Many headlines rang out ‘New BBC DG against subscription model’ following Tim Davie’s first speech. If my memory of reporter school is right – it is a very long time ago – this is a classic ‘dog bites man’ headline. In other words, no news at all. The news would have been ‘New DG does support subscription model’, now that would have been a ‘man bites dog story’.
It also would have been a ‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’ story. And it would have meant the BBC’s recruitment process was so lamentable it had managed to appoint an executive opposed to the BBC’s fundamental DNA of universality. To be fair, given some of the people they have appointed over the years, that wouldn’t have been that surprising.
But no, Davie is a card-carrying BBC insider. But at least he is an insider who has been on the outside, albeit many years ago. I don’t count BBC Enterprises/World/Studios, or whatever the consultants have decided it should be called now. Flogging quality programmes with the best brand in the world on them and a very generous cost of sale calculation, isn’t exactly the world’s toughest assignment. But in his early days in Pepsico he certainly will have known KPIs that actually have consequences, and he may even remember what coming face to face with an actual P+L is like.
His debut speech does at least foreshadow that he recognises the existential threat the corporation faces. And his lightly veiled criticism of the previous regime’s strategy of doubling down on, and expanding, their very BBCness, is encouraging.
Those of us who want the BBC to succeed in remaining a universallyavailable source of quality content and news unavailable elsewhere, but have seen it threaten its own existence by building tanks and parking them on lawns it has no business being on, will cheer him on.
There was never a valid argument for the BBC doing everything, and certainly not ‘everything but bigger than anyone else’. There was an argument for it doing some things that others could do in order to draw audiences to the true motherload – the things others can’t or won’t do, either because they don’t have the talent or facilities, or it just won’t make money, or both.
That argument is harder to sustain in a world where vast quantities of high-end drama, reality, and shiny-floor shows are available elsewhere. But it must be sustained, because it is still true. But we have to believe the BBC will truly focus on producing new, innovative versions (that it can then make money on), not make stuff others have already tried. It needs its EastEnders, Strictlys, and Bake Offs (oops) and great children’s programmes. But it doesn’t need the next 20 weak clones of those shows.
And it doesn’t need to pay people fortunes to ‘spin the same discs’ (one for the teenagers there) as everyone else, or websites that crucify local news, or do anything else that many commercial outlets provide perfectly well, thanks.
And while it does need to provide independent news and current affairs – and how – it doesn’t need to have editors on the payroll who if they spend 20 minutes on air in a month they are rushed off their feet. Or send five reporters to cover stories others are doing fine with one or two at most. Or have dinosaur presenters still making lengthy reflective appearances years after they had finally been (very generously) pensioned off.
Oh, and as Davie himself said, the BBC doesn’t need management layers or committees that self- regenerate like Japanese knotweed no matter how much you cut them back.
Good luck, Tim.
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