Weakened BBC Would See "American Tastemakers" Dominate U.K., Chief Says

ONE TIME USE - Tony Hall - H 2012
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Tony Hall also says the U.K. public broadcaster should be a "British creative beacon to the world," promises a "myBBC revolution" and talks Apple and Netflix.

BBC director general Tony Hall said Monday that the U.K. public broadcaster must become an online "pioneer" to remain a key player  in the digital age, promising a "myBBC revolution."

In a speech delivered at the broadcaster's central London headquarters, he also said: "The BBC is at a crossroads. Down one path lies a BBC reduced in impact and reach in a world of global giants. Damaging the U.K.’s creative industries. A sleep-walk into decay for the BBC, punching below its weight abroad and Britain diminished as a result. Which means a U.K. dominated by global gatekeepers, partial news and American tastemakers."

He also said: “As American media giants colonize the world, supporting a thriving British culture will be essential.”

A committee of the U.K. parliament had said in a report on the future of the BBC on Thursday that the BBC Trust, the public broadcaster's governing body, should be abolished and that the license fee that British TV homes pay to help fund it should eventually be replaced by a levy on all households.

The report also argued: "The BBC has tried for too long to provide 'something for everyone': it should reduce provision in areas where others are better placed to deliver excellence and better value for money, and make bigger, braver decisions on its strategy."

Hall on Monday said that the BBC should be a "British creative beacon to the world." About the plan to make the BBC a digital pioneer, he said the broadcaster had "far-reaching plans" that will be outlined in more detail in the future. But Hall said they are designed to use personal data and online recommendations in ways that see "the audience...become schedulers."

He added: "This is the start of a real transformation – the myBBC revolution. How to reinvent public service broadcasting through data. But we will always be doing it the BBC way – not telling you what customers like you bought, but what citizens like you would love to watch and need to know."

The report and Hall's speech come as the first vocal contributions to a debate about the BBC's future and its role in a changing media landscape as the broadcaster prepares to negotiate a new royal charter to replace one that expires at the end of 2016. The charter sets out its public duties and funding principles.

"The BBC has never been afraid of debates about its future," Hall said Monday. "What we do is undeniably good for Britain and the British public, and will become even more so in the Internet age."

Discussing the license fee, he said "we’ve always said that the license fee should be updated to reflect changing times," adding: "I welcome the committee’s endorsement of our proposal to make people pay the license fee even if they only watch catch-up television. The committee has suggested another route to modernizing the license fee – a universal household levy. Both proposals have the same goal in mind: adapting the license fee for the Internet age. This is vital. Because I believe we need and we will need what the license fee – in whatever form – makes happen more than ever."

Making great programs is “at the heart of the BBC,” Hall said Monday in focusing on the creative side of the business. “Since the last charter, the market has gone global. Ten years ago, the BBC and Apple had the same global revenues. Today, Apple is 20 times bigger. Twenty times bigger. And that gives them colossal buying power.”

But Hall added: “The BBC is one of the best program makers in the world, and the Internet gives us new ways to get our programs to new audiences around the globe, and new partners to work with. We’re already benefiting. We co-produce with all the leading content commissioners in the U.S. and from around the world.”

As examples, he cited Parade’s End, made with HBO, Life Story, made with Discovery, France Television and The Open University, and Luther, co-produced with its own BBC America. “Co-commissioning and co-production are great deals for our audiences,” Hall concluded, citing a figure other BBC executives have also mentioned in the past. “For the amount that Netflix spent on the first two series of House of Cards, we were able to make 14 drama series.”

Email: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai