Can a data-driven BBC be the digital heart of the nation? And should it even try? (2/2)

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan March 2, 2015
BBC Director General Tony Hall sees the broadcaster as the trusted heart of the nation. Is that the BBC's job in a multi-channel, digital age?

BBC - past

In the first part of this two part article, the BBC’s Director General Tony Hall argued that the broadcaster has thrived in the internet age and that it is about to deliver on more digital extensions to its service provision.

A flagship deliverable here will be the introduction of what he calls public service recommendations, based on exploitation of viewers personal data.

It’s a bold idea for a public service broadcaster, but one with a lot of risks. Hall explains:

Take Wolf Hall – we’re just dipping our toe in here at the moment. On the iPlayer, we recommend a feature on BBC Online about whether Anne Boleyn was a proto-feminist. It’s a great interview with Wolf Hall’s brilliant director Peter Kosminsky. But we could so much more – guiding you to the best of the BBC’s content about the Tudors or radio shows about historical novels. Or to something brilliant from the British Museum or the RSC.

The potential is huge. Letting our audience become schedulers. Giving you the health news that you need, based on data you choose to share with us. Building on our Get Inspired campaign in sport to help you get active – or to encourage you to Get Creative, our new campaign in the arts.

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

Wolf Hall - data driven?

But is that really the remit of a public service broadcaster? While Hall insist that viewer data will be used in a “benign” way and that the BBC will not be out to sell things to viewers, there will be those who are uneasy about this latest idea.

When the BBC was formed, its mission under the original director general Lord John Reith was to educate, inform and entertain. While at times, the ‘Auntie BBC knows best’ aura around the corporation has grated, Hall is correct that until recently the nation has turned to the BBC in times of great crisis or for national events.

Freed from the commercial necessity of chasing ratings for advertisers, the BBC has been free to do bold, quality and at times highly worthy broadcasting without commercial pressures faced by other broadcasters. So alongside ratings winners and global hits like EastEnders, Strictly Come Dancing and Doctor Who can sit the likes of Wolf Hall, hugely expensive, slow moving drama on a secondary channel.

Too much?

But where does the BBC’s remit end? Hall’s vision goes far, far beyond being a TV program broadcaster. In the 1950s and 1960s, the BBC was at the heart of the nation, when Quatermass terrified the population, Dixon of Dock Green was the perfect British bobby and Tony Hancock on the telly could empty churches on a Sunday night.

For much of that time however there wasn’t the competition. Until ITV came along, the BBC had the market to itself. Up until the 1980s, there were still only 4 TV channels in the UK. It’s only in recent years that the digital revolution has kicked in and the BBC’s share of voice has suffered accordingly.

Lord Reith
Lord Reith - educating, informing and entertaining

What Hall seems determined to regain is that 1950s heart of the nation status for the digital age and it’s here that his claims start to sound too much like delusionary wish-fulfilment. He makes the pitch that:

The BBC is the place where the nation can come together: the daily companion and a vital connection to the world. Where we celebrate together and share moments of crisis; where we join in debate and argument, agree and agree to differ.

The BBC will be a central meeting-place for that discussion and participation. Because the BBC exists not only to enhance individual lives.

As our society fragments further, who else will bring us together?

To which the not-entirely unfair response from critics will be: is that really your job? Isn’t your job to inform, educate and entertain? To deliver quality TV shows that we want to watch? Not to fix society or be Auntie to the digital nation? Hall admits:

There’s only one real test for the relevance of the BBC in the internet age: what audiences think. Their collective judgement in 2026 on whether we still matter. No-one else’s.

This leads to his admission that the BBC’s future is not secure, but yet again he insists on linking that to the wider macro-political climate, linking the success of the corporation to the wider national standing:

The BBC’s future – and the UK’s future – in the internet age are not guaranteed.

But without his vision becoming reality, Hall predicts a grim future of:

a UK dominated by global gatekeepers, partial news and American taste-makers.

My take

I’m deeply conflicted by Hall’s world-view. I’m a huge champion of the BBC and happily pay my license fee each year. It’s exceptionally good value for money.

Equally I’m conscious that like all public sector organizations, the BBC is bloated, bureaucratic and in need of some degree of reform.

It’s a different world these days and while the BBC undoubtedly has a role to play in it, I find it hard to swallow Hall’s sepia-tinted vision of the BBC holding the nation together. It was the national broadcaster; it’s now one of hundreds of broadcasters to the nation.

As for his fear of American taste-makers, well shall we just say House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Orange Is The New Black, Veep etc etc and leave it there. OK, we can also say Jerry Springer, Judge Judy and trashy sitcoms, but then as Brits we’ve little to be proud of in Don’t Scare The Hare, Citizen Khan and Tumble.

If I’m honest, what I want from the BBC is more Doctor Who, more EastEnders, more David Attenborough documentaries, more Wolf Hall, Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley etc etc.  I want iPlayer to work properly like it used to before they decided to 'improve' it and rendered it practically unusable in the process. And I’m very open to the idea of the BBC’s own version of the iTunes store to get access to archive content.

Do I think the BBC needs to redefine itself in an internet age? I do - but not I suspect in the way that Hall outlines.

Do I regard the BBC as the heart of the nation in a digital age? I do not. Do I think that should be its remit? I do not.

Mostly I want it to do what Hall started off with: making good telly that I want to watch.

The Hall vision will come under intense scrutiny as the BBC Charter comes up for renewal. The case for using viewer data will be particularly subject to examination by the BBC’s enemies at the gate. One false move on that one and the corporation will be in a lot of trouble.