Chris Whitehouse is Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy. He is also Clerk to the All-Party Parliamentary Media Group and a Director of the Westminster Media Forum. He writes in a personal capacity.
Think of great UK institutions, and the BBC will be high on the list. For decades, it has been the exemplar for broadcasting standards and quality. It has defined the very concept of public service broadcasting.
But it’s fair to say that the corporation has had a tough past few years, and the gloss has come off its crown. Anne Bulford, the BBC’s Deputy Director-General, has admitted that it is no longer a “dominant force” in entertainment, but attributes this fall in what amounts to market share to saturation by some of the big media players in the US.
There’s no question that the likes of Amazon and Netflix have changed the game in recent years. And an explosion of entertainment and broadcast providers was inevitably going to take a toll on the corporation’s audience. But simply to attribute loss of market share to these forces is to overlook some of the issues in its own house. And a prolonged failure to consider where the BBC might itself improve could ultimately further undermine its ability to compete with technically agile competitors with access to capital unlike any competitors the corporation has seen before, able to compete with the inherent advantage that it has held for decades in the form of the licence fee.
The increase in competition also means that the audience – the British television-watching public – can be more discerning and expectant. They are able to view content in ways largely unmanageable a decade ago. And they have an expectation to be entertained. If the quality is not there, they will simply go to the provider that meets their needs. By attempting to reach into local and magazine style content, and online, the corporation has been spreading itself thinly, and compromising the quality that for decades has been its hallmark.
The other issue for the BBC has been reputational, and it’s fair to say that it has not handled some of the issues it’s faced in recent years well. The corporation was on the wrong side of the much publicised gender pay gap. It has issues in terms of staff behaviour. There have been the instances of personnel being paid through personal service companies, which could at best be perceived, and at worst actually be, tax evasion. And even its previously much-lauded neutrality has come into question, not least over Brexit.
The fact is that there is much the corporation can learn from its competition. And that includes a very commercial mindset and the application of rigor in its governance. It has perhaps been guilty of being over defensive in the past when it comes to criticism. But ultimately, just as a commercial broadcaster has shareholders, so effectively does the BBC in its licence fee payers. These members of the public have every right to expect the best from a bastion of UK society.
The corporation ultimately faces a difficult task in combating the rise of competitors such as Amazon and Netflix. But, if it gets back to doing what it does best, ditches some of the less useful content that spreads its resources thin, ups its somewhat tired policy engagement operation, and is more proactive in explaining what it’s doing and why, it can recover some of the ground it has lost in recent years.