The BBC has announced plans for major cost savings to meet a freeze in licence fee income until 2017. These include the loss of a further 2,000 jobs over five years, with plans for a phased but full departure from West London for all BBC public services. Additional savings will also allow investment in making available its digital archive and in connected broadcasting, across the four screens of network connected televisions, tablets, mobiles and computers. Some may still feel the strategy is not radical enough.
The BBC licence fee income has been fixed at around £3.5 billion a year until 2017, still a substantial sum but equivalent by then to a reduction of public revenue in real terms of 16%. The Director General has set the target of savings of 20%, or £700 million a year by then. The BBC says this will only be possible as a result of digital technology providing a one-off opportunity to transform the BBC, after which any further reduction in funding in real terms would lead to a loss of service or quality.
Mark Thompson said it is “a plan for a smaller BBC, but a BBC which uses its resources more effectively and collaboratively to deliver a full range of services to the public.”
Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, said: “The BBC is far from perfect, but it is a great institution and, at its best, a great broadcaster. We have a tough and challenging new licence fee settlement, but it should still be possible to run an outstanding broadcaster on £3.5bn a year.”
The most dramatic announcement, rather buried in the report, is the plan to leave the BBC campus in West London. The BBC is in the process of trying to sell off Television Centre, a listed building built in 1960, but its presence in West London also includes the White City One building, which was completed in 1990, and the Media Centre and Broadcast Centre, which were only opened in 2004.
It would seem perverse to vacate the entire West London site, part of which was built comparatively recently, although the BBC Worldwide commercial subsidiary could stay on there, after its own headquarters were sold off and demolished. The BBC is planning to move its main news operation to its expensively redeveloped Broadcasting House site in central London, while many other departments are moving north to its new site in Salford. It is claimed that the rationalised property estate will release around £47 million a year, although the cost of any such move would also be significant, if indeed it happens. It could simply be a bargaining position being adopted to put pressure on its property partners and the local council and planning authority.
The BBC is proposing to concentrate licence fee spend on five editorial priorities. These are journalism; knowledge, music and culture; drama and comedy; children’s; and events that bring communities and the nation together, including sport and entertainment. That sounds like at least nine priorities, covering most bases.
There are plans to reduce spend on transmission, including a phased reduction in broadcast red button services, reduced to a single interactive stream across all platforms, while exploring the longer-term transition to internet technologies. The current BBC HD channel will be closed and replaced with a single version of BBC Two in high-definition, joining BBC One HD, with national versions of BBC One for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in high definition. There is also a planned reduction in the number of regional variations for England to be broadcast on satellite, although they would continue to be transmitted terrestrially.
Significantly, while there are references to connected television, there is absolutely no mention of YouView, the proposed hybrid broadcast and broadband platform originally proposed by the BBC, in conjunction with a consortium of other broadcasters, broadband service providers and transmission network operators. While the team behind the project continues to camp out in the ground floor of the Broadcast Centre, the commitment from the BBC to the success of the project seems increasingly ambivalent.
Having previously spun off its technology and broadcast operations, the BBC is now looking for more standardised and streamlined technologies and to use fewer centres to play out BBC programmes and services. Ominously for its current partners, the BBC says it is looking for better long-term supply contracts in technology, particularly when its current outsourced technology agreement comes to an end in 2015.
Meanwhile, the BBC aims to reinvent itself for the digital age through seamless connection of broadcast to online and increasing availability of its programme library. This will be backed by a digital innovation fund of around £40 million a year. The BBC is committing to providing audiences with universal, unfettered and free access to its full range of content on as many devices as possible, while sharing technical platforms, metadata and code with the industry.
By 2016, the BBC expects that appreciation of the BBC will increase, as a result of time-shifting, high-definition and multichannel usage, but predicts that reach of its television and radio services will fall, while online and mobile reach will increase.
While radical in some respects, the BBC proposals are perhaps not visionary enough, given the rapid pace of change in the media landscape.
BBC One and Two will be provided in high definition, but there is no specific commitment to high definition for the other channels originally introduced to differentiate digital television, now part of the standard channel line-up as BBC Three and Four, CBBC and CBeebies, the BBC News Channel and BBC Parliament.
There is talk about making the best of back catalogue of programming permanently available as part of a digital archive, by a mix of public and commercial means, but no real indication of the scale of scope and ambition for this. Plans for a creative archive initiative were first announced in 2003 and enthusiastically endorsed by the Mark Thompson as the new director general in 2004, when he promised an agenda of radical change for the BBC to take advantage of the digital revolution. A pilot archive scheme closed in 2006 after releasing only 500 clips of programming.
The stated aim of the BBC is to provide universal, unfettered and free access to programming on as many devices as possible, but the current so-called syndication strategy is somewhat limiting. What is missing is a radical review of what it means to be a public service media provider in the digital age, leading to a reassessment of how the BBC can create content that is made genuinely available for the nation and ultimately the world.
Equally, the global commercial ambition of the BBC remains remarkably limited. It is envisaged that additional commercial income will contribute only £40 million to the effective annual shortfall of £700 million by 2017.
The argument that the planned changes will have little impact on viewers and listeners is hardly encouraging. The apparent security of a settlement of the licence fee for a further six years has led to a short-term focus on doing the same for less, rather than in creating new forms of value. The main aim objective of the management and its governing trust must be to ensure that there is a strong BBC for decades, not years, to come. The legacy of the current regime looks set to be one of cost cutting and sail trimming, with no clear sense of direction.
Delivering Quality First is available from the BBC web site and is the subject of a public consultation by the BBC Trust until the end of 2011.