Media Forum: Should BBC's website take ads?

The new bbc.com wants to carry ads. Should it be allowed to, Alasdair Reid asks.

If you try to access the www.beeb.com internet address these days, you will be redirected to the site of the BBC shop, where the Corporation punts all manner of programme spin-off DVDs, CDs and books. There's no mention of the original site, a portal that focused on e-commerce and took advertising - that was airbrushed from media history back in 2002.

One of the reasons for its closure was clearly the bursting of the dotcom bubble, but there was also a feeling, both inside the BBC and in the wider world, that closing it was the right thing to do.

True, for decades, the BBC had been a major player in the magazine advertising market with its stable of consumer titles - but there was no earthly reason for it to seek to muscle into this new territory too. This was a commercial mission too far - there was, after all, a review of the BBC Charter and its licence-fee funding in the offing.

Well, guess what? The BBC Charter review process is all but over (it arrived in Parliament for scrutiny earlier this week) and, what with the second dotcom boom in full swing, the Corporation is about to turn up at the party once more.

It has served notice that its new international web operation, due for launch under the auspices of its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, will take advertising. Can they be serious? Well, of course they can.

Some UK media owners argue privately that this is a relatively small earthquake. They point out that the BBC will attempt to ensure that its UK audience is directed to its public service bbc.co.uk site, while the bbc.com operation will be aimed primarily at US consumers and advertisers.

They reckon that the BBC will end up looking stupid. The US market is currently dominated by very intrusive ad formats - formats that the BBC says it won't accept. So it will be at a disadvantage from the off.

Andrew Hart, the managing director of Associated Northcliffe Digital, doesn't buy any of that. He thinks it's outrageous that the BBC can even contemplate this sort of initiative, but confesses he's hardly surprised - nor does he think it will be easy to embarrass the Corporation into thinking better of the whole idea. And, he underlines, it will very clearly affect UK media owners.

"It will have a direct impact on all media owners who are currently trying to turn to their advantage the inter- national traffic they have built. International advertisers will find it a lot easier to buy from the BBC, which has such a strong brand name," he says.

Tough, Charlie Dobres, the co-founder of i-level, responds. "If bbc.com were to take advertising revenue, it would have an effect on the advertising market - that much is true. On the other hand, the truth is that in ten years' time, there will be no way that the licence fee will be renewed because a significant amount of viewing of television programmes is going to take place via the internet. So the BBC is going to have to raise some money to pay for itself. And the truth is that, from just about any standpoint you choose, it is worth paying for."

Damian Blackden, the director of strategic marketing technology at Universal McCann, tends to agree that this particular genie can't be put back in the bottle. He explains: "This sort of development is inevitable, given the convergence of platforms in the digital era. It's up to the BBC to weigh up the pros and cons. Its main worry would be potential damage to its brand in the UK. But if the question is simply about whether the BBC should be allowed to do this, then the answer is simple - yes, it should."

And Steve Huddleston, the head of media at BT, concedes that, though he has mixed feelings about the whole proposition, when it comes down to it there's only one honest response an advertiser can make. He concludes: "From one standpoint it's an absolute outrage what the BBC is allowed to get away with. It's extraordinary, the way the Corporation manages to have its cake and eat it too.

"If you look at the costs that any other organisation would incur in promoting a new venture, that's just something that the BBC just doesn't have to worry about. We, as in each and every one of us who pay the licence fee in this country, just underwrite it. But if you're asking me as an advertiser, then I'm going to say, yes, let it do it. We would love to advertise in that environment."

NO - Andrew Hart, managing director, Associated Northcliffe Digital

"It's outrageous an organisation such as the BBC should be involved in any commercial activities. It's hard enough as it is for the commercial organisations going into the market. The BBC has a clear advantage with the strength of its brand."

YES - Charlie Dobres, co-founder, i-level

"Commercial rivals benefit from all the R&D work the BBC does. But even without that aspect of things, the BBC's online presence is worth paying for because its content is superb compared with what its commercial rivals put out."

YES - Damian Blackden, director of strategic marketing technology, Universal McCann

"The BBC talks to a global audience through BBC World and a convergence of digital platforms makes this sort of development inevitable. Commercially, it's not a huge departure."

YES - Steve Huddleston, head of media, BT

"I've mixed feelings about this. But in the international arena, digital is increasingly important and if we could advertise on a BBC site, it would be top of our list. What the BBC delivers in terms of content is unparalleled."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com.