Speech given to Broadcast Sports Forum, Hilton Waldorf Hotel, London
29 November 2007
Check against delivery
The Times columnist Matthew Parris wrote a piece earlier this year about the way many of the essentials of life haven't really changed much in recent decades.
It's more than 100 years since you could phone a local shop and have something delivered round to your house the same day. It might even have been quicker than using a modern courier service – and it might actually have turned up, too. But generally we get up in the morning and eat the same kind of breakfasts and catch the tube to work much as we did half a century ago; and the truly big revolutions of previous decades – the discovery of electricity, mass transit in the form of the railways, the internal combustion engine, aeroplanes, radio and television themselves – were much more life-changing than what we see before us today. Parris's conclusion was that the world, even in terms of ideas and ideology as well as invention, "is pretty much stuck".
The one exception he made was Information Technology – but even here he said "IT has yet to represent much more than a huge convenience". And that is, I think an interesting perspective – a counterweight to the talk we all come up with at times about the pace of change or how it's supposedly all-consuming. But in there is also a challenge: a challenge to make the digital revolution and the potential of IT something more than just an easy way of googling a useful fact or watching more indifferent television.
You won't be surprised to know that we in the BBC do believe the digital era offers tremendous prospects for using media to change people's lives – by giving them more power, more knowledge, and unleashing ambition. It's an aspiration shared by many others working in this area; and what I want to suggest today is that sport can be a major force in that public service realm.
Now, all of us here share a love of sport – and its overwhelming attraction is sheer enjoyment. But for broadcasters, and especially for public service broadcasters,
sport isn't just about relaying pictures or yammering away on phone-ins about the deficiencies of the FA, however tempting that is. What I'm going to argue today is:
- that sport is at the very heart of a public service proposition for the future;
- that sport can be in the vanguard of the next phase of the digital revolution;
- and, forgive the inevitable BBC perspective that drives this, but the BBC has a unique role to play in our national sporting life.
I should also say what I'm not going to do. I'm not going to bang on about the BBC's heritage. We're very proud of our traditions in sport, but it matters far more what we're doing now and in the future than what we did in the past. It's time we saw an end to the last flickering comparisons with whatever the BBC sports portfolio was in the Fifties and Sixties. Life has moved on. Markets have changed globally and subscription sports channels now sit alongside traditional broadcasters, of which we remain one of the most successful in the world. So in striving to retain that position, we will be judged on the strength of our plans for the future and whether they deliver - and that is how it should be.
We start from the principle that it's not just the BBC that says sport is a key public service. The government's white paper on the BBC in 2006 said this:
"Just as entertainment will continue to be a vital part of the BBC's mission, it will also retain an important role in the sporting life of the UK by bringing the best of sport to its audiences. The BBC has a special capacity to foster national cohesion... It should therefore aim to continue providing access both to a selection of those great sporting events that are national assets serving to unite the nation – from World Cup football matches to Wimbledon – and to those smaller, minority sports which might develop a new following among audiences and potential participants."
Quite right. And when we set out our vision for the future as part of the BBC's Creative Future announcements, we identified precisely this mix of major national events – our crown jewels – along with a range of other sport delivered in fresh and innovative ways. We will therefore bring our audiences the Olympic Games of 2008 and 2012 and the World Cups in South Africa and Brazil. Alongside that, we have the Six Nations rugby, now until 2013; Wimbledon; The Open and European PGA golf alongside The Masters; the Rugby League Challenge Cup; the Grand National, The Derby, Royal Ascot; the London Marathon, World Snooker – and, of course, week in and week out: Match Of The Day, where the nation watches Premier League football.
But there's more. We announced a few weeks back a new partnership with the Football League that will bring goals from all 72 League clubs to our website as well as providing new programming around The Championship on television. We've said that between now and 2012 – as a consequence of the Olympics coming to this country – a whole range of minority sports will have their best ever chance to get into the national consciousness and we will support them as part of our journey to the London games. We're also pioneering more choice for fans of minority sports through our website and interactive television – often giving them a number of choices of events on a Saturday afternoon. Instead of the old fixed menu, we now try to offer the sport you want when you want it.
The project we're working on has the title at the moment of MySportNow. It's one of the BBC's biggest investments in the next five or six years, and it spans everything I've just talked about. More content from the major events, and more choice overall. We have the great advantage of having all rights to the World Cups and the Olympics, so we'll deliver them on broadband and mobile as well as on radio and TV. There'll be as much as we can offer on demand, alongside the big live moments direct and in high definition. If you're planning the landmarks for the BBC's digital future, then clearly the Euros – yes, even without England – and the Olympics are the skyscrapers of 2008; with more in 2010 and 2012 and 2014.
MySportNow will be linked firmly to two of the other big ideas coming from the BBC's Journalism Group: MyNewsNow and MyLocalNow. So there'll be the news you need alongside information about your local area, with the ability to pick up everything you want from sport too – whether it's the local side or your favourite sport or team. Integrated, personalised, unique.
All those services will make the most of what we believe is a massive strength of the BBC – what we call, and forgive the jargon, our 3x3 offering. We're on TV, we're on radio and we're online. We're local, we're national and we're global. That means, if we get it right, we can offer one seamless operation across all our platforms, all the time. BBC Sport should aim, quite simply, to be a centre of excellence for all this output.
Now, a lot of what I've been talking about is underpinned by rights. We have a lot, and we don't have many others. But the beauty of MySportNow is that it maximises what we do have – and it also potentially overcomes the gaps. Take, for instance, the Ashes last winter in Australia.
We used live radio commentary and television highlights to create something that was a 24x7 cricket experience from the BBC. From texts to your mobile phone in the morning to the debate on our 606 message boards, we were there; and people came to us in massive numbers. Many more – a total of 13.4 million – watched our TV highlights than saw the live coverage; and our website had 1.2m requests for the online on-demand cricket. It's worth saying too that in the Cricket World Cup, where we didn't have online highlights, demand remained very high. Text commentary and scorecards really suit the needs of a lot of people.
And that points to one of the big changes in BBC Sport. Twenty years ago if we lost the TV rights for a particular event, we were left with nothing. Now we use all our platforms to maximise the events we do have – and we carry on regardless when we don't have the primary rights. Take the Rugby World Cup. Again, we have a solid foundation in Radio 5 Live. But our commitment took in John Inverdale's postcards on Inside Sport, regular updates in our sports bulletins on News 24, News 24 as a channel presenting from Paris on the key days – and a fantastically successful online presence, represented at its best by the Rugby World Cup blog.
As one of its centrepieces, Tom Fordyce and Ben Dirs travelled round France for us in a camper-van and wrote a blog that was never less than entertaining, ladsy, spirited. As Tom put it in their last entry: "Like an unwashed version of Paul and Linda McCartney, we've spent every single night there has been in each other's company, albeit with a minimum six-inch gap between us on all occasions… Yet not once has [Ben] complained about being stuck with a man who eats dry cereal directly from his hand, wears running vests as a fashion statement and ruins every song that comes on the stereo by bellowing along to it like a wildebeest in a mine-shaft..."
Have a look at some of the feedback to see how much this was appreciated. Someone called Mog, for instance, wrote: "I have to say after the first few days I thought your blogs were a huge waste of time and money, but over the past six weeks they've become part of my RWC daily life – a way of absorbing some of that fabulous atmosphere whilst being perched over a PC on an industrial estate…" And there are countless more like that – which confirm that we put a BBC stamp on the event, even though the live televised mass audiences were elsewhere.
They also show a different tone in our coverage. Not so much top-down but a dialogue with our audiences: encouraging debate and challenge, not being afraid of criticism and talking in the language of the early 21st century rather than 'sport-speak' of the last century. So we will continue to nurture this kind of content; and, as our sports editors' blog shows, we're aiming to be more open and more accountable too. All the senior folk who've written on the blog bear the scars... But it's as right as it's unavoidable that this is an age in which people believe they have a right to be heard.
The next big plank in what we're doing is Sports Journalism. It's a term that's sometimes misunderstood because some of sport – much of sport – is about pure entertainment. We don't want every football commentary to turn into an analysis of the profit and loss account at Chelsea FC. But what the BBC is about is range: a range that has at one end of it the exhiliration of broadcasting a live event, and at the other end has Panorama looking into the IOC or FIFA or Horseracing or whatever. In the middle there's everything else: asking proper questions in interviews, seeking accountability in sports stars for their performances, delivering the best and fastest results services, providing sports news whenever people want it – and improving what we do on shows like Football Focus, 5 Live Sport and the rest.
You can see the potential, and the importance of sport, when I tell you that the peak of the whole week on the BBC's mobile services is between 4.30pm and 5pm on a Saturday afternoon as the football results are coming in. The BBC offering also extends from commentary and scores on the smallest of our local radio stations to Final Score now being broadcast live around the globe on our biggest channel – BBC World, which is watched by 76 million people each week. To emphasise how BBC Sport is now so much more than what's on television on Saturday afternoon – just consider the figures for our website when we had two major managerial departures. A record 3.7m different users in one day when Jose Mourinho left Chelsea, and then almost immediately surpassed by the 3.9m who came to us when Steve McClaren was sacked by the FA.
I had absolutely no doubt when I came to BBC Sport that there was already excellence in many of these fields; but we all agreed it could be more joined-up, more ambitious – and delivering greater impact. So that's why in recent months we've brought together our news operation in a trimedia hub: television, radio and online working much more closely together. There's still tremendous potential to be unlocked, but you see the way now that we maximise interviews across our output. In the old days, Fabio Capello would have given an interview to Football Focus and that Saturday lunchtime transmission would have been it. Now it becomes breaking news on the Friday website and 5 Live; it's in a piece on the Ten O'Clock News; and it's still available online. Quite simply, more bang for our buck.
We then have Mihir Bose as the BBC's first sports editor – with his coup in getting the costs of the Olympic project spot-on for the Ten O'Clock News and the Today programme – and another innovation this year: Inside Sport. We've had a pretty stellar cast list, and the show is unique on British television. It points to what is at the heart of the BBC Sport offering: we're independent, we're willing to ask the tough questions – and, although we greatly value our relationships with rightsholders, our loyalty is also to sport and its audiences. This is just another reason why we have the utmost confidence in our future.
Now, so far what I've talked about is certainly about convenience – and about bringing the pleasure of sport to millions of people. But I believe we'll have let ourselves down if we don't go beyond convenience to achieve real change. There are two big I-words to mention: inspiration and involvement.
We'll hear more about the Olympics this afternoon and that will be, without doubt, our biggest ever commitment. But in everything we're doing in BBC Sport we want to increase participation, and to encourage action. That's what our Sport Academy site does, and you saw it featured in the cricket video. It's what our pioneering community football programme Your Game does – taking young people from the margins of society and giving them new openings through football. It saw some of them this year going to a Downing Street reception with the Prime Minister and then flying out to Namibia as Your Game began to go global. It's at the root of Sport Relief, where we're supporting the world's biggest ever mile run; and by bringing new sports, especially Olympic sports, to wider audiences we want to encourage them to take part as well as watch.
I spoke a few years ago about some of the disappointments of the digital age – that more hadn't necessarily meant better. Quantity can overtake quality unless you're vigilant, and in Sport there's an understandable gratification in getting 10 million viewers or more for a big event. Equally, we take pleasure in the number of interactive streams we can deliver or the sheer volume of hits on our website. But there is a legacy challenge from all our sport portfolio too: we need to enrich people's lives not just for a few moments but, where we can, in a way that lasts.
Consider this. We are the only genre in the BBC that can promise the channels an audience of 20 million – at least – for the opening ceremony of the London games. We can deliver similar figures if, and I accept it's a big 'if', if England qualify again for major football tournaments. We're confident that MySportNow along with MyNewsNow and MyLocalNow will add an incredibly exciting new dimension to what we do. We believe that only the BBC can meld this sport action with the highest-quality independent journalism and debate. If with that wonderful array of opportunities all we do is make people say "well, yes, it was a bit more convenient than sport in the past" – then we'll have failed.
So in conclusion ... I don't want to over-claim for sport, but let's not underestimate its power either. It can break barriers like nothing else, it can provide a common language, it can be an agent for transformation – as all the plans for London 2012 seek to achieve. We're rather good in Britain at contemplating what happens if it all goes wrong; but it's an incredible chance for this country if most of it goes right. As broadcasters, I believe it's simply our duty to seize the opportunities and to harness digital Britain to deliver them. Quite a challenge, but one we're ready to take on.