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24 September 2014
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Mark Thompson


Mark Thompson


Speech given at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival 2004 - Defining Public Value

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 up.

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 no history".

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 the public.

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 compromises.

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 and Operatunity.

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 BBC TWO.

It's Glastonbury on Radio 1 and BBC THREE. It's Jonathan Ross and Jeremy Clarkson. It's Strictly Come Dancing.

Setting priorities

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, not bad?

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 priorities?

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 he arrived.

Up until then news had essentially been one genre among many. John changed that.

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 answered.

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 priority.

But for me, Building Public Value demands a broader response to the question.

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 been.

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 every genre.

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 expectations.

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 it.

So there will always be room for the best and most original ideas in these genres.

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 greatest.

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 look great.

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.

Thank you.


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