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The BBC can succeed despite “significant” competition from global streamers, chairman Richard Sharp said on Wednesday. The U.K. public broadcaster may be “challenged,” but “benefits from not being in the capitalist model,” he argued at the Edinburgh TV Festival.
It will also look to “weaponize impartiality” under incoming BBC News boss Deborah Turness, one of its key values that can become a key selling point at a time when commercial news providers have seemed to become more polarized, he said.
Asked about the BBC’s diversity push, Sharp said he was “absolutely committed” to it, highlighting he doesn’t see it as a “box tick,” because it has to be and “it is existential to the BBC,” even though “we haven’t” gotten it right in the past.
Diversity and representation has been a big topic for the BBC. Earlier this year, for example, it set out a target of 25 percent of staff being “from lower socio-economic backgrounds” by 2027 to “ensure our workforce is more representative of the audiences we serve.” It highlighted that this makes the BBC “one of the first media organizations in the U.K. to set a target for socioeconomic diversity.”
The broadcaster also highlighted at the time that it has set itself “ambitious goals on and off air to improve its diversity, including increasing the proportion of women, those from an ethnic and minority background, and those with a disability who work for the BBC.”
In late July, the BBC said it was on track to spend £100 million ($121 million) on diverse and inclusive TV content by 2023/2024, a target it had set for itself in 2020 in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.
In his first appearance at the Edinburgh fest 18 months after taking over his role, Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker, former chair of the Royal Academy of Arts and past donor to the ruling Conservative Party, described his early work at the U.K. public broadcaster as learning and understanding.
Asked about what he learned about the BBC’s competition from streaming giants, Sharp said streamers’ arrival has had a “significant” impact, but also provides an opportunity for the BBC, whose streaming platform BBC iPlayer, for example, remains very popular and competitive. “We were the big dog in a small pound,” but now the BBC has global competition, he said. “I think we can compete,” even though the difference in terms of financial resources with U.S. giants is significant. Being nimble, executing well and being accountable is key here for the BBC’s success and its executives, Sharp argued. “We have every opportunity to succeed.” He even suggested that not being a publicly traded company like the likes of Netflix can be an advantage here as management can look beyond shorter-term pressures and issues.
“Constructive self-criticism” is one key value that the BBC should focus on more, including when it comes to evaluating such things as its cost per viewer and the success of programming bets, the chair suggested in Edinburgh. In that context, he lauded the public broadcaster’s decision to push women’s soccer with much success, as seen when the England team recently won the Euro 2022 tournament on home turf as a key example of creative risktaking that succeeded.
Political topics repeatedly came up given the BBC is often a topic of political debates in Britain. Sharp on Wednesday said he was “confident” he could handle any potential issues of government interference. “I will deal with it,” he said. “I will communicate with the government and am pretty confident they will listen.” The chair also shared that outgoing U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson told him that Sharp’s mission was “making BBC great” when he started.
“I am opinionated,” but had to change some opinions, Sharp shared during his appearance as he admitted that he used to see the BBC as “bloated, self-important.” But once he took on his role, he found it had started to take out layers of costs and was often “batting above” its weight.
“BBC has in some ways been too defensive” when it comes to criticism from politicians or media, Sharp even argued. “I think we must go on the offensive” given that British people seem to trust the BBC more than some media and political folks. He added: “It does annoy me that some politicians view it through a very narrow window.”
Asked more about impartiality, the BBC chair said the broadcaster has made mistakes from time to time and must acknowledge those cases and be constructive about them. Asked about some critics’ feeling that Sharp and BBC director general Tim Davie are representing the conservative government’s vision for the broadcaster, he said “there is nothing wrong to be a commercial entity that caters to a certain audience,” but that creates an opportunity for the BBC with its commitment to impartiality being a key selling point. He argued that BBC can in fact position itself as “the resource” for respected, impartial news, meaning impartiality is a key opportunity.
Asked if the license fee of £159 ($188) per year, which U.K. taxpayers pay, should remain the key way to fund the BBC in addition to profits from its BBC Studios commercial arm, Sharp only said on Wednesday: “We are reviewing all alternatives and haven’t reached a conclusion.” He called the BBC’s “commercial angle” a hybrid model that the broadcaster could possibly grow further.
In late March, the BBC said that it would “need to find £285 million ($375 million) in annual savings by 2027/28, requiring a reduction in the content and services we provide to audiences,” as a result of a recent license fee settlement with the British government. Under that, the fee will be frozen at its current price for two years from ’22/’23 and then rise in line with inflation for the following four years.
“While we recognize the license fee is a privilege, this is a disappointing outcome at a time of high inflation and media super-inflation,” the BBC said in March. “However, we go into the coming year in a strong financial position and with savings and inflation mitigations in place to help us manage through the first year of the settlement.”
Asked about younger audiences’ lower interest in linear media, Sharp said he expects younger people to be “media promiscuous.” And he said the BBC can still “super-serve” people with an appetite for British content around the world, sharing that he has been surprised by the success of streamer BritBox in international markets. “The streaming wars are now in the second or third stage,” Sharp argued in that context.
Sharp was interviewed by British actor and presenter David Harewood (Homeland, The Night Manager, Supergirl) who early on in the session joked: “We are both pretending here. I am an actor pretending to be an interviewer, and you are a banker pretending to be chair of the BBC.”
Sharp was interviewed by British actor and presenter David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl) who early on in the session joked: “We are both pretending here. I am an actor pretending to be an interviewer, and you are a banker pretending to be chair of the BBC.”
Sharp himself also joked early on about his appointment as chair over another contender. “The other candidate was Charles Moore who was a novel choice who had been prosecuted for not paying his (BBC) license fee, so it was a low bar,” he quipped.
Asked about the two candidates for the U.K. prime minister and Conservative Party leaderhip jobs, Sharp said former chancellor Rishi Sunak used to work for him, so he knows him well, while he doesn’t really know foreign secretary, and favorite, Liz Truss.
Political debate around the BBC also often centers on its commitment to impartiality, which critics from different political sides argue its coverage doesn’t always provide. For example, Sharp became BBC chairman in 2021 amid a series of critical debates on the broadcaster’s purpose, independence and direction. “I am considered to be a Brexiteer,” he acknowledged when grilled by a committee of the British parliament early that year, but said that “the breadth of the [BBC’s Brexit] coverage, I thought it was incredibly balanced in a highly toxic environment.” He did back then note though that topical debate show Question Time seemed to have more anti-Brexit voices. “There were certain occasions where the representation was unbalanced.”
The session with the BBC chair took place at the same time as Judi Dench brought her star power to another session at the festival, a special episode of BBC show The Repair Shop, in which the star of screen and stage brought in “a precious pocket watch, a gift she gave her late husband, Michael Williams, in 1972, but (that) now no longer works,” according to the producers. “Reminding her of times she had with Michael, she would like the watch to work and be heard again.”
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