From streaming news to kids’ iPlayer: BBC expands online plans as cuts loom
James R | On 07, Sep 2015
The BBC is expanding its online plans for an open, more distinctive BBC, as the organisation acknowledges it will have to face tough choices.
Speaking today in the face of looming cuts and ahead of next year’s Royal Charter renewal, BBC Director Tony Hall outlined the broadcasting company’s plans for the coming 10 years.
“The BBC faces a very tough financial challenge,” he admitted. “So we will have to manage our resources ever more carefully and prioritise what we believe the BBC should offer. We will inevitably have to either close or reduce some services.”
Indeed, the BBC already needs to find additional savings in excess of £150m a year by 2017/18 to address the decline in TV penetration to the end of this licence fee settlement, while the government’s announcement in July that the Beeb would have to foot the bill for free TV licences for over-75s prompted the BBC revealing that it would find a further £50m of “productive efficiencies” by losing 1,000 jobs. Or, to put it another way, having already saved 40 per cent of the BBC’s revenues in this Charter period, it must save close to another 20 per cent over the next five years.
A full report published today gives more detail about the BBC’s plans of how to achieve this, while still growing in a digital world. Following its plans to turn BBC Three into an online-only channel, the BBC is stepping up its online ambitions even further in a move to stay relevant to the increasingly on-demand age.
“We, like every other broadcaster, are facing a world in transition,” reads the report. “At present, most of our audiences enjoy the BBC’s programmes and services scheduled over the airwaves. That won’t end… [but] for the next ten years, we will need to ride two horses—serving those who have adopted the internet, while at the same time making sure that those who want to carry on watching and listening to traditional channels continue to be properly served, too”.
The BBC plans to keep the licence fee in place, maintaining that it ensures that the public gets “better programmes, for less, than under any other approach”: because everyone who uses it pays, the cost to the individual falls to the lowest it can be for the most universal service. Someone may not want the online part of the BBC’s offerings, for example, but someone who uses iPlayer likewise might not listen to BBC Radio 4.
The current mechanism, though, needs to be updated.
“We welcome the Government’s commitment to extend the TV licence fee to cover PSB video on-demand, and to bring forward legislation to do so within the next 12 months,” confirms the docuemnt, adding that the German system of a medium-term reform of the licence fee by universally levying it on all households “merits consideration”.
Subscription charges, though, are dismissed, as they “would fundamentally change the nature of the BBC and destabilise the UK’s broadcast ecology, which is based on competition for quality – but not competition for funding – between the BBC and the market”.
Opening up iPlayer to bingeing and other broadcasters
One of the ways that the BBC will help to meet shortfall in its funding is by selling programmes online. The BBC has increasingly looked to syndicate content through Netflix and other subscription VOD platforms for income, but will also sell content through its own BBC Store.
This was made possible by a new agreement with PACT in 2013, through which programmes were made available for longer on iPlayer (for 30 days) and will soon be available to purchase through the new online shop, as well as via iTunes, Amazon and others.
The Beeb is also looking to open up iPlayer to become a wider, managed platform for content not just from its own channels, but also from other broadcasters or to new partners.
There are proposals, too, to create a dedicated interactive service for each country in the UK by curating iPlayer and other online content.
Tony Hall has also confirmed that some new drama series will be released all-at-once, a la Peter Kay’s Car Share, on iPlayer, so that viewers can binge-watch.
iPlayer for kids
The BBC is also committed to its remit for education and is planning to build on iPlayer to meet those commitments: iPlay, a proposed kids’ service, would provide content from “carefully chosen partners and give children much more scope to interact and create content”.
The full range of BBC content for this audience would be available through a single online platform, designed around the needs of children, their parents and carers.
“It would deliver tailored, age-appropriate material that changes and develops from childhood through adolescence and into the first stages of adulthood. It would feature a wide range of content forms, from long-form video to interactive formats, most of it commissioned specifically for the children’s audience from in-house and external teams, but also including appropriate content from across the whole BBC. It would be a window giving access to the full breadth of BBC’s knowledge, information and content allowing children and young people to search safely and learn from all the BBC’s resources with the widest range of age appropriate material in one place.”
Rather group content by their channel (Cbeebies and CBBC), there would also be a chance to browse for videos based on a user’s age, offering a more personalised approach tailored to each child’s rate of development.
From rolling news to streaming news
The BBC News Channel is the most watched continuous news channel in the UK, reaching around nine million viewers a week. But the BBC notes that there a “generational change in the way audiences consume the news is underway”. TV News in the UK reached 92 per cent of over-55s every week on average last year, but among 16-34s, this falls to 52 per cent (down from 69 per cent in 2004).
As a result, BBC will launch BBC Newstream, a new streaming offer for mobiles. It will be a more video-based service, complemented by audio, graphics and text live from BBC News.
“It offers the possibility of news that is personal, portable and on-demand,” says the BBC.
“New types of programmes” for BBC Three
The BBC also mentions some of its plans for BBC Three, which it wants to use to make “new types of programmes” for young adults.
“As it will not be a broadcast channel, it will not have to consist only of half-hour and hour-long programmes,” notes the Beeb. “We have set up a team in Birmingham to explore what could work best. But we are interested in going further, and stimulating the production market outside London. We would be interested in receiving proposals from cities or regions who would like to set up a centre of excellence for experimental online content. If there is enough interest, we would run a competition to decide the location, and what support the BBC could promise.”
Perhaps the most ambitious online plan from the BBC, though, is the Ideas Service, the equivalent of the World Service but for arts, culture, science and history.
The online platform would aim to be a destination in its own right, where audiences go to find out what’s new or to deepen their understanding of a topic.
The plan is to create a “one-stop-shop for the very best of British culture”, with content from arts organisations, such as the Tate, the Edinburgh Festivals, Whitworth, the Royal Court, the British Museum and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
#saveBBC4: Opening new doors to close old ones
It is easy to forget that all of these ideas arrive in the shadow of new cuts that will have to be made. In 2010, the BBC accounted for 22 per cent of TV revenues. Following the July Budget agreement this year, the BBC is set to have only 12 per cent of television revenues by the end of the next Charter.
“We will inevitably have to either close or reduce some services,” Tony Hall admitted, but the document goes into more detail about what that could mean.
“Streaming news may replace rolling news,” it notes. “Children may prefer iPlay to scheduled television. The Ideas Service might mean we no longer need BBC Four.”
Rumours of BBC Four’s potential closure have already sparked an online campaign to #saveBBC4. Indeed, it is the UK’s fourth largest digital channel in its broadcast hours by reach and the largest factual digital channel in reach and share. It offers a valuable service, for example, by providing a platform for music documentaries or its innovative “Go Slow” season.
When the BBC Three move was first announced, the BBC said that it intended to focus a significant part of its budget on developing its original drama offers.
BBC Two, it notes today, “increasingly competes with HBO, Netflix and Amazon Prime as much as with domestic peers”, so the company aims to “build on its reputation as one of the highest-quality channels in the world” and develop shows that can showcase British talent, such as Peaky Blinders and Episodes as well as new formats in factual subjects, such as Bake Off.
BBC One, meanwhile, is a valuable commodity, thanks to the international success of such shows as Doctor Who and Sherlock through the Beeb’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.
The BBC again is competing with new rivals, though. Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television, recently revealed that the BBC lost out to Netflix in bidding for the streaming service’s new drama, The Crown. The budget for Netflix’s production? A reported $100 million, far higher than the Beeb’s bill for the lavish Wolf Hall, which is thought to be closer to £7 million.
Nonetheless, the BBC remains the largest single investor in British creative ideas and talent.
“While the hours of new UK content broadcast each year have fallen from 15,500 to 13,500 over five years, Netflix and Amazon have produced only around 260 hours of original content between them in that time – almost all of it made in or about the US, not the UK,” notes today’s document.
“For the same cost as two series of House of Cards, the BBC made 14 drama series, from Sherlock to Happy Valley, The Village to Last Tango in Halifax.”
However many of these proposals are followed through in the coming years, with spending cuts looming large over the BBC’s future, today’s plans for the next decade reaffirm the vital role the BBC plays in British culture and society. At only £145.50 a year, or 40p a day, the value is undeniable.
“As we conduct this open, thoughtful exchange about the future of the BBC, we should set out our starting point,” said Tony Hall.
“A diminished BBC would diminish Britain… For all those who care about the BBC this is a time to listen and reflect, to make your voice heard – and for us to welcome that debate. The BBC Trust will be consulting on all of this.”