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BBC and BT: New leaders, what direction?

December 16, 2013

Two great British institutions have relatively new chiefs at the helm. And these aren’t just corporate suits from central casting but leaders, who, according to them, will redefine the direction of their organisations.

At the British Broadcasting Corporation, Lord Tony Hall has returned to repair a corporate reputation battered by many recent events. But he also has to prepare it for Charter Review, in other words set a course that first wins politicians backing, in order to secure the licence fee, but also the public’s backing over whatever period the fee is granted for. Unfortunately, while doing a good job on the first count, Hall is more Brezhnev than Gorbachev when it comes to addressing the fundamentals of the institution and how it should relate to its audience and the market place in a dramatically changing media landscape.

Hall was the BBC manager directly responsible for the biggest public broadcaster crushing of a new commercial programming idea ever. He was the man behind Frank Bough (see BBC heroes turned bad passim) and his jumpers pre-empting and destroying TVam, the initially earnest and worthy breakfast TV show from David Frost et al. The BBC had never  considered doing breakfast TV before TVam came along but here was another lawn someone else had made that the BBC could not resist parking its tanks on.

The BBC is a marvellous organisation with a proud history and, in many ways, is the envy of the world. It has consistently made very remarkable programmes (that’s content in case anyone wondered), and has been a hub of national creativity.

And it has done all this while remaining good value for money in return for the £145.50 (€171) all UK TV homes must come up with on pain of imprisonment. That broadcasting tax (it is disingenuous to describe any other way) generates £3.8bn for the BBC to spend as it pleases. The fact that it has spent it tolerably wisely is the reason it remains probably the only tax most people remain steadfastly relaxed about.

But in this world of instant social media zeitgeist even the strongest reputations can be rendered fragile. Viewers have always moaned about content – there’s never enough of what they like – but do realise that the whole point of the BBC is as a selection box that needs to serve all tastes. Everyone unites on not liking monumental incompetence (Digital Media Initative, anyone?), buck passing (Savile Inquiry…?) and fat cattery on the grand scale (mega pay-offs for public service execs) that recent BBC scandals have revealed.

The new DG is trying to slim the management and re-burnish its mission statement. The Corporation has thrown out a lot of overpaid managers (anyone missed them?) and is trying to pay those left less. But he is a ‘no retreat’ man when it comes to the BBC’s scope; no fewer channels, as much online as we can possibly get away with, reach every device we can possibly populate. He thinks it is the BBC’s responsibility to go everywhere a licence payer could, theoretically, find them. He doesn’t think it prejudices other players in these markets or on these platforms. He doesn’t, by definition, therefore think the BBC TV tax would be better spent on less quantity of content and transmission but higher quality.

He has stood against cutting any channels on the basis of the uproar against Six Music closing (that’s the point with tiny protest groups like Six listeners – they are vociferous), and he supports the new music playlist services despite the fact commercial players could provide them and they will probably drive even more listeners away from regular radio.

The perfect New Year resolution for the BBC is Do Less, Do it Better. No chance, I’m afraid.

Over at BT another new man is taking the company from a period of downswing (BT’s international division was eviscerated in the slump), to a new dawn. Gavin Patterson is, by his own admission, a bold manager – he told the Sunday Times this week; “sometimes in your career you have to make difficult decisions, and sometimes they are not sure things.” He’s talking about the European Championship football rights (and by extension, presumably, the massive bid they will have to make for Premier League rights in order not to render the European ones worth rather less).

The trouble is the boldness is clear but not much else is. Is this a bid to become a pay-TV player with a quad play proposition, or is it merely to protect BT’s leading slice of the broadband market? Both have been promulgated – by BT….

At least Patterson and all have woken up to the fact that a telco without a proper mobile offer is like car company that only makes three wheelers – quaint but ultimately doomed. BT now believes it can seamlessly knit together wifi hotspots, new digital spectrum and rented network from EE into a convincing BT 4G offer to put alongside fixed broadband and TV.

The trouble is that even if the overall strategy (self described, remember, as ‘not a sure thing’) turns out to be spot-on, implementation is more than likely to be disastrous. I wrote before that BT Vision will fail and that was before it paid all that money for European football. And now, just as Patterson reveals his cajones to the press,… “Let’s be honest: this bet is not for the faint-hearted,” it is announced that BT TV was the most complained about pay TV service in the UK (again) during the third quarter, according to Ofcom. Complaints had doubled on the previous quarter.  At 0.56 complaints per 1,000 customers it out ‘bads’ Virgin by ten times and Sky by even more than that. I don’t know about faint-hearted, you’d have to be feeble minded to think BT should massively expand its consumer offer – let alone in television! – until it can get its customer care several rungs up the satisfaction ladder; how about aiming for a climb from ‘just embarrassing’ to merely ‘inadequate’ for starters.





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