Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, has warned of the long-term threat to British programme production in the face of global giants. A report forecasts a reduction in production spending of half a billion pounds a year by 2026, less than half of which is likely to be made up by investments from the likes of Amazon or Netflix.
Returning to Liverpool to deliver a lecture, the boy from Birkenhead, now the Lord Hall of Birkenhead, a baron of British broadcasting, made the classic case for home-grown programme production.
“At a time when we are more and more being portrayed as fragmented and divided, many people are asking — both at home and around the world — what being British now means,” he said.
It is a key question for the BBC, which it seems often reflects but also often underestimates the mood of the nation. So it commissioned an opinion poll to examine what makes the country apparently so divided on differences in generation, education, economics and politics.
Unhelpfully, the report said, “there is no broad public consensus on many of the big questions facing the UK”. Apparently the BBC is “the place the country comes to help understand itself and to come to terms with what’s happening in our society.”
British people rate their television as something that helps to define the identity of the nation, or nations and regions.
“So, even as the media world around us becomes ever more competitive — with new, big global players offering us ever more choice from across the world — British people want to see original, British content.”
There seems to be some substance to that. The biggest shows on television in the United Kingdom are made there. In fact, you have to count through nearly 1,500 before you get to the first one from outside the United Kingdom and the second one is more than 700 places behind that.
Thirty years ago, the peak-time schedules were full of imported American dramas. That is no longer the case. Although of course subscription video catalogues are full of them, which people can watch at their leisure.
“I have long warned of the danger that, as a country, we might be sleepwalking towards a serious, long-term weakening of our television production,” he said, referring to a report forecasting the future of programme funding.
The report from Mediatique forecasts that by 2026 the reduction in investment in television production in the United Kingdom will have reached £500 million a year, or about 20% of what is spent in 2017.
It seems that is unlikely to be made up by investments from new players like Amazon and Netflix, although the latter is reported to have spent up to £100 million making The Crown, which is more than ten times more than the BBC normally spends on a drama series.
With an annual budget of nearly £5 billion, the BBC is only a medium-sized planet in the vast solar system of the global media market compared to the huge global gas giants.
The predictable message is that British programme production is under serious threat and that something needs to be done.
The Mediatique report suggests that in order to compete, or co-operate, with the global players, there will be pressure to cater for a global audience. The result could be a shift in focus toward global tastes and a decline in the ability to tell distinctively British stories.
The conclusion is that there is still a window in which to respond but it may not remain open for much longer. The report suggests that British broadcasters still have a large share of viewing, strong brands that attract interest from global partners, and enviable track records for commissioning and producing quality programming.
However it suggests that they would do well to consider new ways of operating, including changes to the roles of commissioners and schedulers, and closer integration of commissioning, production and distribution.
The BBC has a great brand and reputation and is at the heart of the creative industries in the United Kingdom and their cultural ‘soft power’ influence globally.
As it approaches its centenary, the BBC is placing increasing emphasis on its commercial Studios and Worldwide operations, while attempting to reinvent public service broadcasting. Yet it may take more than Sherlock to take on Game of Thrones.
The loyal leader of the BBC is parodied in his absence in the satirical comedy series W1A. In his speech he wonders whether it is a drama or a documentary. Yet he remains necessarily optimistic.
“I believe the BBC has an essential role to play for the UK — as the cornerstone of our creative industries, as the standard-bearer for British content, as the core of our cultural influence worldwide,” he said. “No one else can dig so deep into our neighbourhoods, and at the same time reach so far into the world. And it is a role that has become, not less, but more important at a time of rapid change and uncertainty.”
These are fine words but the question remains, why has the BBC, with its vast experience and expertise, so far failed to capture the global opportunity online? Can the corporation compete with global giants that have deeper pockets, or does it need a different vision to ensure its continuing success?
The text of the Roscoe Lecture delivered in Liverpool by Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, is available online.