Let’s be clear: at work, the BBC is a competitor. One of the strongest, and most commercially minded, at that.
But as a media consumer I love the BBC. This sets up an interesting set of conflicts.
I devour its output on TV, on radio, online via iPlayer, and on the web – although some, especially online, simply isn’t as good as it should be.
It is cracking value for money, especially compared to my Sky subscription, even if it appears to have lax internal controls on the tax money it spends competing with my employer and the rest of the private sector (ref its £36m – count ‘em – overspend this year).
Much of its journalism is superb. And I know some cracking people who work for it, who are motivated by the highest principles.
It does keep saying and doing things which suggest it is either unaware of its 1000-lb gorilla status, or that it doesn’t care.
Here are three examples, two big, one quite small, all unconnected, but only from this week.
First, let’s hear from BBC Worldwide – a profit-making bit of the BBC, but one which works with brands and programming built up by the tax-funded bit of the BBC. There, an executive is quoted taking a pop at ITV’s global ambitions.
“BBC Worldwide’s global channels managing director, Darren Childs, said ITV did not have the same heritage or quality to become a major challenger.
‘We are not taking it too seriously just now. If their strategy is what we think it is, they are pursuing our strategy of 10 years ago,’ Childs added.
‘They need to catch up. They just don’t have the brand with the heritage we have. Our content travels better and is a better quality.’”
Yes, with brand, heritage and content that’s been built with taxpayers’ money. And you could say he’s stating the obvious about ITV. But were I in Childs’ position, I’d be going easy on the chest-beating over competition that’s struggling with market forces which are irrelevant to the bulk of the BBC. It just reminds us of the advantages he has.
Second up, my mate Ashley Norris at Shiny Media complains his business got precious little credit for contributing to this week’s widely-watched Panorama investigation into Primark’s clothing manufacturers.
“[My] team’s opinions were widely used throughout the show and in many ways their views held the piece together. However while every other single person on the show received a credit along with their work title (Mary Portas got a plug for her business, Yellowdoor, twice), the Catwalk team were not credited in any way. Instead only their names were used and they were billed as fashionistas or Primark fans.
“Overall the whole episode has left a very bitter taste in the mouth at Shiny. While Panorama, and the rest of the BBC, should be praised for exposing dubious ethics in the fashion industry, it might want to take a look at its own ethical code once in a while too.”
But if you’ve never had to build a brand up from scratch, scrabbling for viewers and readers from zero, you might not understand why you get such great cooperation for your programme (Clue: it’s not just because they’ll all be thrilled to be on TV. And there’s an important question here, too, about transparency of sourcing for your documentary. Just a thought.)
Finally, and back at the strategic level, there’s the row over a £68m network of local TV news websites from the Corporation, which threatens the efforts of local newspapers who are already struggling – and investing – to enter the digital age and connect with their readers through the web, and web video.
Maybe it was just a bad week, and I’m not suggesting there’s some kind of grand, evil strategic play behind all this. But all three do, I’d offer, show the BBC trampling over smaller players.
Just occasionally, the BBC does show signs of recognising the impact it has, especially in the digital realm. But this usually only happens when it addresses other issues – mainly, keeping its license fee intact. It has offered, for instance, to share its expertise in digital production for just that reason. But look in more detail and there is an implicit assumption that the BBC holds the purse strings and the creative control. Without access to the cash and the controls, it really just relegates its “partners” to the role of redistributors. That’s not much of a deal for the third parties, and no route to innovation. It’s great for preserving the BBC’s dominant position, though.
At TechCrunch, Mike Butcher has opened up a debate about the BBC sharing its web traffic – through links to startups – and its data. Both would be a start, and he organised an interesting-sounding debate last night which I wasn’t able to attend, addressing just that issue.
But all this is leading me to think… while the BBC continues to behave in today’s heavy-footed way, the argument for more radical action becomes easier to make. Arguments around public service content have already started to unbundle the undoubted importance of such content from the need, in the digital age, for that work to be done by one organisation.
And an interesting thing is I don’t think you can now paint this debate as being one stirred up by a bunch of disgruntled commercial publishers. It’s not a roomful of suits upset at not having the market to themselves, all grinding their axes. This is something broader-based.
It’ll be interesting to see if all the policy chatter turns into something more tangible or, at the very least, if it encourages the Corporation to look at more authentic ways to spread the love. What happens here will have a serious impact on how the next ten years of British media shapes up.