Tony Hall, director-general of the BBC, issued a warning about the future of home-grown British content in a speech yesterday, noting that there could be a £500 million funding shortfall by 2026.
In the Roscoe Lecture at Liverpool John Moores University, Hall noted that British culture, specifically TV, “can help bring us together as a country, and define our identity to the world, at a crucial time.”
Referencing a new study commissioned by the BBC from Ipsos MORI, “Reflecting a changing Britain in a changing world,” Hall noted, “Even as the media world around us becomes ever more competitive—with new, big global players offering us ever more choice from across the world—British people want to see original, British content. Now, when you look at what people are actually watching, the figures bear this out. So far this year, the biggest TV shows are One Love Manchester, Broadchurch, Britain’s Got Talent, Strictly and Sherlock—every one of them British. And, incredibly, you have to count through nearly 1,500 more before you get to the first one from outside the U.K. And the second one is more than 700 places behind that.”
Citing the popularity of Game of Thrones—and the investments that show has made in Northern Ireland, Hall added, “It’s important to make a distinction here between programs that are made in the U.K., and programs that are about the U.K. And it’s interesting to note that some of the shows that attract the biggest investment today are those that could be filmed anywhere, that are not geographically or culturally distinctive, and are designed to travel easily worldwide. In the U.K., we want to see these shows. And we’re excellent at making them, but we want them in addition to the great television we make at home, for ourselves, about ourselves, not instead of it.”
He continued, “Programs that are rooted very clearly in specific communities around the U.K. don’t just speak to us more directly, or help us understand more about ourselves. Shows like The Fall in Northern Ireland, Shetland in Scotland or Hinterland in Wales, do so much more for our nations. They act as magnets for ideas and talent, help find and develop local voices, and generate new jobs and investment. That’s why the centers for drama production that the BBC has in Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff are such an important part of the story of what the BBC does for Britain as a whole.”
While production in those centers has grown, Hall stressed that British content “faces an uncertain future.” The BBC has long been “the largest single investor in British ideas and talent…. But if you look at our finances, you’ll see that our income has fallen in real terms over the past ten years. That means our ability to fund original British content has diminished—and that’s despite all the progress we have made on efficiency. Inevitably the pressures on our finances have taken their toll. And it’s no coincidence that, as the amount the BBC has been able to spend on British content has fallen, so has the amount spent on British content overall. Of course, it’s not just about the BBC. Commercial broadcasters that have also traditionally been major investors in British content have been hit by dwindling advertising revenues. And these are trends that are set to continue.”
Hall said that the BBC had commissioned another study, from Mediatique, about content trends. Mediatique analysis indicates that a “substantial gap” will open between spend on U.K. content now and in the future—a £500 million shortfall by 2026.
And those hoping that the streaming giants Netflix and Amazon can make up that shortfall will be disappointed, Hall noted. “The reality is that their investment decisions are increasingly likely to focus on a narrow range of very expensive, very high-end content—big bankers that they can rely on to have international appeal and attract large, global audiences. Even the most generous calculations suggest they are barely likely to make up half of the £500 million gap in British content over the decade ahead. And a more realistic forecast points to them contributing substantially less. What this adds up to is not just a real risk to the volume and breadth of British content, but also a potentially damaging impact on U.K. distinctiveness, risk-taking and innovation.”
The BBC has begun responding to these challenges, Hall said, notably with the creation of BBC Studios as an independent, commercial company that can produce programs for other broadcasters as well as the BBC. “This is a big change. As the competition for content and ideas gets increasingly fierce and costly, we need to secure a steady supply of our own programming. And we need to be able to rely on a long-term source of the intellectual property rights that are so important in today’s market—because being able to retain rights means being able to generate more returns.”
Hall also stressed the importance of BBC Worldwide delivering returns that can be reinvested in content.
“The BBC has always shown a great ability to adapt to new challenges and make them opportunities. If we get the response right now, and the rest of the industry does the same, then we can safeguard the future of home-grown content; and rather than British content diminishing, we can kick-start a new golden age for British production.”