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Mark Thompson

Speeches

Mark Thompson

Director-General


Speech given at the British Phonographic Institute


Thursday 14 July 2005
Printable version

One of the many things I struggle with at the BBC is finding exactly the right words to reply to the sometimes rather difficult letters I receive from the public.

 

Some of my colleagues are far more adept. My friend John Ware, who is a reporter on the BBC programme Panorama, once got a letter from a viewer after he'd made an investigative film in Northern Ireland.

 

'Dear Mr Ware', the letter read - I won't attempt the accent - 'I would rather eat dog shit than watch another one of your programmes.' John's reply consisted of the two words: 'bon appetit'.

 

Now, I could never claim that kind of wit. My present job, however, does lead to some surprising correspondence.

 

One angry licence-payer wrote recently to complain about a storyline in that weighty drama, Bob the Builder, in which our small clay hero set about building an entire new town all by himself.

 

To imply, the letter said, that Bob 'is able to not only carry out building work but that he is capable of producing architectural, structural and services drawings for buildings and urban development plans, when he does not have any training skills or qualifications in this profession, is a flagrant distortion of reality and should not be perpetuated'.

 

Children's programmes, of course, are a notorious death-trap. A few years ago, when I was Controller of BBC TWO, I was lucky enough to commission that other enduring masterpiece, Teletubbies.

 

It went on to be a big success for the BBC both here and around the world, but when it was a launched there was a press campaign which ran for weeks accusing the BBC of using the Teletubbies to dumb down the whole English language.

 

Now, as you know, we are always looking for new and inventive ways of lowering standards, but it takes a pretty sick organisation to dumb down a programme that was only aimed at two-year-olds in the first place.

 

Presenters are another obvious target. 'Why don't you invite Jeremy Paxman into your office,' someone else wrote to me during the election campaign, 'take down his flashy striped pants … and administer six of the best?'

 

Here's another rather menacing correspondent: 'Sooner or later you will have to release pictures of the Five Live newsreaders'.

 

The public, I fear, may not yet be ready…

 

Music and the example of BBC News

 

The point about all these letters and protests - a few slightly potty, the overwhelming majority courteous, reasonable and quite often obviously right - is that they spring from a very strong sense of ownership of the BBC among the public.

 

They pay for it and its only purpose is to serve them.

 

This special relationship is the point of having a BBC, but it brings with it a number of aspirations and obligations.

 

This afternoon I thought I'd offer a few thoughts about one set of them: the BBC's commitment to music and music-making and to the music industry.

 

Nearly twenty years ago, one of my predecessors, John Birt, concluded that news and current affairs was the cornerstone of the BBC: the core of its mission both to the British public and to audiences around the world.

 

It's hard to remember it now, but before the mid-Eighties, news had seemed like one genre among many.

 

Investment was variable and so was future strategy. Radio and TV news occupied different, faintly antagonistic universes.

 

John saw that the BBC news offer could be bigger than any one programme or even than any one medium: we needed a news strategy that encompassed radio and TV.

 

Specialism - expert knowledge - could be a key benefit to the public and a key point of distinction - so the BBC invested heavily in specialist correspondents of every kind.

 

And new technology gave us the potential of putting news into the hands of our audiences when and where they wanted it. So the BBC threw resources into continuous news services, its news website and began experiments in the Nineties both in personalised and mobile news services.

 

Where has all this left us? Well, taken together - and the public increasingly do take our news output together across media - our news service packs a bigger punch than it has ever done.

 

Last Thursday, the day of the terrible London bombings, more than 31 million people watched BBC news on television. We had our biggest-ever day on the news website - nearly 116 million page impressions, more than twice as many as the previous record, with up to an estimated 8 million unique users in the UK and many, many millions more around the world.

 

We don't have numbers yet for radio - I thought that Five Live, Radio 4 and London 94.9FM all did a brilliant job in very challenging circumstances on the day - but it's likely that the combined UK reach to BBC News last Thursday will top 40 million people.

 

And Thursday confirmed another change in our relationship with the news audience. Traditionally, BBC News was par excellence a top-down one-way service: London calling, the voice of authority.

 

The idea that the public might have an important role in newsgathering, or that largely unmediated public testimony might form an important part of the way in which a story was told, would have been regarded with disbelief.

 

Accuracy and authority still really matter to us today - we're still in the process of strengthening our journalism and reinforcing our standards in the wake of the Gilligan-Kelly-Hutton affair - but we also really want to hear what the public have to say.

 

By lunchtime last Thursday, texts, still pictures and videos were pouring into the BBC just as they had during the tsunami disaster at the start of the year.

 

People's voices, images, comments and emotions became an important part of the way the day was covered, not just on the margins of the website but on the Ten O'Clock News.

 

The professionals within BBC News have important things to offer which are not shared by most members of our audience: expertise, knowledge, experience, editorial judgement.

 

But we don't own the news. Increasingly, news is a partnership, a dialogue between the public and ourselves.

 

So news is a big idea about the BBC. And it's an evolving idea, an idea which shows of every sign of successfully migrating from the age of limited choice, linear broadcasting to the multi-platform, non-linear environment we have entered.

 

And from the age of one-way broadcasting to a more fluid, two-way relationship with the BBC audience.

 

Now what's interesting is that almost all of this is relevant when we turn from the question of the BBC and news to that of the BBC and music.

 

Because to me, music is another of the essential building-blocks of the BBC: in its own way just as important, just as central as news.

 

Here, too, we have a strong heritage and a formidable current commitment - five music radio networks, extensive music on television and our other radio services, an increasingly rich presence on the web.

 

Many of the same editorial instincts and strategies are at work: expertise and the role of the trusted navigator through new work and old, whether it's Rob Cowan or Zane Lowe; the placing of music in context, whether it's The Genius of Mozart on BBC TWO or the commitment to World Music across Radios 2 and 3 and BBC FOUR.

 

And, just as in our news and current affairs output, the use of strong personalities: stars with something to say, to complement the music and help bring it into a bigger conversation with the broadcast audience.

 

One of the things that distinguishes BBC network and local radio from its commercial competitors is the way we build our music around the taste and instincts of a widely diverse range of presenters.

 

Radio 2 is Terry Wogan, Jonathan Ross and Johnnie Walker, as well as Stuart Maconie and Mike Harding.

 

For us, music is never just a play-list. The same is true on TV, from Jools Holland to Charles Hazlewood.

 

In addition to our on-air commitment to music in all media, we have a massive impact on what you could call music's supply-side.

 

This ranges from our role in supporting our five orchestras and the BBC singers; our many commissions; our commitment to live performance; our on-air support for new bands and new performing talent; our support of specialist music events; and so on.

 

In all of this, we work with and rely upon many brilliant partners. The UK's composers and musicians; music publishers and performance organisers; the talent unions and the collective rights groups; the concert-going public themselves who make possible events from the Proms - which begin tomorrow - to the smallest live gig on Radio 1; and of course to the record industry.

 

We believe in music and music-making. We love helping to find and promote new talent and to bring it to wide audiences.

 

I know we have our differences from time to time, but I also believe that we are natural allies. One of the ways the BBC needs to change is in its openness and consistency in working with its partners.

 

The future of music on the BBC

 

But I want to concentrate today on the future of music at the BBC.

 

I'll certainly try to touch on some of the opportunities that I see, but I'll also focus on some of challenges we all face - in particular in the protection of intellectual property.

 

I'll even touch on the interesting topic of those Beethoven downloads…

 

I've made the first point already. To me, music is part of the soul of the BBC. As I've said, we do a vast amount - but up until now we've never really pulled it together. Yes, in recent years BBC Radio has had a much clearer sense of the musical mission of each of its networks, but the connection with BBC TV has sometimes been tenuous.

 

How does Top of the Pops relate to Radio 1's music strategy, for example? And how do our online and interactive services fit in?

 

Again, where is the right place to draw the boundary between what you could call the public service zone - the content the public get free at the point of use in return for their investment in the BBC licence-fee - and what is quite properly regarded as the commercial zone, an area where the creators of intellectual property and the companies which develop it and exploit it can quite rightly expect to sell it to consumers?

 

In the analogue era, this boundary was pretty clear.

Later… with Jools Holland on BBC TWO was obviously public service. The CDs produced by the bands which featured on Later were obviously commercial.

 

Record companies supported - indeed continue to support - programmes like Later because they helped to promote the artists and the records.

 

But to state the obvious, in a fully digital world, life is a bit more complicated. Although audiences have been able to tape radio programmes for half a century, and TV for over twenty years, now the recording is potentially almost instantaneous, ultra-convenient and at very high quality.

 

In principle, that 'promotional appearance' might be all the consumer feels they need.

 

In the face of questions like these, I asked Jenny Abramsky and Leslie Douglas to work with creative leaders in all the BBC's music departments - and with our external partners - to draw up for the first time a music strategy for the whole BBC, one which looks not just at today but at where we should be with music five, ten years from now.

 

They're still hard at work, but I think I can risk sharing a few emerging themes with you today.

 

First, there's a growing clarity about what the core of the BBC's proposition for music and music-making should be. The key words are: new, live, British, heritage, breadth and depth.

 

Not everything we do will meet all of those challenges of course, but you should nonetheless get the picture.

 

Wherever we can, we want to add something, to introduce something, to focus on fresh performance, to concentrate in particular on emerging and established UK talent. To offer a greater musical range than any other media provider can.

 

Wherever possible, to add context, history, to relate music to people's lives, culture, memory.

 

The next theme is portability and convenience. Just as in the case of news, the public quite reasonably except to be able to access the music that fits a given mood whenever and wherever the mood strikes.

 

We used to rely entirely on scheduling to do this job. Traditional linear broadcasting will still be a vital delivery-system for many music-lovers, and digital radio means we can offer more choice than ever before.

 

But we want to go further. We're exploring the concept of My BBC Radio, using broadband to enable listeners to pull together their own series of programmes - effectively their own radio station - out of the totality of the BBC's audio output: an early music station for one listener, a contemporary jazz station for another.

 

Diversity of audience and the BBC's need to try to serve all of its licence-payers is another theme. But we don't want to typecast our viewers and listeners either.

 

1Xtra is a black music station but it's not a station aimed solely at black listeners. We live in a world of maximal eclecticism: people want the freedom to try on whatever clothes or cultures they choose.

 

But tone of voice is important. We don't want to dilute or dumb down our musical offering in the interests of what used to be called 'accessibility', but we also know that the wrong tone of voice can exclude.

 

We want to be welcoming and approachable to everyone. And we want to use the new technologies to find and share new talent.

 

We've already got a place on our website where unsigned bands can post tracks for others to sample - that's only the start.

 

The role of music in non-music programmes is another critical theme. We play an average of 180,000 separate pieces of music every week at the BBC - much of it in dramas, comedies, factual programmes and so on.

 

Now, of course individual producers and directors need the creative flexibility to commission or choose the music they believe will work best for their project; but again, we believe there's the scope for more purposefulness and coherence in how we think about music more widely across our output - and also scope for some interesting partnerships with some of you.

 

Partnerships will also be key in another strand of thinking, which is about unlocking the BBC's musical archive. We have a treasure-house of unique recordings stretching back over many decades.

 

We want to work with rights-holders to make some of these recordings available to the public once again: as some of you may know, we've recently signed a deal with Universal to do just that. We hope that is not the only partnership we form in this area.

 

Another very important theme is the potential for major cross-platform musical events to become more than the sum of their parts, and in particular to bring new audiences to an artist or a musical genre for the first time.

 

In a way, this is very old news. As I said, tomorrow sees the start of the Proms, with a first night playing for the first time on BBC ONE, as well as BBC TWO and Radio 3, and with many, many nights featuring on BBC FOUR as well as on the radio and online.

 

In recent weeks, we've seen both Glastonbury and Live 8 playing across media and reaching enormous numbers, introducing and re-introducing great talent to new and established audiences.

 

You'll be pleased to hear that I'm no longer the only sad person on the 7.46 from Oxford listening to The Great Gig in the Sky.

 

Roll over, Ludwig

 

But I want to spend a moment on another recent BBC musical event - the Beethoven Experience - which played out on Radio 3, BBC TWO, BBC FOUR and of course interactively.

 

This project illustrates a number of the points I've been trying to make this afternoon.

 

First, how much more the BBC can achieve when it works across channels and platforms. The Beethoven Experience began as a twinkle in the eye of Roger Wright, the Radio 3 controller, but it quickly connected with the creative strategy of Peter Maniura, our head of television classical music, and with a range of new media and interactive ideas we'd be playing with for some time.

 

Second, it demonstrates how the really big ideas punch through. One of the counter-intuitive realities of the digital world is that - from D-Day celebrations to the Olympics to the revival of Dr Who - the big things, the major events, are getting bigger, certainly in impact and often in absolute audience size.

 

Beethoven was our own event. It wasn't based on an anniversary or some external festival. It was a purely BBC event. But it played out big.

 

And third, Beethoven points both to the potential and to the possible dangers of world of digital music - and I'm thinking specifically of the downloads we made available of special BBC programmes featuring the nine Beethoven symphonies.

 

I'll turn to them in a moment, but first - rather than listening to me trying to describe it, here's a flavour of the event itself.

 

[RUN BEETHOVEN DVD.]

 

OK, let's look at the issue of the downloads. The downloads, by the way, were not just recordings of the music but programmes with editorial scene-setting and context as well as the works themselves.

 

As you heard, demand was much greater than we'd estimated. The guess in advance was that the numbers of downloads would run to the low tens of thousands. The outturn, as we learned a minute ago, over a million.

 

"What do you expect?" Alain Levy of EMI said to me the other day. "You always get a big take-up when you offer things for free."

 

That's a fair point, though certainly in the UK these downloads weren't free for the public: the programmes were paid for by the licence-payer and were made for broadcast as well as download; the symphonies were played by an orchestra which is also paid for by the licence-payer; and, to state the obvious, the underlying rights are in the public domain.

 

But of course, none of that captures why the downloads have caused anxiety for some in the record business. I think that boils down to two questions: is this the start of some new regular service from the BBC, in which, without warning and consultation, the public will be offered chunks of music free at the point of download - which will inevitably distort the commercial market in music, whether it is the sale of CDs or the emerging market in paid-for downloads?

 

And second, are there any limits to what the BBC might download? Could we wake up one morning to discover that half the BBC's musical archive is available on the net?

 

The answer to these two questions is: no and no. I understand where the anxiety is coming from: the music industry is already under assault from piracy of various kinds - we face that issue too, by the way - and the last thing it needs is the BBC unintentionally opening up some kind of second front.

 

But that is not what we're going to do. The Beethoven downloads were a one-off trial and were strictly limited, both in terms of content and windowing.

 

Roger Wright talked to a number of people in different parts of the industry before the trial: attitudes varied but almost everyone said that they thought the idea was acceptable, indeed potentially both useful and interesting as long as it really was a trial.

 

And it is. We won't contemplate another experiment like it without a great deal more research, consultation and a systematic attempt to understand the likely market impact.

 

We also, of course, need to think hard about the proportion of download requests coming from outside the UK.

 

Later this year, Roger will be offering Radio 3 listeners the Bach Experience, again - and in the case of Bach this is an awesome thought - a chance for Radio 3 listeners to hear every note the composer wrote.

 

But now we've seen what happened with Beethoven, we want to analyse and reflect with all of you before we propose any further trials of free downloads.

 

I hope we can all learn from the Beethoven experience and I see a role for the BBC in exploring new technological possibilities and audiences' response to them on behalf of all of us.

 

But I don't want to jump to the conclusion that music downloads from the BBC automatically mean fewer CDs or opportunities for commercial downloads.

 

We don't yet have proper information yet about what impact the Beethoven Experience had on sales of Beethoven and other classical music.

 

It is by no means obvious that the story will only be one way: even the downloads themselves may have stimulated interest in Beethoven among new listeners that will lead to new sales.

 

For decades, record companies have looked to the BBC to help promote music by offering it to audiences free at the point of use on radio and television.

 

Of course, the internet and the possibility of near-perfect digital reproduction changes the terms of the debate, but it would be premature to conclude that our role in allowing listeners to sample and explore music in ways which then lead them to invest in it as consumers has no relevance in the digital space.

 

But I want to make an additional point. Both in terms of our archive and current music, we need to work more closely with all of you to enable our licence-payers, if they choose to, to become paying consumers of music more conveniently and effortlessly than has been possible in the past.

 

Traditionally, the public service broadcast channel and the music retail channel were conceptually and physically entirely separate - in a web or broadband environment they can be contiguous or even continuous.

 

Our licence-payers obviously need clarity at every point about what is going on: this is a free-to-use public service space, this is an opportunity to pay for a download of the music you just heard.

 

We also need to ensure absolute fairness in allowing the public to choose from a range of commercial providers.

 

But I believe that a BBC which does not make it easier and more convenient for our audiences to move from public service listening mode to commercially consuming mode will risk losing contact with its public in the field of music.

 

I also believe that the BBC and the music industry could do more together to progress the fight to protect rights.

 

The nature of music - the relative ease with which CDs can be copied and pirated and the relative low bit-rates needed to pass it around illegally on the internet - mean that your industry has faced this threat earlier than most of the broadcast industry.

 

But that's changing. The first episode of the new Dr Who series was available on the unauthorised site Bit Torrent three weeks before its premiere on BBC ONE.

 

And, although of course our main model in the UK is free-to-air unencrypted broadcast, the BBC has a duty to exploit the residual commercial value of the rights we invest in on behalf of the public: we do that both here and around the world.

 

So we have an intense interest in effective digital rights management systems; in technical, legal and regulatory means to protect the property of rights-holders; and in increasing public awareness of the moral and economic consequences of the theft of intellectual property.

 

On this last point, I believe the BBC could do considerably more than it does at present.

 

Conclusion

 

A year ago, the BBC published its own vision of its future, Building Public Value.

 

It too contained bold ideas about the future of music at the BBC: the opportunity to bring music learning opportunities to every school, every child and every adult in the UK with the Music For All project; the idea of an Alternative Proms featuring great contemporary music to complement our great classical music festival.

 

But Building Public Value sets out a much broader picture of change for the BBC. So too does the Government's Green Paper, published this March.

 

A new and clearer system of governance. New safeguards to ensure that the BBC does not embark on new services without very careful and objective assessment of the likely net market impact of the proposed services.

 

A BBC which is more open to partnership and collaboration, more flexible in response to changes in audience, technology and competition.

 

It's traditional for people to tell the BBC: "Of course this will be the last one - this will be the last Charter or the last gasp for the licence-fee".

 

We were told that in the Eighties and the 1990s and it's being said again today: "You'll get a Charter this time but there's no chance that Government or the public will want a traditional publicly-funded TV and radio broadcaster in 2017".

 

Well, I hope it's clear from everything I've said this afternoon that we have no intention of remaining a traditional broadcaster.

 

Already, some of our digital services are more popular than some analogue ones. We've already started to develop a new relationship with our audience - to use the web and other technologies to listen to them better and to start to tap into and share their ideas and their talent.

 

We're changing as an organisation too, focussing all of our energy on creativity, value and on the agility we will need to succeed in the digital environment.

 

The BBC has cast off its old skin and re-invented itself repeatedly over the past 80 years.

 

We're in the process of doing that again.

 

But we know that we succeed at the BBC when we focus not just on cutting edge change, but on some rather traditional values: creative ambition, excellence, respect for our audiences, a determination not to compete with the market for its own sake but to add something, to bring something fresh and valuable to bear.

 

If we concentrate on these qualities, music really will have a great future at the BBC.

 

Thank you.



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