On the BBCs future

Last week some fundamental changes to three very different institutions occurred, all of which remind us of the importance of your brand’s proposition.

On the high street, Woolworths collapsed. A retail giant of the old world that struggled to come to terms with the new. In its own way, Woolies’ demise is a cautionary tale that reminds all marketers about the first principle of brand management – success starts with a distinctive proposition to a well-defined target customer. Lose it at your peril.

In Westminster, the Labour Party’s commitment to low taxation and fiscal prudence collapsed. A political giant of the new world, which reverted to the politics of the old with increases in public spending today funded by tax increases tomorrow. Voters’ behaviour over the next 18 months will determine whether the government’s spending gamble has strengthened or diluted the brand promise that New Labour has so brilliantly nurtured over the past decade.

And in media, the BBC’s local video plan collapsed when the BBC Trust finally bared its teeth – rejecting the BBC management’s ambitious £68m plan to expand beyond its core TV and radio offer into a new network of 60 local news websites complete with video content. It was a difficult week all round for Auntie, what with the inquiry into editions of the Russell Brand show concluding these were “gross breaches of the BBC’s editorial guidelines”.

The Trust’s role in shaping the size and scale of the BBC is a decisive intervention. For all of us who work in media, the role of the BBC across the next decade or so will be one of the defining influences on the sector.

Is the BBC’s promise to “inform, entertain and educate” with a public service remit at its heart or is it its aspiration to be Britain’s multimedia company for the digital age – a true global competitor to Google, News Corp and Microsoft, let alone ITV or Absolute Radio. And can it be both? I doubt it. Is the BBC’s role to fill the public service gaps left in the market by the commercial sector, perhaps like children’s programming, regional news or radio drama, or is its role an expansive one: leading the agenda and opening up markets for all?

In this context, the BBC Trust’s decision last week is important because it’s the first time anyone has genuinely checked the expansionist instincts of BBC management. Moreover, when the Trust makes its judgements, it does so representing all of us – as licence fee payers – to whom the BBC belongs.

Second, it’s important because it showed that the Trust is willing to hold the BBC to its public purpose obligations as set out in the Charter & Agreement, at the expense of allowing the corporation’s ambitions to continue reaching out to new platforms. The BBC has launched two new services in the last year – the iPlayer and HDTV – and has another major launch planned, in Kangaroo, the archive online content joint venture with Channel 4 and ITV. At the same time BBC Worldwide is busy integrating the Lonely Planet guidebook business while also buying out its stake, ironically, in a video distribution business with Woolworths. Even in good times, let alone in the teeth of a recession, no commercial operator has the scale or resources for this sort of land grab.

So, for commercial operators, how far the BBC helps open up nascent commercial markets and how much it forecloses those same opportunities is at the heart of future assessment into the market impact of the BBC. While, for licence fee payers, especially in a multiplatform world, how successfully the BBC makes the case for public service will be at the heart of our assessment of the value it provides versus the reach and cost of digital TV or a monthly subscription to your ISP, or even the claims of other providers of public service content, such as C4, ITV or local radio.

The next key battle will be youth services. The BBC’s burgeoning online output to young people is facing opposition from commercial operators. Commercial players, looking for a level playing field, are against the BBC’s expansion beyond its licensed remit and its younger target audience through services such as Radio 1.

There’s real love and affection for the BBC from all involved in UK media. It’s part of the unique fabric of British daily life and one of our few great gifts to the world. It nurtures and trains much of our great creative and journalistic talent.

But that affection is also balanced by measured debate about the future role of the BBC. We all know it simply doesn’t add up to tax everyone to produce content that is already provided by the market or to create exclusive new platforms, at public expense, on which only BBC content can be accessed.

So, while we are all passionate about the BBC still being here, what it is here for is one of the important media debates of the next decade.                                                      

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