UK audio producers call for more BBC competition
May 23, 2023
By Colin Mann
AudioUK, the trade body for independent audio production companies, is calling for more of BBC’s radio and audio non-news speech content to be open to competition for external producers. It has made the call in response to the publication of an internal radio and audio speech production review, the result of which is some speech audio production teams being moved out of the BBC’s public service operation and into its commercial arm, BBC Studios.
BBC Radio suggests its proposal to evolve its in-house speech audio production model will strengthen the BBC’s overall offer to audiences as listening habits change and to increase creative opportunities for talent.
“Live listening continues to be hugely popular and our portfolio of distinctive stations will always be at the heart of our offer to millions of listeners, ” says the BBC. “But as the global podcast market has grown over the last five years by nearly 50 per cent, the BBC set up a review of its speech audio production in May 2022 to carefully consider different models to see how the BBC could tap into the global market for podcasts, strengthen our public service output and keep talented people at the BBC.”
“As a result of the review, the vast majority of network radio speech content that is produced by the BBC’s in-house teams will stay as it is now. At the same time, we will look to grow the existing audio production teams at BBC Studios by moving over selected programming from factual, entertainment and drama. We also aim to build on BBC Studios’ distribution expertise for the benefit of the whole audio industry in the UK.”
“The proposal places programmes and teams where they can best thrive creatively within the BBC, allowing us to grow global audiences and revenues to bring more investment back into the BBC to benefit all audiences.”
There are no cost savings or planned headcount reductions as part of this transfer, but across the BBC we will continue to develop our plans to serve all audiences. The move is subject to a regulatory approval and anticipated to happen on 1st April 2024.
The outcomes of the review are:
Audiences are best served by having the vast majority of BBC Radio’s in-house speech content produced as it is now, meaning there is no wholesale change. This safeguards the BBC’s unique, rich offer to listeners and retains expertise and scale. The BBC’s in-house production will focus on radio and podcast output that is built around journalism, topicality and live broadcast, such as Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Start the Week and Loose Ends, as well as arts, science, rural affairs, religion, books, and the production for BBC World Service. The Archers, as a continuing drama, will also stay in-house. News and Current Affairs, Music, Sport and audio productions teams in the Nations division are not impacted by this review. Ninety-two per cent of the total BBC Radio Network spend on speech content remains unaffected by these proposed changes.
The growth in the global podcast market is opening up creative opportunities in factual, entertainment and drama. To respond to this, we will look to build on BBC Studios’ existing, successful audio production unit to succeed both in the UK and internationally. We propose to move timeless network radio content over to BBC Studios that is made for audiences in the UK, but also has global appeal, including a range of entertainment and conversation programmes (e.g Desert Island Discs, In Our Time and The Life Scientific), as well as drama and documentaries, which we can see creative opportunities for. This proposed transfer will create a thriving multi-genre audio operation in BBC Studios that can continue to make high quality programming for BBC audiences, as well as realise more of the opportunities provided by the global audio market – for example securing more commissions and identifying more collaboration and funding opportunities to scale up ideas and productions across TV, audio and digital. There will be more creative opportunities for people, both in front of and behind the mic, and more investment coming back into the BBC to spend in public service content for all audiences. This move represents 8% of the total BBC Radio Network spend on speech content.
BBC Studios already make much of Radio 4’s comedy output (e.g., The Infinite Monkey Cage, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, Just A Minute, The News Quiz) and factual and TV companion podcasts for the BBC (Believe In Magic, Vishal, Just One Thing and Bang On It, The Strictly Come Dancing podcast, and Inside Inside No 9). BBC Studios’ audio teams also create distinctive audio content with global appeal for a range of platforms internationally, including Audible and Spotify. BBC Studios plays a crucial role in making programmes that uniquely deliver the BBC’s public mission and purposes, from brilliant audio content to its world-class Natural History output, much of the BBC’s high-end documentary programming, children’s TV programming, and major national events such as the Coronation.
We will build on BBC Studios’ distribution expertise for the benefit of the audio industry in the UK. We want to reach more audiences for British audio content across the world and grow the audio sector in the UK, as it’s an important part of the success of the overall creative industry in the UK. BBC Radio is in discussions with the audio sector about a package of initiatives designed to support the independent market, and as BBC Studios is the largest distributor of British programmes in the world, how we can leverage BBC Studios’ global resource in distribution for the benefit of the whole sector in the UK. By plugging into BBC Studios’ existing global network, we will also be better placed to secure distribution deals for relevant audio content from across the BBC, increasing our reach and revenues internationally.
Charlotte Moore, BBC Chief Content Officer, says: “Our plan allows the BBC to benefit from the fast-growing global audio market, enabling our distinctive audio content to reach wider audiences, open up more creative opportunities and bring more investment back into the BBC. We’ve seen how world-class BBC programming that’s hugely popular with our UK audiences can go on to do great things with BBC Studios’ backing, so I’m excited to see what can be achieved by this plan, helping to put British podcasting on a global stage.”
Tom Fussell, Chief Executive Officer, BBC Studios, says: “There’s real international appetite for content that is rooted in the BBC’s public service values and we’re excited by the prospect of growing our team and supporting their creative ambitions. We already deliver world class content to everyone from Radio 4 and BBC Sounds to Audible and Spotify and want to invest in more British audio IP.”
BBC Radio will continue to commission the best, most creative ideas from a wide range of suppliers. There are no changes to our existing contestability commitments, and as part of the proposal, 100 per cent of all new speech programming for network radio will be open for competition. Given the areas identified to move, BBC’s in-house production team and BBC Studios will generally operate side-by-side as audio suppliers and not in competition with each other, says the Corporation.
According to AudioUK, previously, when the BBC moved its TV production to BBC Studios, enabling it to compete against independent creative TV producers to make programmes for other broadcasters, the Government in return required that the BBC open up 100 per cent of its TV commissioning to external competition, by the end of the current Charter period.
Unlike for BBC TV, much of the BBC’s radio and audio production has remained in-house and cannot make programmes for other commissioners such as Amazon, Audible or Spotify The BBC has a BBC Charter requirement to make 60 per cent of ‘relevant hours’ in its network radio commissions to external competition. BBC Sounds, which was set up after the current Charter came into force, has voluntarily followed this requirement.
AudioUK is therefore making the case that if the BBC is moving capacity to compete against the independent sector in the open audio production market, then independent audio producers should correspondingly be able to compete for additional non–news BBC speech productions. While the BBC makes new commissions compete-able, there remain many long-running BBC programmes which do not have any creative competition.
“The BBC is a key player in the future of the expansion of the UK audio market both in the UK and on the global stage; it is therefore important that it partners fully with the independent sector, to maximise the beneficial effect for the UK’s creative industries,” stated Chloe Straw, Managing Director of AudioUK.
“The BBC’s decision to move some speech audio production teams into BBC Studios represent a step change in its approach, with it moving production capacity to provide further competition to the independent sector. As most independent audio production businesses specialise in entertainment, factual and drama, they will now face additional competition from the BBC in the wider market.”
“The BBC has assured us that it is committed to continuing to make 60 per cent of all non-news network radio open to competition and it has also assured us that 100 per cent of new speech commissions will be competed for, however there remain large parts of BBC radio and audio commissioning which are not open to competition from indie producers.”
“This means there needs to be a market correction, in terms of a further increase to competition for independent producers to make BBC radio and audio programmes, not just in speech but across all the BBC’s radio and audio output. We look forward to working with the BBC to ensure that the Licence Fee Paying audience are benefiting from the widest range of creative ideas,” she concluded.