Sunday 29 August 2004 Printable version
When Greg Dyke became Director-General of the BBC and I became Director
of Television, we made the perfect pair.
Suave, sophisticated and with more new strategies than you could shake
a stick at. No wonder they called us Del Boy and Rodney.
Well, as the whole world knows, Del Boy's gone now. He headed off in
the Reliant Robin to start a new career in literature.
I say 'literature' but given it's Greg of course, there had to be a
TV tie-in. In fact Greg's been lucky enough to land the perfect promotional
tool: a high budget, high profile, prime time Channel 4 documentary.
Guess which genius he persuaded to commission that one…
And as for me: well, in my first days in the Trotter emporium I have
to say I've looked high and low and I still can't find any sign of that
famous Jacuzzi. Perhaps it never existed. Then again, perhaps somebody
just pulled out the plug as he headed for the exit.
Either way, this business of turning up just as the big money runs
out is beginning to feel like a bit of a habit.
Still there is one piece of good news. In this version of Only Fools
and Horses, Uncle Albert has come back from the dead - in the deeply
reassuring form of Michael Grade. So at least I've got company.
A bulging in-tray
In fact the legacy Greg's handed me at the BBC is in many ways a brilliant
one. We're in good financial shape and on track.
The services themselves are in strong, and in some cases dazzling form.
Despite the knocks of this year, I've been struck by just how engaged
and up-for-it the BBC people I meet are.
I've also inherited Greg's two breakthroughs in digital television:
Freeview, which could only have succeeded with the BBC's leadership
and support, and the decision to unencrypt on digital satellite.
I'm sure unencryption was the right decision. Free-to-air public service
broadcasters don't need encryption - indeed scrambling your signal runs
counter to the whole idea of free-to-air public service.
I hope that over time the UK's other PSBs will follow our lead. That
way the idea of a real Freesat, available without a subscription to
all those households who cannot receive Freeview, could become a reality.
In fact we believe the UK could be on the brink of a revolution in
satellite receivers, with free-to-air receivers available to the public
for £80 or less, some of them in the form of self-install kits.
These units are already widely available in continental Europe and,
not surprisingly, are selling fast.
We're talking to Sky, who we're keen to collaborate with, to the other
PSBs and to the equipment manufacturers to reach a simple and clear
standard for free satellite - just as we did with the Freeview standard
in the DTT market - so that we can improve consumer understanding and
choice and collectively drive towards digital switchover as quickly
and effectively as possible.
But, although Greg and his team really did find answers to some of
the trickiest questions facing the BBC, sadly I can't quite put my feet
Charter Renewal is the right time for the outside world to put the
BBC under the microscope.
It's also the right time for the BBC itself to take a searching look
at every aspect of what it does.
So we've got teams looking right now at pretty much everything. The
way we commission and make programmes and content. The way we commercially
exploit them. Where we base ourselves across the UK. Our costs. Our
size and our shape.
Every couple of decades or so since its creation, the BBC has virtually
re-invented itself as an institution: after the Second World War, in
the 1960s, again in the late Eighties and early Nineties.
Each time the change has been driven by changes outside the BBC: new
technology, whether it was the coming of television or the coming of
multichannel; competition; social change; new currents in politics and
economics, about the public sector and about markets.
Each time, the BBC - apparently such a fixed and established part of
British national life - has shown an astonishing ability to take a clean
sheet of paper and re-imagine itself.
We're approaching one of these moments again. And this time the pace
of external change is faster than ever - and still accelerating.
But these reviews and the whole institutional form and personality
of the BBC are not the most important thing.
Efficiency, structure, regional policy, supply strategy: these are
all vital if we're to achieve - and afford - the ambitious vision we've
set out in Building Public Value, but in the end they're really also
second-order issues. They're a means, not an end.
Again, it's easy to define the role of a modern Director-General as
essentially a technocratic one. Redesigning the machine and ensuring
it runs smoothly. Addressing the politics of broadcasting and the conundrums
of digital switchover. Easing the path to Charter renewal.
All those things have to be done, but that's not my view of what the
job is really about.
For me the most important question facing the BBC right now is not
a managerial one but a creative one: how do we take Building Public
Value and turn it into reality on our TV channels and radio stations
and web pages?
In other words, how do we take this vision of the BBC as a catalyst
of democracy, education, our collective cultural life, social cohesion
and the rest of it, and make it something which - yes, the regulators
and the civil servants can try to measure with their shiny new micrometers
- but which, more importantly than that, delivers tangible value to
the public, who may not show much interest in the finer details of broadcasting
accountability or economics, but who - and this is supported by Ofcom's
recent survey - have a very clear idea about what public service means
to them, and about whether the BBC's living up to it or not.
I'd certainly pay more attention to our audiences than to those who
believe that every aspect of public service broadcasting can be anatomised
and codified: as Nietzsche said, in a remark which Bernard Williams
was fond of, "the only things that are definable are those that have
And the kind of public service which the BBC and the other PSBs represent
is now deeply embedded in our collective cultural history.
So for me, the most important part of being Director-General is not
about efficiency or structures. Nor is it about debating the finer points
of public service ideology.
It's about editorial leadership: listening to our audiences, and to
the thousands of brilliant people both inside and outside the Corporation
who give the BBC its creative energy, and working with them to set a
clear editorial direction for the next chapter in the BBC's development.
This is the point of all that managerial activity. And once we've set
that direction and figured out how to deliver it, we have to make the
case for it: to our Governors, to the industry, to the Government, to
But what should that direction be? This is what I thought I'd spend
a few minutes talking about this morning.
What the BBC stands for
If you had to use one word - just one word - to describe the BBC's
editorial mission, what would it be? There have been so many words in
recent years: accessibility, innovation, modernisation, audience focus
- it's a long and ever-growing list.
They're all good words and they should all be part of the story.
But if I had to choose one word to describe what the BBC stands for
editorially I'd choose a rather more angular, old-fashioned word. I'd
choose the word excellence.
By excellence, I don't just mean quality. Every broadcaster goes for
quality: it's good for business. I mean something which goes beyond
fit-for-purpose, at-a-price quality.
I mean a commercially unnecessary, almost gratuitous mixture of talent
and expertise and obsession. The resources to get it right.
And time: the time to let things develop, to really think them through,
the time and consistency to develop a tradition.
And I mean something tangible, so much so that you can almost touch
it or taste it, in a drama like State of Play or The Long Firm, in the
depth and richness of our online news site, in the BBC Proms.
Or in the people we work with: Alistair Cooke, whose voice held us
so long and whom we miss so much. Simon Schama. Ricky Gervais.
Now I'm not saying that other broadcasters don't achieve excellence:
they do, and often, and that's something to celebrate.
Nor am I claiming that the BBC always attains it: of course it doesn't.
But I do believe that excellence is above all what audiences expect
the BBC to strive for. And that, because of the licence fee and because
the BBC doesn't face the same commercial pressures as our competitors,
they expect us to strive for it with more conviction and consistency
than anyone else.
Commercially-funded public service broadcasting inevitably involves
You may decry Big Brother 5. What terrible dumbing down. How seedy.
But in a straightforward, profit-and-loss way which you can measure
to the nearest pound coin, Big Brother helps pay for Channel 4 News
It's hard to see how you have the second - certainly at current levels
of investment - without the first.
Again, risk-taking, which is vital to Channel 4 and which I talked
about two years ago here in Edinburgh, has to take place mainly within
the realities of the audiences and brand values which the commercial
PSB's funding models points to.
That's why it's usually more likely to be Wifeswap, Shameless or Millionaire
rather than The Ascent of Man.
But the public rightly expect something extra from the BBC. There's
a limit to how many chances ITV can take with new comedies in peak-time.
BBC ONE is far less constrained.
Commercial broadcasters sometimes feel they have to flood the schedule
with a particular format or genre to exploit it commercially while they
can. The BBC doesn't have to do that.
On a commercial channel, economic considerations may dictate keeping
a programme on the air years after the creative life has left it. Again
the BBC isn't forced to do that.
It can move on, give something else a chance. Over the past decade,
the BBC has increasingly focused on new editorial goals, especially
in relation to its audience.
Sometime in the early Nineties, strategists inside the Corporation
began to use the word 'under-served' and suddenly, all over the BBC,
commissioners and producers found themselves staring with ashen faces
at bar charts showing how this or that audience was using a given BBC
service less than the average: the young, the less well-off, members
of ethnic minorities, the North and so on.
Set against these were the 'super-served', made famous in a speech
by Gavyn Davies a couple of years ago.
Now there is a very important and positive idea behind all this.
The BBC is paid for by everyone and should offer value to everyone,
the young as well as the old.
It has a particular responsibility to reach poorer audiences who may
not be able to afford other audio-visual products.
It has a special responsibility, too, to draw on the talent and reflect
the experience of all of Britain's many minorities.
Though there's plenty more to do, genuine strides have been made especially
in the involvement and employment of ethnic minorities: think of how
much the casting of mainstream dramas like EastEnders and Holby City
has changed in the past few years.
So the instinct to modernise the BBC's programme offer and to open
it up to new talent and new audiences is the right one.
It offers our in-house and indie programme-makers the insight and the
inspiration to direct their ideas and talent and what I've called excellence,
not towards a theoretical audience or an abstract ideal, but towards
the real viewers and listeners of modern Britain.
But amid all the bar charts and statistics, there is also the potential
for enormous confusion.
What matters more: the shape of the agenda or the shape of the audience?
Is it right to keep that programme of weighty policy analysis just as
it is? Or should you add a hip-hop soundtrack and reduce the average
age of the participants from 57 to 17?
Now of course you have to have proper regard for who's watching and
listening, but the danger when you get into this territory is that you
get trapped in a series of compromises which end up pleasing nobody.
And I don't think any of our audiences want us to compromise.
What they look to us for, whether it's Dunkirk or Little Britain, is
the opposite of compromise.
They want to be listened to, but not in the sense of our hanging onto
every sentence from every last focus group.
And no one is quicker at spotting a lack of conviction than those famous
'under-served' audiences, especially the young and ethnic minorities.
They're amongst the most sophisticated media users in the country and
they can see through that stuff instantly.
So the first creative message I draw from Building Public Value is
a very simple one.
For the BBC, striving for excellence matters more than anything else.
There's plenty of it already on the airwaves, but over the next decade,
if we want to stand out and succeed, we have to raise our sights and
raise our game.
Now some people's reaction might be: ah, so you're saying that the
BBC should give up popular programmes and stick to up-market ones. But
that's not it.
Whatever the old school cares to believe, excellence at the BBC has
never been elitist or restricted to a charmed circle of 'proper' PSB
genres or to a handful of 'proper' channels - Radio 3, say, or the original
It's Glastonbury on Radio 1 and BBC THREE. It's Jonathan Ross and
Jeremy Clarkson. It's Strictly Come Dancing.
OK, you say, let's go on to the next step of the argument. You're claiming
that the idea of excellence can apply to all sorts of genres. Isn't
that just another way of saying that BBC programmes should be good,
Well, I want to put the idea of excellence together with a second idea
in Building Public Value which is about priorities.
From days of yore the BBC has always liked to give the impression it
can do everything, all the time, brilliantly.
Hard to know really why Britain even bothered to have any other broadcasters:
the BBC was the ultimate one-stop shop.
Now I believe that the thinking behind Building Public Value changes
that. It says there should be a test: to what extent does this service
- and at least by extension this genre, this block of content - actually
drive this specific public benefit?
And it lists the various possible public benefits under headings like
democratic value, educational value, social value and so on.
So we're not just after excellence, we're after excellence in those
areas which advance specific public purposes.
To me and to the BBC's controllers and producers I think this poses
the following question: if you're serious about this idea of public
value, where can you make the biggest difference? What are your real
Now there's an interesting - and, it must be said, not entirely uncontroversial
- precedent for this line of reasoning.
Getting on for 20 years ago, John Birt walked into Broadcasting House
one day and announced that News and Current Affairs was the cornerstone
of the BBC.
Maybe that had always been true and John's words represented a discovery
rather than an invention, but I can't remember anyone saying it before
Up until then news had essentially been one genre among many. John
Money was taken from every other part of the BBC to invest in a new,
world-beating news infrastructure.
New talent and expertise were found, some of it from outside the BBC.
There was a new seriousness and conviction about what BBC journalism
should stand for and how it could play a distinct and valuable role
in building what we would now call democratic value.
All of the elements of what I defined as excellence a few minutes ago
- talent, conviction, expertise, proper resources, time, consistency
- were put in place.
Now there's plenty you can criticise about all this. The cultural revolution
certainly had its Maoist moments.
Individuality, journalistic instinct and risk felt constrained for
a time in current affairs. Connection with the real - as opposed to
the theoretical - audience sometimes frayed.
But I know very few people either inside or outside the BBC who don't
believe that John's fundamental insight about the centrality of news
has been proven right - triumphantly right in fact - especially when
extended to encompass the BBC's local and regional services and the
World Service, not to mention online and new media.
Today, six months after the brutal denouement of Hutton, I believe
we have the right leaders and the right culture to take the BBC's UK
and global news divisions on to fresh triumphs, to find new ways of
adding value and depth to the national debate.
But my biggest criticism of the news and current affairs revolution
of the 1980s would be that it was lop-sided.
The question of what else was up there, what else alongside news was
part of the irreducible central mission of the BBC, where else could
we make a wholly distinctive, indispensable contribution, was never
News and current affairs was prioritised and pretty much everything
else stayed where it was.
That kind of imbalance isn't healthy and is hard to sustain. This shouldn't
be taken as a criticism of John, who I believe was an outstanding Director-General
and who was absolutely right to begin to tackle the challenge of editorial
But for me, Building Public Value demands a broader response to the
It calls on us to focus, much more than we do at the moment, on those
areas where we can make a transformational and distinctive impact on
what we've defined as 'public value'.
And, just as in the case of the News and Current Affairs revolution
17 years ago, this should mean focusing, not just our rhetoric, but
investment, air time and creative energy.
So which are the other candidates for top billing alongside News and
its contribution to public value?
I'm not going to attempt a complete list this morning - that too needs
to emerge out of a dialogue with our audiences, our creative leaders
and partners, our Governors.
A number of different factors have to be weighed up: the public's expectations
of us, the competitive context, our natural creative strengths and heritage,
and so on.
The answer, and the BBC's future programme strategy, must wait until
that dialogue has taken place.
But let me give just one example: comedy. Comedy has been a central
audience expectation of the BBC for decades, but our investment in and
promotion of comedy is probably more important today than it's ever
Scripted comedy is relatively expensive and difficult to launch: even
with brilliant commissioners and access to outstanding talent, the strike-rate
is usually pretty low.
It's becoming increasingly hard therefore for commercial broadcasters,
even commercially-funded PSBs, to justify the opportunity-cost of the
money and air-time involved.
As a result, cheaper, more sure-fire genres - reality, format documentary
- often occupy slots which were once given over to comedy.
Yet television and radio comedy remain one of the public's favourite
genres, and they're critical to the wider creative industries: to live
comedy and to British film.
With Radio 4 and BBC THREE as well as BBC ONE and BBC TWO, the resources,
and the space to develop and grow new as well as established talent,
to me the BBC's role in comedy is just as pivotal as its role in news.
And, although comedy is a branch of entertainment, I still think most
people would accept that it too plays a critical part in reflecting
our national culture and the way we live now. The Office is just one
instance of that.
Comedy too builds genuine public value. And it's not an isolated example.
I believe there are a significant number of different genres where one
can build an equally compelling case, but I don't believe that the list
is endless. We can't claim the same kind of unique contribution for
But what I want to emphasise again that my list of priorities is not
a list of obscure or narrow market failure genres - it can include some
of the most popular programmes in the canon.
To me, public value doesn't mean filling in a few corners that the
market has forgotten about. It means a series of high profile cultural
interventions which, taken together, can enrich the lives of every household
in the country.
Alright, you say: so what are you not going to do then? What are you
going to take air-time and money away from? In the slightly potty world
of public service debate, this question is always put in stark terms,
as if programme strategy was solely a matter of economic analysis and
the moment a given genre misses some threshold of market distinctiveness,
it should be expunged from the schedule overnight.
We need to use our common sense here, and to recognise that channels
like BBC ONE or BBC TWO are complex going concerns with complex public
It's one thing to accept that acquired Hollywood feature films do not
significantly build public value in the way we've laid it out and that
therefore they should play a limited part in our schedules and our investment
plans. It's quite another to let absolutism lead you to cancel Christmas
- or at least the long tradition of offering some big Hollywood feature
films as part of the Christmas mix.
But, although I believe the public would be profoundly irritated if
we started slaughtering sacrificial lambs to make a point, I do think
that Building Public Value calls for a shift of emphasis.
In genres where the BBC does not have a paramount mission and perhaps
also where other PSBs may be heavily represented - some of the light
factual genres, leisure and lifestyle, format documentary, reality,
some forms of general entertainment would be examples - we have to be
very sure that we really are adding something distinctive and original
and valuable within each genre.
At our best - in leisure, Top Gear would be an example for me, the
recent Jimmy's Farm another - I think we do and that audiences recognise
So there will always be room for the best and most original ideas in
But it's also here that the temptation to give in to the derivative
and the tired - to move away from public value, if you like - is the
So let's see what the ideas are. But I believe that we should set the
bar for quality and originality very high, and that we should be stern
about not following in the wake of others or over-exploiting a particular
subject or format.
And, across our radio and TV schedules and in all of our new media
services, I expect the weight of spend and airtime to move progressively
towards the genres and the content which build public value in a clear
and demonstrable way.
Now we won't always succeed. Our schedules should be full of risk and
that sometimes means mistakes and failure. Often the real creative breakthroughs
happen in places and genres where you least expect it.
But I do see a programme strategy which strives more consistently to
achieve the very best and which directs money and energy towards our
greatest creative strengths.
We're building on a good foundation. The BBC has deep reservoirs of
talent and I believe that, under Greg, creativity really did come back
to the top of the organisation's priorities.
But we should recognise that a strategy which calls for excellence
and perhaps for substantial new investment in our key priorities is
not going to come cheap - one more reason why those reviews are so important.
So I believe the BBC faces as much change in its programme strategy
as it does in its shape and operations.
That means a period of uncertainty for everyone who works with us,
inside or outside the BBC.
Yet it should be obvious that the BBC must change as least as quickly
as the world around it.
Traditional broadcasting is changing into something else and if we
remain a traditional broadcaster with the assumptions and reaction-times
and cost-structures of a traditional broadcaster, the future doesn't
We need a leap in agility and focus. We need to find new ways and new
forms of delivering our content to the public.
But I believe that what we stand for - what we have always stood for
- outstanding, original, creative content made by the best talents the
UK has to offer, is the way of the future.
It's what inspires BBC people. It's what inspires our audiences. And
any amount of change is worth it if it delivers that.