BBC, TV Licence, YouTube, Ofcom

Auntie must be tough on the old

The BBC has taken a tough decision.

The over 75s who were given free TV licences by Tony Blair’s government back in 2000 will have this benefit taken away from them next June when it would otherwise hit BBC revenues for the first time.

It was the obvious decision. The over 75s get excellent value for money – they consume huge amounts of BBC TV and radio and a high proportion are well-off. The less well off will be protected.

The licence fee is paid by each household and our ageing population, which increasingly holds onto its own homes, will soon represent more than £0.75 billion of BBC revenue (almost 20% of the total) that Auntie desperately needs to keep the current show on the road.

Otherwise Auntie would have to cut hard, reshape the organisation and think hard about her purpose. This is too hard for an organisation that has lost all sense of radicalism since the days of John Birt. Those days of tough change created deep internal discontent but made the BBC an early web and multi-channel innovator. They gave the Corporation strength during the first digital wave but that advantage has evaporated during the two decades that have followed.

If the BBC is to survive as a public broadcaster of significance in the coming decades, Auntie must be a lot tougher on herself and on the older generations who love her most dearly.

Auntie is fast losing her relationship with the younger generations. While most of those reading this blog post will have fond memories of childhood permeated with BBC programmes, the next generations will care little about the BBC.

This will leave the Corporation vulnerable to the steady decline that has made public broadcasters from Australia to Japan gently fade into the background of modern life to become nothing more than an annoying, hardly justifiable tax to fund content for the old and the elite.

The speed of change in the attitudes and behaviours of the young is shocking for a monolithic organisation that instinctively quotes values laid down nearly a hundred years ago by Lord Reith, an austere, workaholic, Presbyterian Scot: to educate, inform and entertain.

Before we look at a few facts, let me share two personal experiences that have brought home to me why the BBC must implement radical change.

Our daughter, Elodie, is 3. She likes dogs, colouring, sandy beaches, cafes and TV. Ask Elodie what she likes to watch, and she will tell you about Hilda, Carmen Sandiego and Puffin Rock. They are all on Netflix.

iPlayer was OK when she was 2. Now Elodie understands she has her own Netflix profile, the breadth of programmes available and that Netflix neatly introduces her to new and often challenging programmes as her interests evolve. Netflix has won. CBeebies fades in her memory.

When I visit my teenage godson, I enter a world of YouTube. He goes there for funny, useful, informative, sexy, inspiring video. He skips between K-Pop, the world’s silliest goals, Minute Physics and Brain Scoop. Spotify already has years of data to understand him far better than radio ever can. On TV, Netflix’s confident commissioning instincts naturally tap into the zeitgeist for him and his friends. Californian kids presented with US production values are just cooler. When I ask him about the BBC, ITV or Channel 4, I define myself as old and shut up quickly. From the BBC's massive output, only Bitesize stands out for him.

Both very interesting for a 15 year old (and this 50 year old)

On page 92 of Ofcom’s 2017 Children and Parents’ Media Usage Report is a table of numbers that shows just how brutal is the challenge faced by the BBC and other traditional broadcasters.

First, Ofcom asked the main reasons why 12-15 year olds go to media brands. The top 5 are shown below. They are not that different from the ones that I would choose.

Then OFCOM asked which brand you would go to first for content in each of these areas. Let’s take the top 3: makes you laugh, relaxes you and gives you something to discuss with friends.

The research is with kids aged 12-15. I am not surprised that YouTube is so important. The research is more than two years old and Netflix has since grown from 6.5 to 11.5m UK households so Netflix’s numbers would leap upwards if the research were carried out today.

But this is to miss the fundamental point – that traditional broadcasters hardly rise above the baseline. The next generation has decided that the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are also rans in the provision of the content that they really care about. This is not attitudinal change, it is revolution.

ITV and Channel 4 can still make money by feeding drama and factual entertainment to the older generations and selling them soap powder, beach holidays and Cadbury Darkmilk in the ad breaks (thank you, Jason, for making the point so clearly). Most of the viewers of these programmes remember the glory days of Jason and Kylie and the acting abilities of Bouncer the dog.

Do you remember Scott and Charlene’s wedding?

The steady slide older should make life ever more uncomfortable for Channel 4 with its half-remembered, hardly-regulated remit to make challenging programming that engages those outside the mainstream. Channel 4 says it is much younger than other channels but this means their average viewer age is only slightly younger than Old Media Man. ITV can keep on milking its position as the best place to achieve wide reach and immediate impact, even though the numbers erode quarter by quarter, while the business builds its programme making power and eyes the growth markets of the soon-to-launch wave of Netflix competitors.

For the BBC, however, the threat is existential. Not now, not this decade, not on Tony Hall’s watch but by not acting now Auntie simply stores up a bigger problem for the future and inflates the danger of obsolescence.

What can the BBC do?

The BBC must make more powerful contact with the young through the platforms that is uses and the programming that it makes.

  • iPlayer must get better. The suggestion functionality is weak; the competition continues to innovate; soon Disney will lead a fresh wave of subscription services pushing viewer expectations to yet higher levels.
  • Ofcom has allowed the BBC to keep programming on iPlayer for up to a year (rather than the current 30 days). Why did it take so long to achieve the obvious? The BBC must get better at working with the regulator to move quickly and must go to war with the Indies to win rights to more content for longer on iPlayer. Pact, so good at defending the rights of the indies, will shout and scream but should remember that most of its members are powerful, international companies, not the cottage industry independents of the past.
  • Does the BBC have a YouTube strategy? If so, I don’t get it. The BBC wants to control its own distribution but sometimes you must go where the audience is and make content on their terms, not your own.
  • The BBC is creatively weak in programming and content for the young. Admit it - the BBC’s teenage and young adult programming is poor. The BBC is too focused on the comfortable heartland of middle England and the old, where they are confident of ratings hits. It is time to take risks and challenge this head on rather than emasculating BBC Three.

To reverse such a fundamental trend means taking risks, moving big slugs money from comfortable, easy-to-commission ratings winners and redirecting it towards the young. For the BBC it will be a huge and significant change. At first the young will hardly notice so it will require leadership to hold its nerve.

The conservative press isn’t going to like it. The oldies will not be happy. But they will not decide Auntie’s future.

If such change isn’t embarked upon, Elodie won’t even notice as the BBC drifts gently into the shadows or when some future government decides to hack the licence fee.

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About Tim Ewington

Co-founder of Shortlist Media. Previously co-founder of media strategy consultancy, Human Capital. Still innovating, consulting and investing.
  • London