The BBC is arguably the best-known public broadcaster in the world. Established in 1922, for nearly 100 years it has followed its mission of enriching people’s lives with programs and services that inform, educate and entertain.
A license fee paid by U.K. households funds the BBC’s many services, which include nine national channels—among them the flagship BBC One, the children’s channels CBBC and CBeebies and BBC News—the online service BBC Three, 10 national and 40 local radio stations, and BBC World Service, which broadcasts news and information around the globe on the radio, on TV and online.
The BBC reaches well beyond the U.K.’s borders not only with its World Service but also with BBC Studios, which recently merged with BBC Worldwide. As the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Studios is responsible for producing or co-producing content across multiple genres and distributing it around the world, turning brands like Doctor Who, Planet Earth and Dancing with the Stars into global hits.
Like all broadcasters, the BBC is facing challenges: viewing habits are changing, young people are finding entertainment options beyond linear channels and tech companies have entered the content business wielding enormous budgets to attract talent and their IP.
Director-General Tony Hall knows from firsthand experience the impact the BBC has in the U.K. and around the world. He was hired by the BBC as a news trainee in 1973 and rose in the ranks until becoming chief executive of BBC News in 1996, a position he held until his departure from the company in 2001. He returned in 2012 when he was appointed director-general.
He is equally aware of what needs to be done to maintain the BBC’s relevance so it can continue to carry out its mission. He is prioritizing reinventing the BBC for new generations, not only serving young viewers with entertainment and educational content but also helping them navigate the media landscape. Determined to battle “fake news,” he is investing in the BBC’s news capabilities at home and around the globe. He is also increasing investments in the U.K.’s independent production community to make sure British content doesn’t get squeezed out of the global market. He is keen on revamping the BBC’s iPlayer and transforming it from a catch-up service to a content destination in its own right. Despite the work that needs to be done, Hall is confident in the prominent role the BBC will continue to play in the U.K. and around the world in the coming years.
WS: In today’s rapidly changing media environment, what must the BBC do to maintain and protect its role as a public-service broadcaster?
HALL: I believe that the role of the BBC, and of public-service broadcasting more widely, has never been more important.
In a world where false information can spread around the globe in seconds, audiences rely on us for news that is trusted and impartial. At a time when consumers have an incredible array of global content to choose from, it’s the BBC whose first priority is brilliant British content that reflects and represents our country in all its diversity. And at a moment when the U.K. is seeking to forge a new relationship with the world, it’s the BBC that can be such a powerful voice for Britain’s identity, values and influence abroad.
At the same time, our role has never been tougher. Our financial challenge has become greater and greater. The way young people are watching and listening to content and finding their news is changing at a pace far faster than many could have imagined. And while the billions now being poured into content by the U.S.-based media giants have led to what’s often described as a golden age of television, it has also massively driven up costs in the global marketplace and British content risks being squeezed out.
To respond, we need to reinvent the BBC for a new generation. We need to find new ways to invest in world-beating British programming. We need to do more to back ideas, talent and creativity from across the whole of the country, not just London. We need to do more for children and young people—in programs, in education, in helping them thrive in the new media environment.
We need to revolutionize our services to meet audience expectations. That’s why we’re transforming BBC iPlayer from a catch-up service to a destination in its own right, and we’re developing BBC Sounds as a single, personalized service for music, speech radio and podcasts. We need to take on fake news at home and abroad, and expand the World Service to give more people more access to impartial news they can trust.
All this work, and more, is underway. It’s why I’m tremendously excited about the role the BBC can play for the country in the years ahead.
WS: How has the BBC been supporting the U.K.’s independent production and creative communities?
HALL: The BBC remains the cornerstone of the U.K.’s creative economy. Of the £3.8 billion ($4.9 billion) we receive from the license fee each year, £400 million ($519 million) is spent buying programs or services from the wider U.K. creative sector. That’s a huge economic investment. Independent research has shown that for every £1 of the license fee we spend, the economy benefits by £2.
A major part of our commitment to the U.K.’s creative industries is everything we do outside London—right across our nations and regions. A few years ago we made a bold move to shift hundreds of jobs from London to Salford, along with some of our major operational output—including BBC Breakfast, Children’s and Sport. Many people questioned the move, but today it’s an incredible creative hub, worth more than £275 million ($358 million) each year to the U.K. economy.
Now we’re increasing investment in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, where we are building a new headquarters in the center of Cardiff. That’s on track to be worth £1.1 billion ($1.4 billion) to the economy, creating nearly 2,000 additional jobs over ten years. We also recently announced that we’re joining other cultural and educational institutions in the East London development project at Stratford, home of the 2012 Olympics, where we’ll be building state-of-the-art music recording and rehearsal studios. We think it’s going to help transform the area into an essential destination for music lovers.
For me, these are great examples of what the BBC—and only the BBC—can do at its best. I liken our role to acting as a ringmaster: bringing people together; mobilizing ideas, talent and investment; and making things happen that simply would not otherwise be possible.
I’m particularly proud of everything we did for Hull during its year as the U.K.’s City of Culture. We broadcast hundreds of hours of content from the festival across all our platforms and promoted the city to millions of viewers worldwide through BBC World. We even took the Proms outside of London for the first time in over 80 years and gave Hull a permanent place on the BBC weather map. It shows the difference the BBC can make—and we’ll do the same for Coventry when it becomes the U.K. City of Culture in 2021.
Recently we’ve made some important changes to create more opportunities for independent producers. We’ve increased competition in program-making and removed the old guarantee that 50 percent of shows would be made in-house. At the same time, BBC Studios is now able to compete to make programs for other broadcasters.
I have also always seen BBC Films, our filmmaking arm, as playing a vital role in supporting the British independent film industry. As many reading this will know, establishing funding partners and being able to turn those brilliant creative ideas into a viable production is enormously difficult. But BBC Films provides that essential cornerstone funding. It may not always be huge sums of money, but it plants trust in the project, which allows the producer to source money from other partners. It also provides the license-fee payer with great value for their money with award-winning films being given their television premiere on the BBC in return.
WS: What motivated the merger of BBC Worldwide and BBC Studios? What is the combined entity’s remit?
HALL: It’s all about ensuring that the BBC is best placed to succeed both creatively and commercially. Across the rest of the industry, production, sales and distribution are often in one place. Merging BBC Worldwide into BBC Studios means we can continue to create world-class content that we know our audiences love and distribute it around the world, competing on a level playing field.
Studios will have a crucial role in growing and exploiting intellectual property for the BBC. Where we own the IP, we can do even more to maximize its value and generate funds to reinvest back in our content. The profits BBC Studios generates will help to augment the license fee and increase our effectiveness as a public-service broadcaster—not to mention help invest in the U.K.’s cultural exports and global influence.
I have set BBC Studios the challenge of looking at how we can best grow our business and exploit IP further to deliver more returns back to the public-service arm. That’s why it’s so crucial that BBC Studios is able to compete on a level playing field with other independent production companies.
WS: How can co-productions and commercial growth help the BBC keep pace with global players?
HALL: Co-productions are really important. Some of our biggest hits have been co-productions—look at Blue Planet II and major dramas such as War and Peace, McMafia and The Night Manager. Given the financial pressures the BBC faces, co-productions have become increasingly important; and it’s something we’re keen to continue, as we know that, ultimately, it’s our audiences who reap the biggest rewards.
However, we all know that some of the biggest global players are keen to take full control of the content they fund. So the market for co-productions may become more challenging. That’s why maximizing our own commercial income is so important if we’re going to be able to compete. It’s another reason why creating BBC Studios—and making a success of it—is so vital.
WS: How are the FAANGs affecting the BBC and British media?
HALL: It was not long ago that the BBC, ITV and Sky were still seen as the titans of British media. When you look at the sums the big U.S. media giants are now investing in content, it’s clear that while we can more than match them in quality, we can’t match their financial muscle.
Let’s be clear: the quality and choice available to viewers is fantastic. It’s never been better. But in the U.K., if we’re not careful, there’s a real risk that British storytelling could face decline. The costs of ideas and talent have skyrocketed. We’ve seen extraordinary super-inflation in key areas like sports rights and drama production. It’s getting harder and harder to compete, and British content has already suffered as a result.
Ofcom’s latest report shows that investment in original British content by public-service broadcasters has fallen by £1 billion ($1.3 billion) since 2004. It’s a trend that is set to continue: recent research by consultants at Mediatique forecast that spending on British programming could fall by a further £500 million ($651 million) in real terms over the next decade. Whatever the quality of the content available, it can’t be good for U.K. audiences or for the country if we are no longer able to choose content that reflects and represents our own lives.
It’s no coincidence that all this has happened during a period when the BBC has come under real financial pressure. Championing British talent has always been our priority, but we need to find new streams of funding to keep investing in the best British ideas and help safeguard the future of British content.
I believe it’s now vital for everyone who cares about British content and the strength of the U.K.’s creative industries to come together like never before. We all need to collaborate to compete on the world stage. And we need up-to-date regulations in the U.K. that can ensure that the homegrown, public-service content our audiences care about remains easy to find as people are increasingly guided to content in new and different ways.
WS: What plans does the BBC have for expanding its reach to young viewers?
HALL: The BBC remains the biggest provider of content to adults aged 16 to 34 in the U.K. among all media. That’s great to know. But we also know that there’s a real challenge when it comes to young audiences: 82 percent of children now go to YouTube for on-demand content and 50 percent to Netflix, but only 29 percent use BBC iPlayer.
This is why our plans to reinvent the BBC for a new generation are so important. We’re investing more in children’s content—particularly digitally—and have commissioned new shows specifically for 13- to 15-year-olds. We’re thinking hard about the services and support that young people need in the digital age, and how we can help them navigate their lives online and get wise to fake news. What we’re doing with iPlayer is going to mean they can benefit from more personalized services and find it easier to find something they love. And we’ll be adding more features to BBC Sounds in the autumn so they can explore our entire audio offer in one place.
WS: How has BBC Three been received as an online-only service?
HALL: Moving BBC Three online was a decision we made partly because we saw the way viewing was shifting, but also because we had to make savings. It was a bold decision, but I’m incredibly proud of the success of Damian Kavanagh and all the team at BBC Three.
Creatively, BBC Three has gone from strength to strength, with programs such as the BAFTA-winning This Country and acclaimed documentaries from Drugsland to the Stacey Dooley Investigates series. It has set new standards for short-form content. As just one example, an Amazing Humans video featuring ballet dancer Gabi Shull, who continues to perform despite having lost her leg to cancer, was viewed 78 million times. BBC Three has won a string of awards, including the coveted RTS Channel of the Year, and I hope we’re proving any naysayers wrong.
WS: The iPlayer has been very successful. What plans do you have to develop iPlayer further? Are there any plans to offer some content through a subscription model?
HALL: It was a huge revolution when we launched it, creating a brand-new market for video on demand. But, as I’ve said, I now want it to make the move from being a catch-up service to a destination in its own right. I want it to be the number one online TV service in the U.K.
Many users will already have seen how we’re starting to make iPlayer much more personal and tailored to each individual—whether it’s recommending more content you might like or want to discover or telling you when new editions of shows you love have arrived. Thirty-one million people have now registered with the BBC and 17 million of them are signing in each month. There’s much more to come on personalization, and the fact that we’ve now appointed the BBC’s first chief customer officer is a sign of how determined we are to create a much closer relationship with our audiences.
Users will also know that we have been experimenting with how we release content. Some programs, such as Top of the Lake 2, Hard Sun, Motherland and, of course, Peter Kay’s Car Share, were made available as full series at the same time as their television premieres. Over Christmas, we released every episode of Line of Duty and the full back catalog of Peaky Blinders to accompany the latest series. It helped iPlayer to its best-ever festive season, capping off its best-ever year.
More recently I’ve been pleased with how viewers have responded to box sets from our archive. They were even reacquainted with Mr. Darcy this summer, since Pride and Prejudice was among a number of classic dramas we brought back for audiences to enjoy again.
There has been much speculation in the press about future plans for a paid streaming service. We are well aware of the challenges that lie ahead in an ever-changing and increasingly competitive market, but all I’ll say for now is that it’s a challenge we’ll be carefully considering.
WS: At a time when issues and world events are becoming ever more complicated, and when viewers are bombarded with so much information, including fake news, how are BBC News and BBC World Service meeting the challenge of keeping viewers and listeners informed?
HALL: The BBC is the most trusted source of news at home, and the most trusted news brand for international audiences. It’s a responsibility we take more seriously than ever when the need to rely on an accurate and impartial source of news has never been greater.
The battle against fake news is something we’re working hard on, from continuing our everyday journalism and investigative reporting to expanding our award-winning fact-checking service, Reality Check. We’ve also taken the fight out of the newsroom and into the classroom, with up to 1,000 schools around the country being offered mentoring from our expert journalists to help young people distinguish between real and fake news.
Across the U.K., we’ve now begun the biggest transformation of our local and national news services in more than 30 years. I know that local journalism is so important because it’s so often what communities trust and rely on most. We’ve invested in a partnership with regional newspapers and the wider local media sector to fund more reporters to hold local power accountable. Meanwhile, in Scotland, we’re launching a new channel, which will have its own flagship daily news bulletin, bringing national and international news to audiences across Scotland.
We’ve also been massively enhancing our news services around the world. This year we’ve completed our biggest expansion of the World Service in 70 years, providing services in 12 new languages. I’m particularly proud that this includes a new Korean service, providing a vital source of news to audiences in the North, and a digital service for Korean speakers around the globe. Meanwhile, in India, for example, journalists in our Delhi bureau are working to stop misinformation and scare stories on chat platforms.
At home and abroad, the BBC is working hard to challenge fake news and hold those who produce it to account. I believe this is one of the key areas in which the BBC can play a unique—and uniquely important—role in the years ahead.