When asked about which national institutions they trust the most, British people continuously put the BBC at the top, or near to the top of their list. Despite the criticism and controversies that often surround the BBC and the explosion of news and entertainment sources that compete against it, most of us retain a respect (and fondness for it) and it’s not without merit that many of us will only believe a news item once we’ve ‘seen it on the BBC’. This year, the public were able to have their say on how the BBC should be financed and operated through a consultation period ahead of the renewal of the Charter and Agreement. That consultation has now finished, but debate about what the future of the BBC will look like, continues to rage on.
At a recent seminar about the Future of the BBC hosted by the Creative Industries Federation, Director General Lord Tony Hall spoke of his ambition for a ‘leaner and tighter’ outfit and sought to address the raft of accusations from critics.
Lord Hall was supported by Rona Fairhead, Chairman of the BBC Trust, who talked about the need for the BBC to have a better connection with individuals within audiences. She said they need to have ‘real-time’ access to viewers and listeners, who in turn will be asked to input their ideas into content.
The emphasis on the individual is also pertinent when it comes to the BBC’s ability to be a good partner. There are multiple complaints that for all its protestations, the BBC does not partner well. Many small group and companies (such as theatre and arts groups) feel pushed out from the process and complain that pitches go into the depths of New Broadcasting House, never to surface again. It’s commonly understood by individuals that the BBC is such a behemoth that attempting to commission a piece or idea solo is usually a waste of one’s time and energy. But both Lord Hall and Rona Fairhead went to great lengths to insist that was about to change and that the often needless bureaucracy will be tightened.
While that remains to be seen, another focus of the debate – led by Jo Twist, Chief Executive of The Association for UK Interactive Entertainment, the games industry representative body – is the BBC’s need to learn from other industries. The games industry is one that takes feedback from its audiences very seriously, constantly updating and developing the content as it goes. But reacting to feedback like that is based on the premise that the product can, in some way, be ‘wrong’ or at least ‘not quite right’ from the start. This is one of the accusations regularly levelled at the BBC, that it is ‘too afraid’ to take risks. Lord Hall did tackle this, rightly saying that to take risks, one needs to have the opportunity to fail and the historical problem within the BBC has been that failure hasn’t been allowed to happen; that there has been a focus on generating ‘big audiences’ without the opportunity to grow them. It could be argued that this was the remit of BBC Three – edgier, more distinctive programming – which will cease being a mainstream TV channel next year and move online.
There’s no doubt that the BBC needs to be more agile, not least to remain competitive. It is important too that it looks closely at how we consume the content it provides and the platforms we consume it on (Martha Lane-Fox has consistently implored that BBC reform needs to focus around the open and free platform of the internet). However the move forward shouldn’t be to the detriment of the millions who rely on the BBC for all that it has always delivered – relatable and accessible information and inspiration that they want and need. Reform means improvement and once the changes are announced, it will be whether that box has been ticked which will be the primary concern of the wide-ranging BBC audiences – from the partners who so wish to work with them to those listening and viewing their content around the world.