The BBC was at it again last month when it announced Adventure Rock – not a TV or radio programme, but a virtual world computer game aimed at 6- to 12-year-olds.
According to Richard Deverell, the controller of children’s television, the BBC did this because: “Our remit is to engage and delight every child in the country.” Next stop children’s bikes and soft drinks?
Adventure Rock is not an isolated case. After the BBC bought the Lonely Planet travel guides last October, chief executive John Smith explained the rationalisation behind the move: “We don’t have anything in travel and in one go we have managed to get into that sector and from the commercial point of view it makes a lot of money.” Spoken like any normal commercial organisation, but it’s not. The BBC works from a base of £3bn guaranteed income, a privileged position not enjoyed by one of its competitors.
We don’t know what Penguin, owner of the rival Rough Guide titles, thinks, but its feelings are unlikely to mirror those of Dave Moody, the BBC Worldwide director of strategy, who said: “They should welcome this as the nature of competition.”
If that is the case, then all the commercial radio stations, publishers and websites should love being in a market where they battle to make a success and suddenly find that a big, privileged bully has joined it.
It must be like being a group of six-year-olds in a playground when a 12-year-old comes along and starts smacking them round the head; even worse, they know he has the approval of the headmaster.
Indeed, for a number of years I’ve wondered whether BBC actually stands for Big Bully Corporation.
A key problem is that many senior executives there don’t seem to know what the BBC is for. Listen to the language they use to rationalise what they do. Moody said at the time of the Lonely Plant purchase: “Our shareholders want us to take a long-term view so we can deliver larger profits to them.”
But don’t let’s get cross with Moody and others at his level – they take their lead from the top. Director-general Mark Thompson and those around him feel the increase in licence fee awarded by the Government at only 3% has put them into a position of great hardship. If they believe this is hardship, then clearly they have been living on their own Lonely Planet for far too long.
The problem is that, for many years, the BBC has not been clear about the balance between being a not-for-profit organisation driven by a special remit and a normal commercial organisation. In the meantime, it’s not doing a very good job of either.
If the BBC wants to act as a normal commercial organisation, with a huge business base and a very strong franchise, its board would be warning the senior executives not to risk over-expanding and never to expand to the point where the core business becomes weakened through lack of investment.
A commercial organisation would not expect an aggressive expansion programme to be paid for by someone else.
Prioritising the allocation of resources is a key part of any board’s remit. It is, anyway, a fatal route for the BBC to pursue. Currently, the BBC has a contract with the public in the form of the licence fee. It is a key part of the near unique media ecology of this country that allows huge, well-resourced media “channels” to co-exist – advertising space for ITV, subscriptions for Sky and licence fee income for the BBC. None of them needs to kill each other in order to be big, commanding players.
The more commercially aggressive the BBC becomes, the less a case it has for exclusive access to the licence fee, so how about the other route for the BBC. Being a not-for-profit organisation driven by a special remit? There are many other organisations, such as universities and business schools, that must function like that in an increasingly competitive world. Harvard Business School is a truly world-class business school with global influence and a huge bursary. It needs to attract and keep the best talent and put on the best programmes to keep attracting the right audience. If you think of the BBC’s licence fee as a bursary then the parallel is pretty good.
I work closely with London Business School which, despite not having a huge bursary, maintains its position in the world’s top five. So, I’m well aware that Harvard uses its bursary aggressively and to good effect. Even so, it hasn’t been tempted into a wide variety of diversification.
It wants to be world class, global, focused and on strategy. Sounds good to me, so why does the BBC find it so difficult? How did it become the Big Bully Corporation?
Most people become bullies because their bad behaviour is not punished early on. This can be due to absent or apathetic parents or, as in this case, over-indulgent parents. The BBC has a board of directors as well as trustees, so this bully has a vast, extended family behind it, but not one with the ability to say “no”.
This bully used to be a nice kid, but now goes outside and punches the smaller kids. Yet behind closed doors it sulks and whinges to its parents and relatives about how little pocket money it has. No one seems to have told the BBC where the line is and made it clear that it will result in pain every time it crosses that line.
I can’t stand bullies but, at the end of the day, I blame the parents.