By Nigel Walley
I have just sat and watched Tony Hall’s speech about the future of the BBC again. First reaction was that there was much to be celebrated. The idea of a BBC that sees itself providing ‘the risk capital for the UK’s creative industries’ is a very powerful idea and speaks to those of us that thinks the BBC should drive innovation where the market fears to tread. Also the idea of BBC 1 reasserting itself as ‘the nations favourite and bravest channel’ resonates with those of us who believe that the future of TV has to have linear channels at it core.
Beyond that I started to struggle with the speech. We laid out what we hoped he would say in a blog in April - he clearly disagreed with us. What was odd was his consistent ignoring of basic facts about current media consumption. His ‘the future is iPlayer’ stuff was like 2007 all over again and not reflective of the fact that iPlayer is, at best, 2% of BBC consumption. His statement that ‘TV channels are not going away’ was a half-hearted endorsement of a distribution medium that still makes up over 90% of BBC TV consumption. However much the BBC wants to be a Silicon Valley start-up it is still, at heart, a broadcaster.
In a week when the Telegraph accused the BBC of ‘disdaining its audience’ there was an element of that disdain in the way this speech ignored the consumer choices being made by BBC viewers. In particular there was a sense that the BBC wants to play in the future of TV but only if it can control the experience. The problem with this is that most people want the BBC to have a valuable central role, but don’t want to the BBC in charge.
His statement that ‘the iPlayer will be the best online TV service in the world’ is bland and subjective enough to skip over, but the follow up statement that ‘we want iPlayer as a front door to all BBC content’ needs examination. Currently 14 million homes in the UK choose a pay TV operator to aggregate their TV, to synthesise a comprehensive TV offer, and provide personalisation and functionality. These people don’t want the BBC to do it. This means that a large part of Tony Hall’s vision is unachievable.
You could translate much of his speech to mean ‘If I close my eyes hard enough, I can pretend that BSkyB, Virgin, BT and TalkTalk don’t exist’. The problem is that most of us are looking at the future of TV with our eyes open. Its a really exciting future, and the BBC aren’t running it. The idea that the BBC will be in control of the main interfaces that people access BBC content from, may just be conceivable for radio. For TV it was a battle lost 5 years ago.
UK consumers are currently benefiting from an amazingly competitive media tech landscape. In particular, competition around devices and distribution is really hotting up. The consumer electronics manufacturers are trying to disrupt things with new ‘smart’ products and services. However, the most exciting TV innovations are happening in BSkyB, Virgin, BT and TalkTalk. They can drive this because they are beginning to take control of the whole TV ecosystem in our homes.
As consumers, we need those four companies battling it out to develop new and interesting ways to find and consume TV. This is proper market competition driving consumer benefit. We also want the free-to-air box companies, like Freeview and Freesat, to be ‘fast followers’, copying everything that launches in pay. The BBC just aren’t in this game – apart from as a shareholder in the free STBs. More importantly they shouldn’t waste licence fee money trying to be.
The BBC needs to be modest about where it can innovate, and where it can’t. Most importantly it has to recognise where its role should be to support other companies driving innovation – and this is where their record is poor.
The Virgin Tivo box is a good example of the good and bad BBC. With the connected red button innovation, they worked with Virgin to create a vision of a truly converged, 21st century broadcast channel. It is brilliant example of Tony Hall’s focus on innovation and should be used as the template across other broadcasters and platforms. At the same time the Tivo platform shows the ugly side of the BBC in the way they insist that BBC Catch-Up is delivered through a web connected iPlayer. It is a bizarre intervention, in the middle of an interface with a perfectly good on-demand system used by every other broadcaster.
The result is a mess of conflicting menu designs, and consumer functionality. The BBC are still convinced they have done a good thing securing this outcome, irrespective of the fact that it destroyed any coherence in the consumer interface. This example reminds us that there was no hint in Tony Hall’s speech of how the BBC understands its place in the media value chain, or any indication it can work with partners to support innovation not driven by the BBC directly. Right now, the BBC’s position is to take its ball home if it can’t make the rules.
This is going to get worse as the TV platforms expand their reach into every screen in our lives, and into areas where the BBC has had free reign for the last few years. Tony Hall promised us that ‘we’re going to give you more content, more opportunities to watch our shows’. But the subtext is that this only applies if you use an interface that the BBC give you. He promised that the there would no longer be a ‘paternalist BBC’. But, as the new ‘connected TV home’ systems emerge, the BBC is actively preventing licence fee payers from accessing BBC content through their interface of choice. As a BSkyB customer, I can sit and watch C4 and other channels through the SkyGo app, but not the BBC channels. As a Virgin customer I can stream ITV and UKTV through Virgin TV Anytime app, but again no BBC channels. In fact the BBC is refusing to allow any streamed or on-demand BBC content to be accessed through any of the exciting future interfaces that are being developed by those 3rd party platform operators that so successfully dis-intermediated them in broadcast.
This would be an acceptable (if amazingly short-sighted) decision for an independent, commercial broadcaster to make. But not for the BBC which is a funded by a compulsory subscription that we, as consumers, are forced by law to pay. We should hold Tony Hall to his word when he said ‘they should be treating us like owners’ of the content. As such, we should be free to decide how and where we access the content they make with our money. If ITV, C4 and UKTV can come to a mutually supportive commercial agreement with the platform operators, then the BBC must be able to as well. It just chooses not to.
Tony Hall’s focus on personalisation was also troubling for a couple of reasons. As Steve Hewlett highlighted in the Guardian on Monday, it brings the BBC funding model closer to a direct subscription model but without the right of opt-out. A ‘My BBC, Our BBC’ may eventually have to include a ‘YourBBC’ option for those who don’t want to play.
Secondly, it raises the question again of which point in the value chain is best set up to deliver personalisation. It has been shown time and again, that the best place to deliver this is at platform level – ie one stage further up the value chain than where the BBC sits. This is where personalisation can cut across broadcasters. In pay TV homes, this will be driven by the pay operators. In free TV homes, the BBC should be supporting Freeview, Freesat and YouView in developing personalisation systems that could strengthen the free-to-air platforms in their fight against Sky and Virgin. Is it really beyond the wit of man for all the free to air broadcasters (who own Freeview, Freesat and Youview) to get in a room and develop a shared personalisation system that could plug into the free TV platforms?
With the BBC focussing on their own personalisation, it feels as though they are setting themselves up in direct conflict with the very free TV platforms they helped set up. This speech spoke of an isolationist BBC that no longer wants to champion the industry consortia it had previously driven. With friends like the BBC, Freeview doesn’t need enemies.
Lastly, his speech highlighted that the BBC continues to waste licence fee money recreating systems that the market has already provided. The idea that the BBC needs to build an online store to make sure I can buy digital copies of their content is a nonsense. At best this should be a BBC Worldwide commercial initiative funded through revenue or third party finance. The Playlister announcement felt like 20 other absurd Silicon Roundabout announcements, except they were using my money to fund it.
The difficult truth that Tony Hall faces is that, while the BBC is still hugely important among the UK only media companies, most consumers have plugged into a wider, global media landscape in which the BBC are a small player. All in all, this felt like a speech to the House of Commons Media Select Committee (none of whom use pay TV) as we head towards Charter renewal. For the Murdoch haters and pay TV haters in the media, this was manna from heaven. The iPlayer is the only positive story they have got from the last 10 years, so they are hitching their coat tails to it. However, they may be doing it just at the point where it is losing its relevance in half the UK. It would appear that senior management are still in thrall to the cult of iPlayer.
We would have preferred a speech recognising the TV and radio channels as the BBC’s crown jewels not iPlayer. We would have preferred a speech dedicating all R&D and functionality development to supporting the channels in the myriad of 3rd party platforms that the UK consumer wants to access them through. Most of all we would have preferred a speech that recognised the need to play a modest leadership role, re-affirming the BBC as the leader of the gang, not a sulky loner going its own way because people have been mean to it.
Nigel Walley – October 9th.