Tony Hall - Voice of the Listener & Viewer Conference

Date: 27.11.2013     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.53
Category: Corporate
Speech given by Tony Hall, BBC Director-General, at the Voice of the Listener & Viewer Conference on Wednesday 27 November 2013.

Good morning. Thank you very much for inviting me today.

As you can see, next year is going to be very special. One of my most vivid memories of the BBC – from my childhood – was that extraordinary series The Great War, 26 episodes of riveting testimony from men and women who had lived through years of conflict. Fifty years on from that landmark series, we want 2014 to be a chance for us all to learn something new about a war we think we know so well – and a chance to engage a new generation with those extraordinary times. Every one of us lives in a world profoundly shaped by those events, which changed the face of our communities, our country – and our world – forever.

This – I hope – will be the BBC at its best. Telling the local, the national and the global story. Bringing all the BBC’s services together – TV, radio and online – to create something bigger than they can do by themselves. Making programmes of the greatest ambition and quality with the widest range of voices and stories. Working with partners across the UK.

History teaches us many lessons.

After the fall of the Bastille, King Louis XVI asked the Duc de Rochefoucauld-Liancourt whether he was facing a revolt. No sire, said the Duke, it is a revolution.

Thirty years after the foundation of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, it is much more obvious that the protest begun by Jocelyn Hay against misconceived plans for BBC Radio 4 was a revolution and not simply a revolt.

The establishment of the VLV was the rising up of an audience that demanded to be part of what the BBC was doing and demanded to be heard.

A central part of my vision for the BBC is that it is not just paid for by its viewers and listeners, it belongs to them, to you. The sense of ownership that I want to create is the direct descendant of your original protest. Digital technology now means that we are able to hand to our listeners and viewers a huge amount of control that 30 years ago we kept to ourselves.

No listener or viewer should ever have to feel a sense of powerless frustration that the BBC they want has succumbed to a BBC they didn’t ask for, because in future individuals will have the ability to control the BBC themselves.

Services like the iPlayer bring you the programmes you want to watch and listen to whenever you want them. Start The Week in the middle of the week. In Our Time, in your time. The Today Programme – tomorrow. The BBC you can have is catching up with the BBC you want.

There’s a fundamental shift happening. I want a BBC that feels different, where our audiences are on the inside, helping us to be the best we can be.

But I realise that a sense of control and involvement was only part of what gave birth to the VLV. The other part was an insistence on the highest standards, a correct demand that what we produce is worth the money being paid for it.

So I want to make three arguments today. First, that the existence of the BBC is essential to the production of high-quality programmes and content.

Second, that licence fee payers have a right to expect not just quality but also value for money.

And third, that making continual efficiency savings leaves the BBC facing very hard choices about the work it does. And we will need you – the viewer, the listener and the licence fee payer – as our guide and support as we make these decisions.

Quality Content

So first, top quality content.

I have always advanced a highly pragmatic argument for the BBC.

It matters, because it produces some of the very best programmes and services in the world. And people watch it, listen to it and value it.

The excellence of Radio 4. The uniqueness of Radio 3. Children’s channels with British content and no advertising. The mission to search out new music that is the core of Radio 1. The magic of Strictly Come Dancing. I could go on and on.

And it is quite wrong to suggest that this quality is produced at the expense of others. The BBC is part of a virtuous circle. We do well. Others have to compete. They raise their game. We respond. Competition spurs us all on. And the creative strength of the whole UK industry rises, from Downton to Broadchurch, The Inbetweeners to Channel 4 News, Moone Boy to Gary Neville.

This role of public service broadcasters stimulating creative competition works across Europe. New research, to be published by us this month, shows that where the public service broadcasters are strong, commercial broadcasting is also strong. And the reverse is also true.

And you don’t just have to rely on our own view of our output.

Ofcom asks the audience every year what they think about public service broadcasters. Four out of five of them think that BBC One and BBC Two show well-made, high quality programmes – a figure that is well ahead of the other public service broadcasters.

And it’s the same story across the world.

Populus recently did a survey for us of broadcasting in 14 countries – including the United States. People were asked to rate the quality of TV overall and the quality of each of the biggest TV channels in their country. We’re publishing that data today.

The UK came out top.

72% of people here said that UK TV programmes overall are of good quality – the highest out of all the countries surveyed. And out of 66 major TV channels around the world, BBC One came out top.

No wonder that when you leave this country, people tell you that broadcasting here, and particularly the BBC, is the best in the world.

Let’s take just one area. Drama.

We’re often told that there’s a loss of confidence in television drama in this country. There’s a feeling that we’re falling behind; that we’ve lost the plot. Great things happen in the USA – or in Scandinavia.

I must tell you that I don’t share this view. I think we in the UK can go head to head on quality with any broadcaster in the world.

Let’s just look at last weekend, at Doctor Who – creative, intelligent, fun – that’s reinvented itself over decades, that crackles with wit and intelligence while reaching a live UK audience of over 10 million people. While also being the UK’s third-highest grossing movie last weekend. And that’s before we count the millions more around the world and the millions who will be catching up with it over the week.

Of course, not every BBC programme is a Doctor Who, but there are broadcasting organisations all over the world where not any programme is a Doctor Who.

We – all the UK broadcasters – have so much to be proud of. Of course, Breaking Bad is brilliant. So is Borgen.

But – and forgive me if I talk just about the BBC for a moment – so is Top Of The Lake, Luther and Sherlock. Peaky Blinders, The Fall and The Village. Ambassadors and Atlantis. Line Of Duty, Last Tango In Halifax, EastEnders and Call The Midwife. And I haven’t even begun to mention all the brilliant drama I listen to every week on Radio 3 and Radio 4.

Say the words “it’s a big new BBC drama for all the family” anywhere in the world and you excite expectations of quality and originality and depth.

So what is the next step? To do more, to go further, to challenge ourselves to do better. New drama on BBC One. A celebration of Shakespeare in 2016. Wolf Hall with Mark Rylance. War And Peace. The Musketeers. Death Comes To Pemberley. We are in the middle of budget discussions at the moment and that’s what I am putting at the top of the priority list.

The confidence and commitment we show in drama, I want in music and the arts too.

We do some brilliant stuff. The 50th anniversary of the National Theatre. The Proms, obviously. Glastonbury. Radio 3’s brilliant coverage from Aldeburgh last weekend celebrating the music of Benjamin Britten. I want more, with even greater verve and self-confidence.

There’s so much we can do in partnership with all the fantastic arts organisations we have in this country. We want to take people to great art, great theatre, great performance, great music. I have a profound belief in the importance of giving everyone access to great things – wherever they live, whoever they may be. It’s democratic – I hope it’s inspiring – it’s what the BBC is there to do.

And then there is news and current affairs. Nothing makes the case for the BBC more eloquently than what we do in news.

We will be speaking more about our plans in the coming weeks, and we will be reinforcing our commitment to intelligent, unbiased, accessible coverage at every level – local, national and global.

BBC News is a national voice. It’s a crucial local voice too – in the time I've been away from the BBC our local and regional services have come to matter more, not less. The values of BBC News shine clearly in this country and to people all over the world. I want it always to act as a symbol for the UK – fair-minded, thoughtful, open to all, committed to the truth. The best of Britain across the globe.

So my first argument is that the existence of the BBC is justified above all else by the quality of what it does. You will see us demonstrate that ever more clearly in the years to come, day in day out.


My second argument is that licence fee payers expect us to provide value for money.

Like any organisation, the BBC makes mistakes. And sometimes we have spent money carelessly. Or even treated our funding as if in some way it was our own money, rather than yours.

Much of the recent debate about the BBC has been around issues like severance payments. Everyone knows from the action I’ve taken to cap pay-offs that I don’t believe such payments were appropriate – even if they were made in the pursuit of efficiency. But just because the BBC has got some things wrong, doesn’t mean it has got everything wrong. Far from it. Take a broader view – look back over the past 20 years, perhaps – and you can see how hard we have worked to achieve value for money.

So I don’t deluge you with numbers, I’ve brought some figures with me on a single sheet of paper – please do come and pick one up after this session.

But to summarise: 20 years ago, the BBC received nearly 40% of all the revenues in broadcasting. Now the figure is around a quarter – 25% - a much smaller part of the media market.

Twenty years ago we were the largest broadcasting organisation. Now we are not.

Twenty years ago, the licence fee was over £147 in today’s money – now it’s a bit lower. But look what you get.

Twenty years ago, we had two TV stations, five national radio stations, and local and Nations radio. Now we deliver so much more with four times more television channels, twice as many national radio stations, impressive web services and the iPlayer. That’s what I mean by greater value.

Our latest plans, outlined in my speech earlier in the autumn, expressed our determination to move even more money to the frontline. In a fast-changing world we have to find new ways of giving viewers and listeners what they want, when they want it. And we will also fund work which I know you will agree is of vital importance. Inspiring learning. A bigger commitment to music, arts and drama.

So we are delivering more without costing more – and will continue to do that. In fact, as the licence fee is frozen with no account taken of inflation – and it’s paying for more things – it will cost you less.

And people notice. I think that’s why there’s more support for the licence fee now than there was 10 years ago or even 30 years ago. To use a Hollywood term, people can see the money on the screen.

Future of the BBC

And this leads to my final point.

By 2016, we have to deliver £700m of annual savings, as part of the current licence fee settlement.

I’ve also said I want the BBC to find another £100m to fund our new ambitions. Ambitions we should have as an organisation to be fit for the future. It’s not been easy so far, and it’s only going to get tougher.

There will be hard choices to come. I can’t say at the moment what they will be. What I can tell you is that, for me, quality must come first. We must not stretch the elastic too thin.

But in the debate about what the BBC should or shouldn’t do, I want to be clear about one thing. Your voice – and those of all our viewers, listeners and users – will be pre-eminent. Nothing matters more than the people who pay for the BBC and use us, day in and day out. These are the voices that must be heard.

The BBC will be making the argument about its future through the actions it takes. We are going to make great dramas, great arts, great programmes. We are going to provide the best news service in the world. We are going to inspire learning and we are going to carry on pushing new technology.

Our BBC – the BBC that belongs to you – will stand for quality, for creativity, for wit, for intelligence, for imagination. And it will make the argument for its value with every minute it is on air and online.

The BBC in other words will speak for itself.

But I hope and believe that you will speak for it too. After all – it’s your BBC.