TBI Weekly: Why global partners are key to Tim Davie’s BBC

Tim Davie

BBC chief Tim Davie’s first week as head of the world’s best-known public broadcaster is almost over, but it has not been without its headline-grabbing moments.

Most of those came yesterday, when the former Pepsi marketing man and ex-BBC Studios CEO outlined his vision for the broadcaster in an introductory speech, confirming expected job losses but also revealing some subtle and some not-so subtle ways in which he wants to change how the BBC operates.

It shone light not just on how the UK operator will change but also on the role of national broadcasters in a world increasingly dominated by global streamers.

Normal People

Growing global

It was not Davie’s first point made during yesterday’s speech, but the importance of his former employer – BBC Studios – lies central to the domestic broadcaster’s future and the new Director General was clear about its vital role. The commercial side of the business – which is on the look-out for Davie’s replacement – must grow, he said, to “secure the investment and partners to make the best programmes possible” on the international stage. “Secondly, we must build our commercial returns to ensure that we are maximising financial value for licence fee payers.” “Big opportunities” lie in launching direct-to-consumer services such as BritBox in new areas, including news, video and audio, Davie said, while partnerships with the likes of FX and Discovery in the US, ITV in the UK and Tencent in China – all mentioned by name – remain vital to ensure global growth. The aim, he pointed out, was to reach a billion people globally over the next decade.

Indispensability & ‘significant risk’

Broadening the horizons further for the BBC seems a logical step and using the global stage to help leverage better content seems increasingly necessary if the broadcaster is to survive long term. Like myriad pubcasters worldwide, it has had to deal with the swift transformation of the media landscape over the past decade, as streamers have made the most of technology to directly appeal to viewers globally.

We are surrounded by global players with monster budgets. We must pick our battles carefully and make sure we get the biggest bang for limited bucks

BBC chief Tim Davie

Pay TV had already affected the role of pubcasters of course, but it has been SVOD – and perhaps now AVOD – operators that have true global scale. And that has turned the BBC from being a dominant giant in the UK to a relative minnow on the world stage, which is reflected in viewing figures among its younger audience. The BBC’s place is also something Davie knows well from his time at BBCS, where he turned the division away from straight distribution and into what it says on the tin – a studio, complete with production capability and an ever-increasing commercial focus. Now, he is faced with the same prospect at the parent broadcaster, admitting that “the truth is that for all our extraordinary efforts [at the BBC], there is significant risk. If current trends continue we will not feel indispensable enough to all our audience. The evidence is unequivocal: the future of a universal BBC can no longer be taken for granted. We have no inalienable right to exist.”

Blue Planet II

Business decisions

That does not, however, mean that Davie believes in turning the BBC into a subscription service, which has been mooted by some as a way out of the funding fears facing the broadcaster, which currently relies on a mandatory licence fee that is feeling rather outdated. “For the avoidance of doubt, I do not want a subscription BBC that serves the few,” he clarified, admitting though that “a decent business” could emerge in certain regions from such a model. It would, however, “make us just another media company serving a specific group” Davie continued, which he argued would damage the production community. “The UK’s creative industries have been a global economic success because of a rather enlightened blend of the free market and smart universal interventions like the BBC, and our landmark museums… open to all. It is a brilliant national success that future generations deserve to benefit from.”

Distinct priorities

To do that, Davie said the aim “is not to beat others at their own game” but to focus on being “more rather than less BBC, more distinctive, and committed to our unique public service mission. We do not need all of everyone’s media time, but we do need habitual use of the BBC and a deep attachment to at least some of our content.” It comes down to four priorities, he said: impartiality; offering unique, high-impact content; “extracting” more from online; and the aforementioned focus on building commercial income. Impartiality means being “guided by the pursuit of truth, not a particular agenda”, Davie said, adding that those wishing to be an “opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media” should not be working at the BBC. The director general also reiterated his desire to improve diversity, with the BBC aiming to “reflect more accurately the society we serve.” He added: “That’s 50% women and 50% men, at least 20% Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, and at least 12% Disabled. A modern 50/20/12 organisation. Alongside this, we will deliver plans to build our socioeconomic diversity, as well as ensuring we are truly inclusive for all LGBTQ+ employees.”


Pick your battles

Value for licence fee payers, Davie said, was also a core requirement and that means creating “must have” content. “We are surrounded by global players with monster budgets. We must pick our battles carefully and make sure we get the biggest bang for limited bucks,” he said, a comment that could come from almost any broadcaster the world over. He pointed to hits such as Normal People, Line Of Duty, Fleabag and Blue Planet II, and said he wanted a focused approach to content. “The truth is that we have tried to cope with increasing competition by making more and spreading ourselves too thinly,” he said. Instead, Davie wants a BBC that identifies “how we can have more impact by making less. I want us to consider what we would do if we could only make 80% of our current hours. What would we stop? To be very clear, this is not about cuts to save money, it is about re-allocating funds to where they generate most value – to ensure that we make our output world-beating and utterly distinctive.” Unsurprisingly, as spending comes under ever-greater scrutiny, Davie does not expect to see any more linear channels launched, but he said the BBC would be in “a hybrid world for decades to come.” Reflecting the practice of most of its OTT  rivals, Davie also said the BBC had to increase its use of data to satisfy audience demands, while also employing technology “to join up the BBC, improving search, recommendations and access.”

Poisoned chalice

All of the above would likely ring true with those running public broadcasters the world over – although there are few that have the scale of the UK operator. Despite this, it is easy to forget that the BBC had been under siege in many respects prior to Covid-19, with an openly hostile government seeking to dismantle its influence and reach – making the job to replace the outgoing Tony Hall viewed by some as an impossible task. Davie tackled this head on yesterday, admitting that since being appointed, “people have congratulated me with an almost sympathetic look while muttering: “Good luck”.” Having confirmed he was, of course, proud to have landed the role, Davie then said the pandemic had created an opportunity “to find out what is important” – namely, universality and relevance. “This digital world demands that we ask profound questions about the role of public service broadcasting,” he said. It will be up to Davie to answer them.

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