesat recently announced its two millionth sale.

Breakthroughs by BBC research scientists and engineers underpinned the introduction and development of both platforms.

The BBC iPlayer is another of their achievements. This is our free service that lets viewers and listeners in the UK catch up with radio and television programmes from the past week. It’s available on lots of different devices, including TV, computers, mobiles, games consoles and portable media players.

Two billion BBC programmes have been streamed using iPlayer this year. In September we received more than 150 million requests for radio and TV programmes. Demand from users of newer devices is growing rapidly. We had 4.6 million requests from tablet users in September, which was an all-time high.

Another big innovation that our engineers are working on is called YouView. It’s a simple standard to deliver internet-TV services like iPlayer to main TV sets. We are developing it in partnership with others in TV, radio and the web and the benefits will be shared with everyone.

This will be an open standard – because that is the best way to benefit consumers. The search and navigation process won’t favour or exclude any content providers. All the big pay-TV operators will be welcome to offer their channels and content to the public but they won’t be able to disadvantage others.

All of this is part of our commitment to change and above all to ensure that our programmes are available to people in the way they want to watch them. It’s another big challenge in a period of financial constraint. Our priorities for investment include a digital innovation fund of around £40 million to support our vision for connected broadcasting and opening up the digital archive.

To sum up, I believe society needs vigorous public broadcasting to flourish in the digital future. Our job is to help ensure the existence of a vibrant, energetic public space. To be the guardian of open access. To ensure the development of digital technology will benefit everyone. To support the wider industry in the interests of audiences. To provide value for money.

And above all, to invest in great content.

This is exactly what the BBC is doing. It is what CBC and Radio Canada have done for the last 75 years and I am here today in solidarity to salute your achievement. But none of it would be possible without great programme makers.

For the BBC, nothing better demonstrates the lengths they are prepared to go to than Frozen Planet, our current series about life in the Arctic and the Antarctic, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. It took four years to make. Our cameramen filmed everything from polar bears and wolves in the North to killer whales and penguins in the South – often in appalling conditions in their determination to pursue perfection.

So I think this is an appropriate note to end on. It’s a glimpse of how one cameraman, Mark Smith, and director Jeff Wilson literally weathered the storm when they spent four months filming Adelie penguins at Cape Crozier in Antarctica.