Media: All about ... The BBC's strategy review
campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 12 March 2010 12:00AM
Has the corporation gone too far or not far enough? Ian Darby reports.
Stand-up comedians have had a field day following last week's unveiling of the BBC's strategy review. Incensed by its recommendation that BBC 6 Music has been earmarked for closure, they haven't been backward in offering alternative solutions for a slimmed-down BBC. Cutting back The One Show to The Half Show and Gavin & Stacey to simply Gavin were among the suggestions offered in the numerous discussions aired over the BBC's own stations.
Pundits outside the BBC were harsher towards its director-general, Mark Thompson, the architect of the review, suggesting that his aim to create a BBC that does "fewer things better" is not radical enough. The Murdoch-led media has castigated Thompson and called for greater curbs on the BBC's activity.
There is incredulity in some circles that BBC Three, a kind of poor man's Virgin 1 funded by more than £80 million of taxpayers' money, and Radio 1, a pop music station that offers nothing that cannot be found on commercial stations, have emerged unscathed. That said, recommendations of a scaling back of the BBC's online empire and potential changes to the focus of its commercial arm BBC Worldwide may be welcome.
There is some way to go on all this because Thompson's report forms the basis of recommendations that will go before the BBC Trust. There will now be a 12-week consultation with the public, staff and the media industry before the Trust publishes its own vision for the BBC's future sometime before the end of the year. For the time being, here is a view on how the BBC strategy review might impact on commercial media sectors.
The impact of the strategy review could be negative for commercial rivals. Archie Norman, the ITV chairman, said he doesn't see "any benefit" for ITV in the proposals. Broadly, this is because the corporation intends to invest less in niche content and focus on improving programming quality on BBC One and Two, providing tougher competition for commercial rivals.
Thompson outlined proposals to save £600 million, some of which will be ploughed into investing in content of "originality and excellence" on its main TV channels. BBC Two will benefit from an extra £25 million in budget, while BBC Three will emerge unscathed. Few in the commercial sector would recognise the review's description of the channel as having a "reputation for innovation and originality" and are questioning why it looks set to escape the cuts.
The BBC has offered a potential sop to broadcasters such as Channel 4 - proposing to drop the niche online services Switch and Blast to allow the commercial sector to focus on the teenage audience.
The headlines have focused on the proposed closure of BBC 6 Music, which the BBC argues "competes head-on for a commercially valuable audience". The BBC plans to plant some of 6 Music's content into a reworked Radio 1 schedule but many in commercial radio continue to ask how the presence of this mainstream pop channel is justified within the BBC's remit.
Commercial broadcasters such as Absolute Radio have suggested that they step in to run 6 Music as a public/private partnership, a suggestion rebuffed by the BBC.
Otherwise, the review broadly follows an earlier BBC Trust review in recommending that Radio 2 move its focus toward an older audience, something that may be welcome to commercial players.
Andrew Harrison, the chief executive of the commercial radio industry body RadioCentre, welcomes the review, saying the BBC should streamline its offering: "These stations converge too narrowly on areas already served by the commercial sector, and crowd out opportunities for growth."
The magazine industry has been abuzz with excitement following suggestions that the report paves the way for a sale of BBC Magazines, the division of BBC Worldwide that is home to titles such as the Radio Times and Top Gear.
However, despite a line in the review paper that recommends the BBC look "to move away from physical media (such as magazines) in the UK", BBC sources suggest a sale of its magazines to commercial rivals is by no means certain. In the first place, BBC Worldwide is preparing its own five-year plan for the BBC Trust and sources say that no decisions have been taken on whether to sell its magazines.
They also indicate that any timetable for the disposal of magazines would be long-term as BBC Worldwide increases its focus on digital and that "whatever the outcome, we will seek guarantees that magazines match standards and principles they have now. There will be no sudden change in quality."
Commercial players should be encouraged by the BBC's commitment to reduce the range and depth of content on its main BBC.com website. The review proposes that the BBC cuts the number of sections on the site by half to focus on core news and that online spending is cut by 25 per cent by 2013. However, commercial rivals remain sceptical until greater levels of detail emerge.
The review offers some potential comfort for regional newspaper groups that have become concerned over the BBC's "creeping" investment in local news, especially online. The paper proposes "leaving room for local newspapers and others to develop in a digital world" by maintaining its current levels of local news services and not looking to invest in new services while introducing a tighter definition of what local news it does provide online, restricting this to news, sport, weather, travel and "local knowledge content".
The Newspaper Society has reacted by seeking meetings with the BBC and BBC Trust to gain a fuller understanding of these proposals. The NS says: "In view of past experiences, the industry will need to be convinced that any limitations will be imposed or will work in practice, enabling local newspapers to develop their digital services."
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
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