Our challenge to cricket in a digital age
This is a transcript of a speech I am giving at the Professional Cricketers' Association Business Summit meeting today.
You may have spotted that the BBC loves an anniversary. This is certainly a vintage year.
It was 80 years ago (so in 1927) that we did our first ever sports commentary on the radio. It’s 70 years this year since our first TV commentary – from Wimbledon… which is a reminder of how quickly the experimental BBC television service followed from the birth of radio.
And soon we’ll be marking the 50th anniversary of Test Match Special, which was launched in something like its current form in 1957. There had, of course, been cricket commentary before then; but the historic nature of TMS was that the BBC became the first broadcaster to cover every ball of a Test match. The slogan for the programme in the Radio Times was, "Don't miss a ball, we broadcast them all".
Given this richness of our history – and we’re enormously proud of it – there’s an easy trap of thinking that the BBC is what the marketeers call a ‘heritage brand’. A fantastic past - and plenty of glories in which it can luxuriate.
But that is a fundamental misreading in my view of what the BBC is about – both in its past and in the future. The point about the people who launched all these wonderful new services is that they were pioneers not traditionalists. They didn’t say “it’s not possible” when confronted with an idea or “we’ve done it this way for years – why change?” when they faced a new challenge.
It was the point we made earlier this year when we ended Grandstand. It’s a programme of which we’re immensely proud and we salute the people who developed it so well over the years. But in 2007 we were facing a programme whose natural timespan had come to an end, and which (however unfairly) had laboured for years under the banner “it’s not as good as it used to be”. In those circumstances, the right thing to do is to move on and to pioneer again.
And this is to recognise too, the way the world has changed. We’re in a broadcasting environment where the one TV channel in 1937 became two in 1955 and became four only as recently as 1982 - but is now in the high hundreds. In such a world the BBC cannot be, and it would be wrong for it to be, some sort of monopolistic owner of televised sport in the way that it once was.
But we are one of the most successful public service television broadcasters of sport in the world – with a rights portfolio that includes the next two World Cups and the next two Olympic games including, crucially, London 2012. We have recently pioneered broadband streaming for the World Cup in Germany; the launch of BBC HD; and trials of our interactive sport portal.
And we’re about more than just conventional television – because to tell the story of BBC Sport now we need to identify two key developments in the 1990s that are very strong guarantors of our future.
After the first Gulf War in 1991 – in which the rolling radio news service Gulf FM was a major success – there was a quest for a permanent 24–hour news based radio station from the BBC. At that time, sport radio was rather languishing on the old Radio Five – which was a peculiar mix of children's programmes, education and sport that understandably attracted few listeners and had a markedly low profile.
It was an act of inspiration that saw the potential for news and sport to come together in Radio Five Live – and when the station was launched in 1994 it showed a remarkable ability to create something more than a sum of its parts.
The informality and tone of the sports broadcasting fed into a different kind of news coverage; and the big stories from news created an excellent all–round radio station that wouldn't have been possible if we'd relied only on live sports events alone. An audience winner was born, and one that sustained the reputation of sport from the BBC even in the worst days of contract losses. Nowadays, around 6 million people listen regularly to Five Live.
The other far-sighted act was creating the BBC website in 1997. The original BBC news site inevitably wanted to do sports news too – and again the two genres were mutually reinforcing.
The growth of bbc.co.uk since then has been strongly powered by news and sport – and the absolute key was that in this area unlike some others we had first-mover advantage. If you look at the long battle between BBC World and CNN or between BBC News 24 and Sky News – a battle in which we've now declared victory – then you see how much more difficult it is when you're playing catch-up.
At the time of the website's launch, the idea that you'd be offering high-quality video was a dream rather than reality. Our early proposition was pretty much entirely text-based and, though we've got further still to go, it was a world away from the rich multimedia offering we have today. To give you an example of the scale of the growth of the web in particular: we now consistently have up to 8 million different users coming to the sport website each week – just part of the 24x7 commitment to sports news on the BBC.
So in those two developments – a credible, cutting-edge sport-based radio station and our online site – we have two essential pillars of the vision we have for BBC Sport today. This is supplemented by our strengths at the grassroots – in sport on local radio and regional TV – as well as by our global reach. This year, for instance, we have launched Football Focus and Final Score on BBC World as a way of reaching global audiences with our sports content.
Now we do, I believe, have a good relationship with our rightsholders across all media. But there is no use pretending that the BBC doesn’t attract a degree of controversy sometimes. I can do no better than quote the boss – our director general, Mark Thompson, who made a speech last year around the time we were bidding for a new licence fee.
"I know that some people worried that in the aftermath of Hutton, we'd lose our nerve and our spirit of journalistic independence… No, we live in a country where the main public service broadcaster begins the final furlong in the licence-fee stakes with – as luck would have it – a Panorama investigation into the husband of the Secretary of State"
So it is with Sport. London's bid for the Olympics was accompanied by a Panorama investigation into corruption within the IOC. The BBC has challenged other sporting bodies in its news and its sports coverage. Five Live has shown in the last 13 years that it’s possible to do both proper journalism and proper sports coverage.
And let me be clear. If it's a choice between telling the truth about something or keeping a contract by keeping quiet - we have to be on the side of truth. The BBC should call it as it is - not out of some adolescent point-scoring, but because ultimately it's because it's what the public wants and expects from the BBC.
Most of our rightsholders understand this, and they would rather have authenticity about their sport than some candyfloss content. But we will always strive to be on the same side as the public interest, and to ally ourselves with the sports who share those aims.
And that brings me to cricket. What does our overall strategy mean for cricket, and what do we want our relationship to be?
There’s no doubt we’ve had some bumps in recent years – most obviously the loss of live TV cricket in the 1990s. When I got this job in 2005 the most common question I was asked was what the BBC’s intentions were towards cricket; and I was even asked on a Radio 4 programme why the BBC was no longer involved in cricket – which rather ignored the presence of Test Match Special across many hours of that network’s schedule, as well as the comprehensiveness of the coverage on our website.
But there’s no doubt that we had missed having cricket on our television screens; and when highlights became available for the Cricket World Cup and for the Ashes – we jumped at the chance to have top-class cricket on all our platforms. And I emphasise all our platforms and digital media, which is why we offered interactive services and mobile alerts and podcasts – so our audiences could be in touch with cricket every hour of the day.
And what were the results? You may find some of the audience figures for the TV coverage of the Cricket surprising. They show that total audience for the Ashes on BBC television in our highlights programmes – the number of different people who watched at some point in the series – was more than double the figure for Sky’s live coverage and highlights. In the Cricket World Cup we had a lead of getting on for three to one --- with 6.6m people in total watching Sky, while more than 17 million saw some of the tournament on the BBC.
I should emphasise that in pointing this out I’m not in any way criticising Sky. I’ve said consistently over the years that I admire Sky as a business and I appreciate what it’s done for sport. The issue isn’t about Sky: it’s about pay television compared with free-to-air. It’s exactly the reason why audiences for English Test cricket have fallen significantly since it moved to pay TV.
Now there are some conclusions we draw from this. Being on terrestrial TV and being free-to-air is vital if you want to attract large audiences to sport. Don’t believe the line that after analogue switch-off and when we’re all digital it will be a level playing field among all broadcasters. Forking out an extra £35 a month or whatever for pay TV with sports channels is a rather key differentiator between channels.
And we think cricket as a sport should discuss the lessons too. Personally, I would never argue that cricket shouldn’t take some of its money from pay TV: it should be absolutely at liberty to do that. But, I have a problem with the notion of the whole of the live content of a particular sport being on one platform – especially when it’s a sport with as many hours as cricket.
The challenge to the sport is therefore a simple one. We’ve shown our commitment to cricket over the years on radio, online and now renewed once again on TV. We’ve proved that we can deliver significant audiences in the digital age. So what is the partnership that any future rights contracts can develop with terrestrial and free-to-air broadcasters? We do not believe it’s essential or healthy that 100% of any live sport is with one operator. We do believe it’s possible to arrange future contracts so that they give mass audiences the opportunity to see some matches live.
But this decision isn’t in the hands of the BBC or any of the other broadcasters. It rests with the cricket authorities and with the wider sport represented here today. We’ll await the outcome of the debate with interest.
So let me close by summing up the case we would put as BBC Sport. We have shown we can innovate across our output, and deliver sports content in new and exciting ways. By doing so, we are the single most effective way of reaching mass audiences in the UK. We have a public service commitment to sport – particularly as the broadcaster for the Olympic Games. Whatever the controversies of the past, we would like to be with cricket long term because it’s one of our great national sports; and we’re willing to do our best to deliver that future together.