Can a data-driven BBC be the digital heart of the nation? And should it even try? (1/2)

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 2, 2015
The BBC in a digital age - what should be the role for this British institution today and tomorrow? Director General Tony Hall has some challenging ideas on the subject.

The BBC - today

A data-driven BBC for the digital age.

That’s what BBC Director General Tony Hall is promising. It’s a bold commitment that comes at a difficult time for the UK broadcasting institution as it faces up to pressures that some see as questioning its very existence in its current form.

The first challenge is from those who regard the BBC as having an anachronistic operating mode in a multi-channel age with digital competition on all sides. As a public service broadcaster, the BBC is funded in the main by a compulsory license fee payment that must be paid even if viewers argue they never watch BBC channels.

Critics have long argued that this fee should be scrapped, a point of view that won favour with a cross-party committee of legislators in the UK government last week. Others argue that the BBC has lost sight of its public service remit and ventured into market sectors where its status and state-funding enables it to damage competition.

From a market-perspective, there is the threat from the likes of Netflix, broadcasters born of the internet-age rather than the post-World War II generation when families sat around the ‘Idiot’s Lantern’ in the corner of the living room.

If like me, you’ve just binge-watched Series 3 of House of Cards - no spoilers, but seriously underwhelming I’m afraid - then you’ll understand that the likes of Netflix are changing the way that we consume media. You set your own personalised schedule, with certain series in particular ramping up significant time-shift viewing figures.

Against that backdrop, Hall has set out to define his agenda for the BBC in the internet age and he’s not open to criticism that the corporation doesn’t belong there. In fact, he argues:

First, that the BBC has embraced the internet age.

Second, that the internet strengthens the case for the BBC.

And third, that the internet gives us tools to make public service broadcasting even better.

But he concedes:

We face much greater competition for ideas and talent. BBC services won’t be as prominent in an on-demand world. And younger audiences are using linear channels less than their parents.

There’s real jeopardy here. If the BBC doesn’t address these challenges, we could become irrelevant.

All about us

So, what to do, what to do? Hall begins by resorting to first principles:

We’re here to make great programmes and services. That’s why people like the BBC. That’s why they enjoy it. That’s why they trust it. That’s why they value it. That’s what they pay us to do.

This argument is not made less powerful by being so simple.

In this digital age, the BBC enhances the lives of everyone in the UK, in more ways than ever before, and more often than ever before.

The BBC reaches 97% of us every week. We choose it 150 million times a day.

Doctor Who - making great programs

OK, but as an institution in the UK - and around the world - that presence in our lives is perhaps only to be expected. A more difficult case to be made is surely around his second argument - that the internet strengthens the case for the BBC? Hall suggests:

For the last 20 years, broadcasting has been in the digital era. But, until recently, it was relatively unaffected by the growth of the internet. In the next 10 years, that will all change with distribution over the internet as important as over the airwaves.

Now he takes his first gamble, with a bold presumption to being the gatekeeper of the nation’s trust that will rile the BBC’s enemies everywhere:

In the internet era it is easy to find information, but harder to know whether to trust it. It is easier to find small communities, but harder for the nation to speak to itself and to the world. It is easier to make stuff, but it can be harder to find the financial support for high-quality work. And the internet age is great for those who can afford it and access it – but those who can’t risk being left on the margins of society.

To these problems, the BBC provides a response. In the internet age, our mission is simple: great British programmes, and a trusted guide. For everyone.

In a world where trust is at a premium, which has more heat than light, more noise than signal, we will need the BBC more than ever as a trusted guide – the place you go to find out what’s really happening and why.

Politically this is a dangerous statement to make perhaps, especially in the run up to the UK’s national elections in May. It’s traditional for every government of whatever political persuasion to be paranoid about how the BBC covers it. In a way, that shared assumption that the BBC is out to get them is one of the few things that unites all the political parties.

But the right-wing media of the Murdoch empire and the likes of the Daily Mail are obsessed with undermining the BBC and finding fault with its coverage and news agendas. Hall’s claiming of a moral high ground of champion of truth will not sit well, but he insists:

It’s easy to find something on the internet that looks like a fact, that squawks like a fact but that isn’t a fact. Central to our democracy is that we all proceed on the basis of shared information and don’t just make up our own.

The BBC will be needed to guarantee news that is trusted and gets its facts right. The real story. Providing in-depth analysis of the kind we’ve always done. Using new online tools, like the Explainers we have today on News Online, or the blogs from our expert correspondents.

Tony Hall
Tony Hall

But he saves what will be the most controversial - or at least the most open to critique - aspect to last: building a BBC built on data. Hall says:

In future, we will have a new tool. Individual data. The BBC lags the industry here. But we are getting our act together.

In 2014, we put in place the building blocks – the capability for signing in and analysing data.

This year, we will start to deliver new services. We’ll give you personalised recommendations on the iPlayer and homepage. We’ll recommend news and sports stories just for you.

We’ll give you your own BBC app, which will remember all your favourite programmes, artists, music, interests, DJs and sports teams. All in one place.

Moving beyond that ‘catching up with the rest of the digital world’ stuff, the next step in what Hall calls the “myBBC revolution” will be what he pitches as a first - public service recommendations.

And that’s where it’s all going to get a lot trickier.

In the second part of this article, Hall envisages a new role for the BBC at the digital heart of the UK - but is that really the BBC's remit today?


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