The BBC believes it can unite a divided and diverse post-Brexit Britain by dialling up its creativity, personalisation and global ambition.
Speaking at the Media & Telecoms 2017 conference in London last week (2 March), BBC deputy director general Anne Bulford underlined what she sees as the BBC’s crucial role in helping the UK forge a new global identity in an uncertain world.
“In a fragmented UK it is the BBC’s role to represent the whole of the country and to reflect all of its diverse voices and increasingly divergent politics. In the fake news era it is part of our mission to be a trusted voice in a crowded arena, to help audiences cut through the noise and separate out opinion from fact,” she said.
“We punch well above our weight worldwide and as one of the country’s most valuable exports we help the UK punch above its weight too.”
Bulford outlined her ambition for the BBC to be defined by boldness and originality both on screen and online. To achieve this she explained the need to reinvent iPlayer, as well as capitalise on new technologies such as artificial intelligence, voice recognition and virtual reality.
The BBC deputy director general argued that personalisation will prove essential to the broadcaster’s future success, combined with a desire to reinvent public service broadcasting through data. To date the BBC has made six billion recommendations to viewers and listeners, with 238 million stories being opened through personalised news alerts and a further 2 billion personalised sports alerts sent out by BBC Sport.
“Our goal is that by our centenary year in 2022 we will have reinvented a BBC which is irresistible to its audience. In a world of near limitless choice we want people to keep choosing us for our British content and our trusted viewpoint on the world,” said Bulford.
She acknowledged that the old way of working in siloes and operating with budgets agreed five years previously is no longer possible.
“We need to be seamless about how we work together across the technical and editorial teams, more liberal in how we allocate budgets and more responsive to how we react to rapid changes across our industry,” she added.
“To reinvent the BBC for a new generation we have to be much more entrepreneurial in our make up. We also want to be much more ambitious for the BBC globally.”
Taking on the competition
Reflecting on the global importance of British programming, 21st Century Fox CEO and Sky chairman James Murdoch emphasised the continued resonance of British films and television, describing the ‘Made in the UK’ stamp as a shorthand for smart, off-centre storytelling.
In the week when 21st Century Fox was expected announce its $14.4bn (£11.7bn) bid to acquire a remaining 60% stake in European broadcaster Sky, Murdoch recognised his company is operating in “an unprecedented competitive environment”.
However, instead of “simply chasing blockbusters”, 21st Century Fox has committed to what Murdoch called a “deliberately diverse” strategy.
“There remains an enduring opportunity for a diverse output of television and film. This year we will produce almost 500 original series, over 20,000 hours of entertainment programmes and the UK features heavily in that,” he added.
“Together 21st Century Fox and Sky invested around £700m last year in original production in the UK alone. We intend to continue at least that level of investment while building on Sky’s already outstanding original content.”
Murdoch confirmed 21st Century Fox had conducted a core realignment based catering to the future of video, in a bid to compete with an army of “new entrants armed with fresh capital and a predisposition for disruption.”
Fighting fake news
As the storm continues to rage around fake news from the White House to Whitehall, Murdoch recognised a shift sensing of what the term really means and how it is affecting media outlets.
“In the summer we were talking about fake news in terms of delivering falsehoods disseminated through social media to make money from Facebook. Now that’s been co-opted by the political class to denigrate things that they don’t want to hear and that’s happening around the world,” he explained.
Google UK & Ireland managing director Ronan Harris also acknowledged the problem of defining fake news and how this plays into the search engine’s responsibility to prevent the spread of false information and hate.
“We are trying to determine exactly what is fake news and I don’t think anyone in this room has a perfect answer to that. It seems quite complex,” said Harris.
“We’ve put a huge amount of engineering and human resource into working in the area of hate speech online and offensive content. We’ve got a huge responsibility to make sure that we’re helping to root our truly offensive content online, but we also have to make sure we protect the principles of free speech online.”
When challenged on The Times investigation revealing advertisers such as Marie Curie and Mercedes Benz were inadvertently funding hate sites through programmatic advertising, Harris was keen to emphasise the complexity of the problem.
“In the conversations we have with agencies and marketers they want choice, they want to be able to maximise their reach.
“We’ve done a good enough job to make sure we’ve got the balance right between making sure we give everyone choice and also educating all of the people in the distribution chain about where they want to show up. It’s an area we are working on closely with the advertisers.”