Keynote speech given at 3rd International Media & Communications Summit, Said Business School, Oxford
Monday 14 May 2007
When The Wall Comes Down: Putting Audiences at the Heart of the BBC in a Digital World
Good evening everybody.
What I wanted to do today was take just 20 minutes to leave you with a few thoughts on how the media industry and more specifically the BBC is reshaping itself to enjoy the huge opportunities that a digital world brings. I will do that by focussing on the people who will decide the fate of all these organisations – the audience. I think if I have one objective today it is actually to energise you, even this late in the day, about the potential that digital brings for the BBC as what might be termed a "traditional media organisation". Far from being disadvantaged in a digital world, I believe we can offer more rather than less value to audiences as an innovative public service broadcaster where we are more, not less distinctive.
I'm sure that you have heard a lot today about the radical changes that this industry is going through and have no doubt that what is happening is challenging the very fundamentals of the media world. The risk (and opportunities) to brands, companies and their revenues are huge, both deeply exciting and at times slightly daunting. Media executives are questioning what business they are actually in – content, distribution, telecoms or broadband provision – and, although I think that nearly every forecast sees overall industry revenue increasing, every current model will be debated (whether it is a licence fee, subscription or advertising).
Talk to some companies today and they can even struggle to define who they are competing against. And these challenges mean audience-based thinking is needed more than ever before and it leads to marketing becoming a core skill needed to navigate us through the choices we have. Marketing as a discipline is growing in prominence, not because Marketing Directors like me are begging to be taken seriously but the problems of the situation mean internal focus versus an audience-led approach can quite literally lead to rapid decay.
But what about how the BBC builds value in a digital world? As a passionate advocate of what public broadcasting and the BBC can bring to audiences, I believe that when you have the privilege of secure income it comes with a great responsibility to focus externally rather than get too internally driven (which I believe is our greatest threat).
The cultural challenges are significant for the BBC and other media players that have been around for a while. In the theatre, the fourth wall describes the imaginary barrier that exists between the audience and the stage. And by providing only linear broadcasting across a few channels, the BBC and others have delivered (and continue to deliver) some fantastic programming. But from an audience perspective, the wall is beginning to be dismantled. It does not mean the end of linear, far from it, but audience expectations are being transformed.
At a top-line level it is a two-stage revolution – massive increase in choice and more profoundly audience control. With the commencement of digital switchover which kicks off in Whitehaven this year and the expansion of digital radio, choice is exploding. But the scale of that change is small when put against a truly on-demand world where media, like many other product categories, becomes fully available on demand.
With these changes in mind, I think people underestimate the cultural challenges for media organisations to become truly audience led. We have always done research – the BBC was ahead of all others and had an audience panel running over 50 years ago.
Let me just give you two examples of the scale of the cultural challenge we face in heightening and delivering an audience focussed organisation in the digital world:
- Do broadcasters need to see themselves as "face-to-face" organisations who get in direct contact with the audience? Or do we just send out programmes? Interestingly, the BBC involves about 8 million people a year in live events, but we are only now beginning to really consider the full value of direct face-to-face contact. We start from a fantastic base. Our radio stations have always been good at interacting with our audiences but we too are seeing a big increase in the power of live experiences. For instance, 500,000 people just registered to get tickets for the Radio 1 Big Weekend in Preston.
- Here's another question. Are broadcasters equipped to decide between the various choices that digital presents – I may have a creative idea but should it go online, do I need a vodcast, what will have most audience impact? Most leaders are having to deal with "the pain of choice" in a way that is much more demanding than before. It is a big challenge. For the BBC, regardless of the level of the licence fee, digital brings with it a need to reprioritise and focus to a degree that we have not done before. And it is what audiences value from us which needs to be a key guide to our decision making.
Let me now outline three themes that I think we are focussing on in the BBC which clearly define what business we are in and enhances rather than dilutes value to audiences. Then with my marketing hat on let me share one or two approaches that give you a flavour of how we are reshaping what we do in terms of marketing and, critically, measuring success.
In terms of focus, we are simply working on those things that audiences value most highly from us. A pretty straightforward strategy. You know, the age of choice and control is both deeply exciting but also challenging for audiences themselves. So how does the BBC play into this – in terms of what and how audiences search for things they love.
Firstly, whether it is delivered via a wi-fi enabled fourth generation high defintion multi-platform colour PDA or a standard 14-inch colour telly, the benefits of delivering stand-out, quality content will inevitably grow. People are already searching for things that they love. A quality score of five out of ten will not be good enough and already content that is ok is just not cutting it. I think the BBC is in a good place to focus even harder on everything we produce to keep delivering outstanding quality. Not just continuing what we do but always looking for fresh, new creative ideas that often redefine excellence. This remains a top priority above all others and will always have first call on our funding. It's about attracting the best story tellers and creating an organisation that while infused with audience insight is not led solely by audiences – research panels will never be the way in which great innovative creative ideas will be generated.
From Life On Mars which connects with a mass audience and is given an average nine out of ten in terms of quality, to DJs who have a passion about quality that is simply not replicated elsewhere. And for the BBC we have a responsibility to deliver unique public service value to everyone, so critically this creative challenge must involve developing stories that engage everyone.
And we also see real value in technology that truly enhances quality and showcases content. We are trialling a BBC HD channel and shooting images like this one from Planet Earth that are simply must-see. And we will soon launch our iPlayer, which has been approved by the BBC Trust after extensive consultations, using downloads which deliver the past seven days' BBC content at a market-leading level of quality. You could argue that this flies in the face of the YouTube generation which hacks together content sometimes with little regard to technical quality. Clearly, narrative and the content itself is critical but we believe that sometimes we can add unique value by providing a quality of experience not found elsewhere.
So we are banking on the audience searching out quality...
My second audience driven theme is the need to build the value of trusted services (by that I mean things such as channels and networks) that the audience can rely on. I think audiences will continue to search out and stay loyal to those services that they trust to produce, package and recommend content. And my contention is that some of these should and will be BBC-led, but many will result from partnerships. The idea that the BBC or anyone simply goes it alone or that a service like BBC iPlayer will be the only service where BBC content can be consumed is clearly not where we are heading.
There is no doubt that one approach in this new world is to wave goodbye to a piece of content, post it on the web and let it fly. And I believe that over time it will be practically impossible to contain content – but that does not mean that strong editors or brilliant channel controllers will be out of a job. Far from it, they will be more valuable. Let's take BBC News – we have added popular audience-led functions like a list of "most emailed stories" but the value of the BBC, with an impartial and experienced lens, choosing and presenting the lead stories, as they see it, is clearly important.
This is not a plea for the status quo. Far from it, we will need to innovate rapidly. For instance, brands like BBC One, CBeebies or Radio 4 will have to become multi-media and build their role as meaningful endorsers of web content as well as live output. It also means the strengthening of complementary genre brands like BBC Sport. And the emergence of new service brands like iPlayer. The key is to maximise traffic between these services and be very wary of creating brands for the sake of it. And like all great brands we will have to be ruthlessly consistent and radically innovative in equal measure.
But have no doubt those who say channel brands are dead are way off the mark for the foreseeable future. Some will die, have no doubt, and the audience will be merciless with those that do not have clear identities and strong content. But excellent editors and great channel controllers will be more not less valuable as they build trusted propositions for audiences. In a land of what can feel like too much choice, these skills will be even more critical.
The other key element of providing audiences with content on their own terms is making sure that we actively partner with others to create new ways of delivering content in the way people want. Whether it is in on-demand or working in different areas with many other organisations we intend to actively explore partnerships where it makes sense and particularly where it helps the audience consume our content in a quality way. The same can be said for using partnerships to ensure outstanding free-to-view television across platforms. We have had a fantastic success in areas like Digital Terrestrial Television with Freeview, which has just become the leading digital platform in the UK and will benefit from a continued stream of innovation. And recently we announced Freesat, a joint venture with ITV, which will enable those who want the benefits of satellite such as a large channel line-up or the possibility of lots of HD and interactivity but without subscription.
Perhaps the final partner I should mention is the audience. Let me cut the strategic words and just show you an example. A project called People's War that you can access on our website documents people's memories from WW2. Now, if you think interactive online activity is all about the under-34s go and look at some of the quite outstanding stories on our site. Nearly 50,000 personal stories and many thousands of images like this one preserved for the future. So even if I am a big advocate of the trusted editor in the digital world, of course this does not negate the need for much greater and authentic audience interaction.
My last big audience theme in terms of BBC focus is to re-work our services and content so that it can be delivered on the audience's terms.
Here's two examples:
- We have just announced a trial of the online BBC Archive where you can search through a thousand hours of our old classic content such as this wonderful piece of natural history, filmed over 50 years ago by a young David Attenborough.
- And in areas like News we are already offering and testing multiple ways of getting content.
The key here is to have the nerve to try things, stop things, change things and adapt to the audience behaviour. To have the courage to truly shape your organisation around the audience needs.
Now as a marketing person, this world also presents wonderful but scary professional challenges. I could go on at some length about how we are changing the way we market but let me just give you two examples:
Historically the promotional bit of marketing and communications has been seen as making people aware of content. "Something is coming up on Sunday at 9pm." This awareness-building is still critical, but take a look at this.
This is a Radio 1 link which was trialled on MSN messenger. Instead of trailing a show, you just click and listen. So, critically, marketing moves to access not awareness. These types of initiatives move marketing skills more into the heart of broadcasting than ever before.
Another example illustrates another challenge for the marketers – a creative one. Take a look at two trails for Life On Mars. A truly fantastic show and the first spot is a strong trail. By current standards, it is good work. But being contentious, it is only the second trail (for those not as old as me, it is a spoof of a Seventies children's show called Camberwick Green) that has viral potential. It has a factor that I believe will become essential, namely it is something people want to endorse and share. So, for marketers just like programme makers, I think digital raises the creative bar.
My final point of the evening relates to measurement, which will be utterly central to making audience-informed choices in a digital world. I think that Barb for TV and Rajar for Radio remain very strong for reading reach of services but I know that we are on the verge of a revolution in how we monitor performance. We will have to crack full cross-media measurement – to judge a programme purely by it's linear (rather than on-demand) performance, or for that matter not taking into account the hours spent on its website, will not work. Also we will have to get much more discerning about quality (how much someone loves a programme) because in on-demand, ok will not be enough.
We are making big strides in this area in the BBC... Take a look at this. This is a "dashboard" that allows programme makers to access information beyond ratings and move us into areas relating to quality perceptions. And it is backed up by hundreds of verbatim statements for each programme. It is run off a 15,000 person panel called Pulse which is used across the BBC.
And we intend to extend this panel and are piloting a project called Audience Value which combines this type of quality assessment with an audit of cross-media consumption. This allows us to track people's usage and appreciation and look at it in terms of total value, a measure which can work across every element of the BBC's output.
And most importantly we can watch this data move over time, giving almost real time data to programme makers on which type of people watched or listened to a programme and how much they enjoyed it. We can then use data to help build audience understanding across the organisation. It is invaluable in assessing what worked and what didn't and making informed investment choices.
As I said at the beginning, these are both uniquely demanding but deeply exciting times. Personally, I believe the BBC purposes and the value of outstanding programming and fantastic services can actually be built not diluted in a fragmenting world.
But that means that broadcasters need to welcome the collapse of the last fragments of the wall between them and audiences. Organisations will need to simultaneously nurture their own unique internal creative spirit while truly infusing their whole organisation with an almost obsessive interest in the outside world.
For the BBC, that means an interest in everyone and a passion to understand everyone's story. That sounds like a pretty exciting future. Thank you.