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Speaking at the ‘Future of the Licence Fee’ seminar at City University in London, Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, has outlined plans for the Corporation to adopt a mantra of ‘compete or compare’, including raising the possibility of major changes to BBC in-house production. He also announced a desire to extend competition where it works across the BBC, and where it is not appropriate, to make greater use of comparisons with the best practice in the market.
Addressing delegates, he referred to what he described as “the highly competitive media market in Britain” and how he believed that the BBC strengthened rather than threatened this diversity. “We are – and must be – a great enabler for the creative industry in this country,” he asserted.
“We are committed to our mission as a public broadcaster, as creative people, as reporters, as broadcasters. We will be the place where creative people come to do the best work of their lives. But I want the BBC also to be the best at managing itself. When anyone in this country asks, where are the organisations with the most advanced thinking on management and reform, I want them to think of the BBC,” he said.
Outlining the BBC’s new plans, he suggested it was going to go further than it had ever done before in opening up to more competition. “A competition revolution,” he stated, adding that this extended to using external benchmarks and comparisons to drive up standards and drive down costs.
“‘Compete or Compare’. That is our strategy,” he declared, saying that competition was good for the BBC and he wanted more of it. “I want proper competition in programme supply, overturning the current system that no longer works as it should. I want a less regulated system that ensures that both our own BBC producers and those of the independent sector have creative freedom. I want a level playing-field between BBC producers and independent ones. I want both a BBC production powerhouse that is a beacon for creativity, risk-taking and quality; and an amazing, world-beating independent sector. I want a system that supports British content and that keeps the UK competitive in a global market,” he noted.
“This competition is going to help make the BBC as efficient as any broadcaster in the country,” he claimed, stressing that it was not going to sacrifice quality to price. “We are going to have both. To use retail terminology, great programmes at great prices.”
Referring to the success of ‘managed competition’ which had led to the introduction of production quotas and the emergence of a thriving independent production sector, Hall suggested that it had now produced the need for change, with consolidation in the sector and multi-billion mergers involving broadcast and pay-TV platforms.
“In this new environment, ‘managed competition’ produces an increasingly distorted market,” he argued. “Under the current rules some big, global producers no longer count as fully independent so their shows can’t go in the 25 per cent of BBC television airtime guaranteed to independent producers. So a big long-running independently-produced series like MasterChef has had to move into the 25 per cent window of creative competition that’s open to everyone. That squeezes out creativity and innovation. Big returning strands – brilliant as they are – now take up space designed for new ideas. A system set up to encourage competition and choice has begun to forcibly corral producers into three separate tribes.”
He noted that with managed competition, BBC Production only had one buyer – BBC Commissioning – which inevitably constrained its opportunities. “More importantly, it’s limited in the kinds of commercial deals it can make. It can’t compete globally in the way that big independent studios can. We’re finding it harder to retain talented people, who grew up with the BBC but who now feel they have the freedom to be more creative and competitive elsewhere.
So managed competition worked to develop a mature market for independent production and to protect BBC Production while this happened. But now we need change,” he stated.
“Both big independent producers and BBC Production should be able to stand on their own feet. We are going to work with our many partners to develop our plans for the future supply of programmes. These are far from final proposals. We will put them to the BBC Trust to form part of their own review of supply this autumn. And it will take a new Charter to put them into effect,” he suggested.
Hall said he wanted to help strengthen a real sense of entrepreneurialism and creative ambition he saw at the BBC. “But proper competition and entrepreneurialism requires a level playing-field. We should have regulation in the TV supply market only where it’s needed so that we can let creativity and innovation flourish. For instance, is it right that independent producers that are part of global media organisations bigger than the BBC need guarantees or special negotiating protections,” he asked. He suggested that his aim in introducing the ‘compete or compare’ work was “a world-class BBC. Not a low rent BBC”
He concluded by saying that if the BBC ever became a company of bureaucrats that happened to make some broadcast output, he would have failed “because the way we manage ourselves will have overwhelmed what we do. Instead we are going to be led by what we do best. By our creativity. We are going to trust it. We are going to let it speak for us. A confident BBC broadcasting to the world, open to the world. The greatest cultural force in Britain.”