Speech given to the Westminster Media Forum - response to the Green Paper
Tuesday 24 May 2005
Check against delivery
One of the biggest questions about Charter renewal is the time horizon.
Should the argument be about today – today's issues and expectations? Or about the middle distance: analogue switch-off for instance, say seven or eight years from now? Or should it be about the far digital future, 2016 and beyond?
An alarming number of people seem very eager to start debating the next but one Charter right away.
Now as luck would have it, we've become rather adept at time travel at the BBC in recent weeks. We've travelled with the good Doctor to a point in the future when all the television in the galaxy is controlled by a single gigantic slug in a space station – the slug itself is perhaps not news, but the space station at least represents a departure.
A week later, the Doctor found himself pitting his public service values against the very last Dalek in the universe – who would believe it?
The message is simple: Charter renewal is dangerous. No wonder Christopher Ecclestone is leaving.
This morning has captured both the energy and the complexity of Charter debate and I think we should be grateful to everyone who's taken part in it.
As you've heard, we think that the Green Paper gets a lot more right than wrong – though we also recognise that some important questions have yet to receive definitive answers and that much could happen between now and the White Paper.
I want to conclude with just a few thoughts.
First I want to sketch a little more detail into that vision of the digital future.
Second, I want to talk about how that future can be paid for and in particular about the licence fee – that old and much-maligned institution which I will argue is remarkably well suited to the digital age.
Finally, I want to turn to the BBC itself and the ways it needs to change.
The digital future
Both the BBC's own view of its future, Building Public Value, and the Government's Green Paper are based on the proposition that broadcasting is entering a new phase. A phase characterised by a radical increase in consumer choice and power.
Broadband and cheap local memory will mean that people can access or download and store content to use whenever they want.
This revolution is already happening – and it poses interesting questions for rights holders.
The first episode of Doctor Who was available in the UK illegally on the website Bit Torrent weeks before we broadcast it on BBC ONE.
Nor will consumers be limited to accessing content in the home. A revolution in mobile media is also already under way.
The BBC is experimenting right now with pod-casting, downloading radio to ipods. Video to mobile phones is with us today, as are early and powerful mobile video-players, not just for games but for TV and movies.
We're working on a technology which allows us to put a bar-code at the end of a programme: if you photograph the bar-code with your mobile phone, the phone automatically downloads extra information about the programme – extra facts or hyperlinks after a science programme, for instance. Or it instructs your set-box at home to record the rest of the series. It might even put your licence fee on your mobile phone bill.
Even passive entertainment will change beyond recognition.
Increasingly we are shooting our content in high definition – think of cinema-quality images brought to natural history, to sport, to drama, to news.
Watching high-definition alongside standard definition is like watching colour TV alongside black-and-white. Audiences are already getting used to plasma and LCD screens and to DVD quality imagery: again we believe they will soon expect the same quality in broadcast media.
Finally, many of the new media are intrinsically two-way: they encourage users not just to sit back and absorb but to answer back, to engage, to create.
Now some traditionalists worry that all this spells the end for public service broadcasting. Perhaps there will be so much media and so much choice that nobody will ever find the kind of high quality content that the BBC has always stood for. Perhaps audiences can no longer be compelled to consume improving output. Perhaps the lowest common denominator will prevail.
But that's not our view of the future.
Certainly we face an enormous creative challenge – right now across the BBC we've got some of our best programme-making brains working on transforming Building Public Value into a practical creative agenda.
And certainly we need to focus much more than we have done on navigation – guiding audiences to the best content – and on two-way interaction.
But we believe that during this next Charter period we will be better placed than we have ever been to put the very best, most creative content in the hands of the public.
And the BBC's unique status and licence fee funding means that we can do it, not just for early adopters or subscribers or any other privileged group, but for everyone.
So we want to build on the success of Freeview to extend the DTT network to the point at which Britain can switch from analogue television.
That means outstanding digital networks, intense collaboration with Switchco and other broadcasters, extensive public outreach.
We want to roll out DAB to at least 90% of the country and develop other digital platforms, including free digital satellite and support for broadband in all its different forms.
We want to offer free-to-air high definition television to the public on all digital platforms as soon as practical.
Already the BBC Radio Player is delivering on-demand to millions of radio fans every month.
We have our biggest-yet trial of our multimedia on-demand application, the Imp, this autumn.
Soon we hope to make the previous seven days of BBC TV and radio available to licence payers all the time.
We want to open up the amazing BBC archive, again so that licence payers can access it when and where they want – and, where possible, to let them play with it, adapt it, include it in their own creative work.
We want to deliver BBC news and information to audiences at home and on the move in the form which is most useful and relevant to them.
We launch the BBC Digital Curriculum in a few months' time – the start of a vision of learning resources available to every child and every teacher in the UK, irrespective of family or school budget.
Now, what makes us believe that the public actually wants any of these services? Or to put it more precisely, wants them from the BBC?
Since we published Building Public Value we've spent some time testing all these ideas with licence payers.
And it's worth saying that the public are on the move: 60 per cent now have digital TV, more than half are online at home, broadbrand and Freeview are both growing at astonishing monthly rates.
So perhaps it's not surprising that no less than 80 per cent told us they were interested in our seven-day catch-up proposal and 74% in the proposal to open up our archive.
The future of the licence fee
Every time Britain discusses a new Charter for the BBC, people queue up to proclaim that this is the last time it will make sense for the BBC to be funded through a licence fee.
Surely, they say, this anachronism will soon have seen its day.
On the contrary, there's a strong argument that the age of total digital media is peculiarly well suited to licence fee funding.
Concentration of investment to ensure high quality content – especially British content – is an issue wherever you look in digital media, from multi-channel television to the web, so pooled investment still make sense.
But more than ever this is the era of free-to-view, free to share and adapt media, downloaded, stored, exchanged.
And at a moment when the pressure on commercial media providers to focus on monetizing affluent sub-groups of the population is relentlessly growing, universal access to the best news and information, educational and cultural content has never seemed more important.
It is true that the reach of BBC Television is not as high as it was historically – though our new digital channels are expanding their audiences steadily.
Elsewhere reach is getting bigger not smaller. The reach of bbc.co.uk, for instance, is now just under 50 per cent of what is itself a rapidly expanding universe: it's by a long way the most popular content-focused site in the UK, it's getting more than two and half billion page impressions every month, and we expect it to continue growing.
Overall, 93 per cent of the UK population use our services every week. The cost per user per hour of content is less than five pence.
And the licence fee is continuing to decline as a proportion of disposable income, not just for the population as a whole but for the poorest 10 per cent. It is a reducing burden.
This is why we believe that the licence fee will be an effective vehicle for delivering the BBC's public purposes through and beyond the next Charter.
In the future its definition and its method of collection may change – we're already moving to collect it as far as possible online and by direct debit and we're eager to talk to Government about ways of developing and reforming it.
But there's no reason to believe that the digital revolution will present insuperably fiscal or technical obstacles to the idea of the British public deciding to pool resources to guarantee universal access to great content. If the need remains, the means will continue to be found.
Changing the BBC
But to deliver the vision which the Green Paper sets out, the BBC itself must change.
The public purposes laid out for us are more ambitious – and more explicit – than ever before and the new system of Governance will ensure that they are monitored more objectively and systematically.
And we know that public expectations of the BBC are growing too – for higher quality, greater creativity.
In the future there won't be much space for easy options.
At our best, whether it's In the Thick of It on BBC FOUR or Charles Wheeler remembering the end of World War II on Radio 4, our programme makers really do live up to an ideal of uncompromising excellence which is hard to find anywhere in world broadcasting.
We need to find the creative space for them to do their best work, but we also need to find the resources – and the resources to fulfil all those other promises in Building Public Value, including that project of building digital Britain.
That's why we're engaged in a tough process right now at the BBC of trying to squeeze every drop of value out of the licence fee to invest in the future.
As you probably know, we aim to free up what will amount to an extra £355m a year to invest in new programmes, fewer repeats on BBC ONE, and in some of those digital developments I talked about.
It's not easy – especially since it must be done in a way which protects and wherever possible enhances rather than damages quality.
This makes for an uncomfortable and challenging period inside the BBC.
Again, as you will have seen, we had a 24-hour strike yesterday which involved around 38% of staff. It didn't take us off the air or anything like but it did cause significant disruption to some of our news and live programming.
Now I regret that reduction in service to the public. I also recognise that the kind of change we are planning presents difficult challenges to many of my colleagues at the BBC.
But it will not be possible to deliver the BBC we've talked about this morning without quite radical change.
And in the end our first duty is to securing a strong and independent BBC in the very different, digital environment of the future.
But we can only achieve that future BBC by working together right now. That's why we have been so keen to get around the table with our unions to listen to them and work out the best way of achieving the changes we need to make.
We can't make the need for change, or its scale go away, but we're prepared to be very flexible about how we go about it.
At no point have we set pre-conditions or refused to discuss any aspects of the changes and we were disappointed when the unions decided to walk away from the talks and ballot instead for industrial action.
I hope that we can get back around the table as soon as possible.
With all of our talk of WOCCs, podcasting, public value tests and the rest of it, we can make the question of the future of the BBC seem rather arcane and reserved for a charmed circle of technocrats.
But essentially it's very simple. The Hutton crisis re-emphasised to many members of the British public just how much they valued a strong and independent BBC – a BBC which constantly tests itself and stretches for excellence.
But the public also tell us that they don't want a BBC which is set in aspic. They want it to focus on its classic values but they also want it to adapt and change in the light of the new digital opportunities.
The Green Paper is very good at capturing this combination of continuity and change.
It foresees a BBC which is more focused and more effectively governed, but which remains a creative agenda-setter, a leader.
I believe that that is the BBC which the British public want to see over the next ten years. It's the BBC we want to create.