Andrew Harrison: Why broadcasters are pulling together

Last week saw the close of consultation responses from media companies large and small, analogue and digital to Lord Carters Digital Britain report. The final report is expected to be published in early summer but one key theme is already emerging: partnership.

Last week saw the close of consultation responses from media companies – large and small, analogue and digital – to Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report. The final report is expected to be published in early summer – but one key theme is already emerging: partnership.

Gone are the days when battlelines were clearly drawn between new and old media – or between competitors in a particular sector – or between public service providers and private operators. Instead, there’s a growing recognition that the potent combination of an advertising downturn and the discontinuity of digital technology is forcing an immediate re-appraisal of relationships between media players.

Two years ago, possible changes in media relationships were still somewhat competitive in nature – like BSkyB buying a stake in ITV, which helped to block any deal with Virgin Media, or Sir Martin Sorrell’s description of Google being a “frenemy” to WPP – both friend and enemy at the same time and in different contexts.

Now, the mood music is all about partnership. For example, local press companies have formed the Local Media Alliance to lobby the OFT on a relaxation of local press ownership laws, and Ofcom has begun to float a number of innovative ideas for how Channel 4’s funding gap might be closed to help sustain its public service remit.

Nowhere is this new willingness to consider partnerships more evident than in the BBC’s proposals for Digital Britain. Mark Thompson and his team have identified partnerships as the cornerstone of its response. The BBC must “look at its responsibility, given its unique advantages and privileges, to share, to support and to sustain broadcasting and media far beyond the front door of Broadcasting House” runs the central theme of the first page of its response document. This is powerful stuff – using BBC’s resources far beyond its traditional role.

Strategically, this is clever – ensuring a leadership role for the BBC in a digital future. This sits well with politicians, as Lord Carter eyes the prospect of leveraging our traditional strengths in television, film-making and the wider creative industries to put us on the digital fast track back to prosperity. After the collapse of other sectors of the economy, like banking, where we held global influence, our communications sector is one piece of the jigsaw for the future. But, tactically, this is clever too – inviting the possibility of partnership is one concept to see off top slicing of the licence fee as an expedient alternative.

While Project Kangaroo – which brought together the TV archive of BBC, C4 and ITV in one online portal – has been rejected by the competition authorities, the media sector has latched on to many of the BBC’s additional and intriguing proposals. There are plenty of possibilities: Project Canvas for IPTV delivery, opening up the iPlayer, the possible tie-up between Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide, a memorandum of understanding with ITV on regional news provision and new ventures in radio to consider like a joint online radio player and common standards for a listener interface.

The BBC is off and running. Take its relationship with Microsoft – from where it has recruited two senior roles – the heads of technology, Eric Huggers, and marketing, Sharon Baylay. Indeed, Microsoft’s new UK chief is Ashley Highfield, Huggers’ predecessor at the BBC.

The trick now will be for all of the BBC’s stakeholders and competitors in digital Britain to work out how far these partnerships should run. Enthusiasts and evangelists for the BBC already see these progressive proposals as our best opportunity to lead in digital media in the 21st century like we did in print and analogue media before. For them, this will also help re-invent and modernise the BBC’s role in modern media. For critics and competitors, mindful of the expansionist tendency of the BBC to pre-empt and foreclose new media opportunities for the commercial sector, they will be open but wary. Partnering the BBC is one thing, being embraced in a bear hug is quite another.

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