Tony Hall

This interview originally appeared in the MIPCOM 2014 issue of World Screen.

Established by a Royal Charter in 1922, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) declared from the start that its mission was: “to enrich people’s lives with programs and services that inform, educate and entertain.” Through the decades, just as British society was rocked by major cultural revolutions, the U.K. broadcast landscape experienced numerous seismic shifts due to advances in technology. The BBC has worked to adapt to those changes and to competition from commercial rivals and pay-TV platforms. It added channels to its flagship BBC One, each serving different audience segments, and it now operates ten national TV channels. The catch-up service BBC iPlayer has been a massive hit. Over the years, the BBC has offered a wide variety of shows that have resonated strongly with viewers, from splendid Sir David Attenborough documentaries including Planet Earth to respected current-affairs programs like Panorama; from high-end period dramas like Pride and Prejudice to the current award-winning Sherlock; from the sci-fi megahit Doctor Who to major entertainment formats like Strictly Come Dancing.

Remaining dedicated to high-end public-service programming in an increasingly fragmented and competitive television environment has created several challenges for the BBC. Tony Hall, its director-general, is determined to maintain the BBC’s relevance, its excellence and the loyalty of its viewers. He has had an inside view of the strength of the public broadcaster. He worked for 28 years in various news positions and eventually became chief executive of BBC News in 2001. He later left the BBC and returned as director-general in 2012.

Since it first started broadcasting, the BBC has been financed by a license fee levied on British households. In 2013 that brought in £3.7 billion ($6 billion). No increases are foreseen for another three years. The British government has frozen the license fee at its 2010 level until March 2017. The license fee is used to program and operate ten national TV channels, ten national radio stations, BBC Online, BBC World Service and more. The broadcaster also receives revenues from its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, whose businesses include program sales, licensing and merchandising and operating international channels. In 2013, BBC Worldwide returned to the BBC some £174 million ($284 million), which was pumped right back into programming.

The BBC Trust, the governing body of the BBC (separate from the Executive Board, which is headed by Tony Hall) ensures that the broadcaster delivers on its mission and that license-fee payers are getting their money’s worth. The Trust recently set strategic objectives for the BBC and challenged it to make the most creative and distinctive output; innovate online to create a more personal BBC; serve all audiences; and improve value for money through a simpler, more efficient and more open BBC. Hall offers World Screen his response to these challenges and explains his vision for allowing BBC in-house producers to make shows for competing channels, moving BBC Three online, expanding the iPlayer and continuing to make quality programs.

WS: Rules governing the BBC require that at least 25 percent of its programs come from independent producers and that a minimum of 50 percent come from in-house producers. In a recent speech you said you want to open up the BBC to further competition, and allow the BBC’s in-house producers to make shows for other channels in the U.K.
HALL: The BBC is one of the world’s great program-makers. It is also one of the biggest commissioners of programs from the U.K.’s amazingly successful independent production sector. The two together have helped make this country’s creative economy envied across the world.

Some have called for the BBC to abandon in-house production and become purely a “publisher-broadcaster.” I’m convinced this would be the wrong route for us. Maintaining an in-house production arm is vital to our future, not only because of the benefits it brings back to the BBC through intellectual property and rights, but because of the great programs it continues to make. Some of our biggest hits are made by our in-house production teams, and there is no case for them to suddenly stop making programs.

But what I do want is a level playing field between BBC producers and independent ones. I want proper competition in program supply, overturning the current system that no longer works as it should. Under our plans, independent producers will be able to compete to make programs for BBC Television, without caps and quotas, but in exchange the BBC should be able to make programs for other broadcasters, both in the U.K. and abroad.

Every day, viewers, listeners and users in the U.K. have the opportunity to choose freely from hundreds of television channels, hundreds of radio stations and millions of websites. The fact that they choose the BBC 140 million times a day is a tribute to our quality, not a sign of a lack of competition. So I want to extend that competition to the way we make programs. Ultimately this plan should drive up the quality available to all viewers.

For the independent sector there is the attraction that the current 50 percent guarantee for BBC in-house production would be removed and for in-house there is the knowledge that BBC Production would be able to compete freely around the world and take their ideas that weren’t made by the BBC to other broadcasters.

The next step is to work with our many partners to develop our plans. These are far from final proposals. It’s clear that in some areas we need to put in safeguards, for example to protect smaller producers. But we want to be in a position to put the plans to the BBC Trust to form part of their own review of supply this autumn. And then it will take a new Charter to put them into effect.

WS: Tell us about transforming the iPlayer from a catch-up service to the BBC’s primary digital entertainment destination and complementary fifth channel. And why have you decided to move BBC Three to the iPlayer as an online channel only?
HALL: The iPlayer service is the best in the world—but we want to make it even better. We want to transform it from being catch-up TV to online TV. As BBC iPlayer adapts, it will become more interactive and contain more content that has been specially commissioned exclusively for viewers on iPlayer. This is a journey all broadcasters are on, but I want the BBC to be at the forefront of it.

On BBC Three, it wasn’t an easy decision to move the service online, but I believe it was the right thing to do. The 2010 license fee settlement means that we have to make some tough choices. We have had to look for savings wherever we could. My main concern was that any choices we made shouldn’t compromise the quality of our programs.

Looking around the organization it was clear that we had taken incremental change as far as we could. Any further cuts would have led to a dangerous salami-slicing of our services and visible impacts on quality. So we needed to make a big decision.

The move online meant that £30 million ($48 million) will be freed up for us to invest in drama, which is a vitally important genre to us. Subject to the BBC Trust’s approval we also want to extend children’s programs by an hour a night and provide a BBC One +1 [timeshifted] channel.

For BBC Three there is a tremendous opportunity to create a new space for young people that will be exciting and distinctive. It will give us a chance to look at new forms, formats, different durations, and more individualized and interactive content. It’s a great opportunity to bring young audiences more exciting programming.

WS: With all the success of the iPlayer, are you concerned about the future relevance and viability of linear channels?
HALL: Linear channels still have a long life ahead of them. For all the success of catch-up services, all the facts show that people still enjoy watching TV live and together.

TV channels are, in a way, social media in the true sense of the term. When England played Italy in the World Cup earlier this year, BBC One had an audience of more than 15 million at nearly midnight. This August more than 2 million Scots (out of a population of 5.3 million) watched the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. It was the third best-performing program in Scotland since 2001—showing that the power of television to bring people together around big national events is undiminished.

In fact, we are seeing a new trend starting—perhaps unexpectedly. There are more big events than a few years ago, and those big events are getting bigger.

So in the future, we will need to find the right blend of engaging, well-scheduled linear channels and distinctive on-demand content, so that everyone feels they are getting something from the BBC.

WS: What are the types of shows the BBC needs to continue to offer in order to meet its public-service obligations and at the same time draw large audiences to its linear channels?
HALL: It’s important to me that our program-makers feel they can be free to take risks and be creative. We’ve seen Sherlock be hugely successful at the Emmys and dramas like Happy Valley and Line of Duty play out brilliantly with audiences because of their creativity and originality.

Building on the success of series like this, I want to allow every BBC program-maker to feel they have a license to be bold and not simply rely on derivative structures or plot lines. We need to create an environment where program-makers feel they can do their best work, take proper risks and create programs that stand out from the crowd.

One of the things we are really well placed to do is give free reign to great writers, actors and comedians. Somebody like Steven Moffat can work with the BBC to create two fantastic shows in Doctor Who and Sherlock, both of which are hugely popular with audiences, but which have the ability to evolve at their own pace in a way that just wouldn’t happen at a commercial broadcaster. British television drama is particularly good at this—we let writers shape their stories in their way, no matter what that means for the length of each episode or the number of episodes. Other more formulaic markets don’t allow for that kind of creative freedom.

As for new programs, we have a second series of The Fall starring Gillian Anderson and a gripping new drama called The Missing, as well as a new factual series: A Black History Of Britain with David Olusoga on BBC Two. I’m also really looking forward to Christmas on BBC One as for me it reflects so many of the channel’s strengths: variety, range, quality and entertainment; really special programming that brings families together every year.

WS: The iPlayer is just one area where the BBC is looking to innovate. In what other areas are you looking for innovation?
HALL: Internally one of the most interesting things we’re working on is a new digital innovation unit, called the Guerrilla Group, based at BBC Birmingham. They will help us explore the next-generation of content and services by helping find new and creative ways to tell our stories. They will have a particular focus on working with young and diverse audiences.

As far as our audience proposition goes, in the tradition of BBC iPlayer, we’ve had some real successes recently. We’re seeing audiences increasingly access our content through their phones and tablets, so we’ve launched news, sport and weather and a number of children’s apps alongside our iPlayer and iPlayer radio apps. The BBC Weather app was the fastest-growing app we’ve ever had, with 8 million downloads since it launched just over a year ago.

BBC Playlister, which we launched last year, allows you to tag and save the music you hear on the BBC and play again in full using our digital music partners—helping people discover and enjoy more music.

Looking ahead we’re working on plans for greater personalization of our services, such as recommending TV or radio programs that are more relevant for you or services linking to your location. There are a lot of really interesting new ideas we’re working on.

WS: In 2016/2017 there will be 26 percent less funding available for public service in the U.K., and at the same time, competition in the market is increasing. What plans does the BBC have for savings while still investing not only in programming but also in new projects?
HALL: There is no doubt the license fee settlement of 2010 has left us with hard decisions to make. We’re on track with our savings plans but there haven’t always been easy choices.

For example we were clear that the BBC Three move wouldn’t have happened at the time it did if we didn’t have financial pressures to juggle. We’ve taken new daytime originations off BBC Two and we’ve made adjustments to our radio schedules. We’re also reducing our property portfolio and making big savings in our contracts with third parties. I want to make sure that we have enough money to invest in new content, particularly in areas people really value, such as new British drama.

WS: The BBC Trust has said that there aren’t enough creative risks being taken at the BBC. In what ways are you investing in new talent and programming development?
HALL: I feel passionately about bringing new talent to the BBC. We’ve increased the number of young people coming into the BBC significantly by launching new apprentice schemes. When I re-joined the BBC we only had 37 apprentices, by the end of this year we will have 170—about 1 percent of our public-service workforce. I see these as the stars and commissioners of the future and we will do all we can to keep and encourage them.

On screen you’ll notice that we are commissioning more content exclusively on BBC iPlayer, which allows us to work with new and emerging talent in exciting ways that are not possible on a linear channel. We’re also making sure that the data we track about our performance allows us to understand whether we’re doing enough to provide fresh and new content.

WS: What opportunities for growth do you see in BBC Worldwide? How important are international businesses and markets to the BBC?
HALL: Last year BBC Worldwide returned over £170 million ($273 million) to the BBC. This was money that helped us put more outstanding programs on air and develop programs we wouldn’t have had the chance to otherwise. This was particularly true in high-end drama and factual, with titles including Top of the Lake, Sherlock and our natural-history landmark series Hidden Kingdoms.

This year, Worldwide’s annual Showcase event attracted over 700 attendees and launched over 2,800 hours of TV programs, whilst our fourth annual China Showcase sold 300 hours of programs. In North America, BBC America delivered its best year yet in ratings, which climbed by 13.5 percent, delivering eight consecutive years of growth.