BBC Bosses Quizzed on Gender Pay Gap, Competition From Streaming Giants

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Director general Tony Hall and others in parliament also discussed a recent spike in sexual harassment and bullying complaints.

The gender pay gap, competition from global streaming powerhouses and the battle against sexual harassment and bullying were in focus Tuesday as senior management of U.K. public broadcaster BBC, including chairman David Clementi, director general Tony Hall and deputy director general Anne Bulford, answered questions before the British Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Harvey Weinstein, Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Brexit were all mentioned, as were the BBC's recently published annual report and the renewal of the public broadcaster's royal charter, which established a unitary board that replaced a previous two-tier governance structure. 

Asked about the BBC's attempts to battle bullying and sexual harassment since the Jimmy Savile scandal a few years ago, Bulford said surveys and internal "temperature checks" show progress in the sense that people feel "more confident" now about reporting issues, and that they feel the BBC will properly respond to complaints. She said the BBC has also made "good progress" on the time it takes to investigate complaints. 

After the initial reports of sexual harassment and assault against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the BBC also reiterated its policies and procedures in cases of harassment and bullying, Bulford said. "After the Weinstein material was published, we reminded staff again of the procedures," she explained, after emphasizing that "all the time we are encouraging people to step forward."

Bulford said the BBC has seen a recent "spike" in bullying/harassment complaints cases, which are currently at a three-year high. She said that after 80 cases in fiscal year 2013-14 and about 40 in each of the following two years, the BBC was currently investigating 25 live cases, "which is a range of different issues coming through." She didn't say how many overall complaints had been made for the current fiscal year, which ends in March, or how many have been made since the Weinstein scandal started to unfold in early October.

Hall on Tuesday reiterated the BBC's zero tolerance policy on bullying and harassment.

The broadcaster's gender pay gap was also a topic of debate in the committee hearing. It made headlines in July, when the BBC revealed the salaries of its top stars. Hall then responded to an open letter from some of the BBC's most prominent female journalists and TV hosts, which demanded that the broadcaster fix the gap immediately. At the hearing, he said that work to close the gap was "already well underway," emphasizing that he was confident the salary figures next year would "look very different," and that addressing the issue was his "personal priority." He also reiterated his and the BBC's commitment to close the pay gap by 2020, as previously promised.

Hall said the BBC was looking at getting the balance right and possibly reducing the salaries of some male stars if they are seen as being overpaid. "We have tight budgets, and we want to make sure we do what is right," he said, "but also, we've got to recognize that we have limited funds to deal with these issues." He pointed out that the BBC's spending on top talent is down by a quarter over the past five years.

Will spending necessarily have to rise to help women catch up in terms of pay? Hall said, "I absolutely can't tell you now what the figure is going to be that we disclose in our annual report for next year, but I am determined to both get the issues we need to tackle right and also to make sure that we get the right balance of pay for our key presenters."

Asked about possible new paid services that the BBC could launch, Hall said the broadcaster is looking at providing paid, possibly subscription access to older shows in its library, such as older episodes of soap opera EastEnders, via its iPlayer on-demand service.  However, "The predominant and, in my view, the key way to fund the BBC is through the license fee" charged to U.K. taxpayers, he emphasized.

Asked why the BBC Store, a VOD store that launched in the U.K. in 2015 and closed in 2016, failed, Hall said the download-to-own model was an experiment that failed to gain traction. Instead, streaming on demand became the way to go, he said, arguing that "what Netflix and others have done is utterly brilliant."

Streaming video companies like Netflix and other technology giants were also in focus elsewhere in the Tuesday hearing. The future of British-made TV shows, such as Sherlock and Broadchurch, is "under serious threat" amid the rise of Netflix, Amazon and Apple and other industry changes, Hall had said last week. "We have to face the reality that the British content we value and rely upon is under serious threat," he said.

Hall argued that the rise of streaming and tech giants and a drop in advertising revenue for commercial networks in Britain could lead to a drop in the amount spent on making shows in Britain by £500 million a year ($660 million) over the next decade, or more than 20 percent of spending on British programs.

Asked about this challenge in the committee hearing on Tuesday, Hall said, "It is absolutely brilliant that Game of Thrones is made in Northern Ireland. I love Game of Thrones.... But the thing, which concerns me in the long also U.K. content about the U.K. Can we be certain that in this global world that...we have and we will continue to have investment in U.K. drama about the U.K.?"

He said global giants can spend more on high-end dramas and other shows than the BBC can, but the public broadcaster can use lower budgets and partners and be efficient in its content spending. "For the money that you are spending on very high-end drama... we can also show that you can get three, four, five or more series for that," Hall said. "Although top-end drama is getting toward film land, low-end film land, actually we're still investing in drama that is cheaper but is also delivering here," such as hit Happy Valley.

In Tuesday's Daily Telegraph, though, Gary Davey, Sky's group managing director for content, challenged Hall's argument. In an opinion piece entitled "The BBC may feel threatened by Netflix and Amazon, but Sky doesn't," he quoted a report from U.K. media regulator Ofcom that said public service broadcasters in the U.K. have already collectively spent £600 million less on U.K. original content over the past 10 years.

"Tony Hall...said the entire U.K. production industry was facing a significant threat thanks to the arrival of competition from streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon," Davey wrote. "If anything, the exact opposite is true. What he sees as a threat, I see as an opportunity."

He added: "If the BBC really does want to be Britain’s creative partner, as stated in their annual plan, then they should rise to the challenge of competition, reset their priorities and back the U.K. production sector by working with new partners, as the rest of the industry does."

Davey concluded: "Our TV production industry is booming, and far from international productions taking over the U.K., it is U.K. productions that are taking over the world. As the biggest English-speaking market outside the U.S., we have an opportunity and the talent base to play an important part in the global creative community."

Hall on Tuesday said he agreed with Davey on key points but highlighted that recent research predicts that increased production spending by Sky, Netflix and others will only partially offset the lower spending projected elsewhere in Britain.

Clementi was asked on Tuesday about how the new unitary board of the BBC has been working. He said, "It is a much more satisfactory way of operating" than the old governance setup of an executive team and the BBC Trust regulatory body. 

Hall on Tuesday also referenced Brexit, saying the BBC World channel should become a free-to-air service in Europe, just like the BBC World Service, to showcase U.K. soft power after its exit from the European Union.