Anyone staring into a crystal ball back in 1990 might well have been shocked at the BBC’s future performance.
After all, it was a dinosaur: an institutional relic of the mid-century propped up by the increasingly precarious stay of public money. Not only that, the Broadcast Act had ushered in a new era of unbridled competition from the commercial sector, particularly, as it seemed, from its main television rival, ITV. Add to this the emergence of Sky as a force to be reckoned with, the more gently erosive threat from cable, the deregulation of radio, the proliferation of new media, the promised arrival of the multichannel digital revolution – and the future for the BBC looked bleak indeed.
In fact – and against all odds – the BBC brand now appears stronger than ever. The Corporation has for the time being successfully hurdled the public money issue, so preserving much of its heritage. Ratings, in radio as well as TV, have held up surprisingly well against the multichannel onslaught; if anything, it is ITV which is now on the critical list. Furthermore, the BBC has embarked on a series of aggressive new enterprises which include the launch of numerous magazines, a new radio channel and 24-hour TV station.
Many Corporation executives choose to believe it is the continuing strength of the BBC’s programme output which spearheads this success. They are not entirely wrong, of course. But the growing role of a marketing culture, mainly imported from the commercial sector, should not be underestimated in the shaping of the achievement.
Perfect Day – almost, though not quite, an ad – provided the most visible evidence that the BBC was seriously embracing marketing disciplines. But subterranean organisational changes over the past 18 months are in reality a more important indication of the direction in which it is likely to go. Marketing, once the lowly handmaiden of the various press and publicity departments, has been transmuted into a fully fledged hierarchy, embracing about 250 people, which now operates at all levels of the organisation. At its apex is Sue Farr, director of marketing and communications for BBC Broadcast, who reports directly to chief executive Will Wyatt – a position which appears to put her on a higher footing than those traditional BBC power-brokers, the channel controllers. Immediately below Farr, a number of substantial marketing baronies are springing up, such as that of Maureen Duffy, who was appointed controller of TV marketing for BBC Broadcast last week.
How this reorganisation will affect the more traditional echelons of the BBC will be interesting to see. Certainly there will be tensions over the extent to which marketing should be involved in programme-related decisions. Nor will the fact that properly applied marketing disciplines are now integral to the BBC’s commercial survival do anything to deflect those critics who resent the Corporation’s continued exploitation of its unlevel status as a publicly-funded institution.
Feature, page 28