The BBC, one of the truly unique institutions in the media world is under attack.
The new Conservative government is now talking about making it a pay as you go service, not unlike Netflix, as opposed to being underwritten by a license fee paying public.
This would be tragic.
But those questioning the way The BBC is currently structured are not wrong.
The BBC, as it exists today, is a product of the world of media in the 1930s. Content was complicated and expensive to make, either on radio or later TV, and even more complicated and expensive to transmit to the public. Hence, there was, at its birth, only one network in the UK. A sole commercial competitor, ITV, only appeared in 1955.
Today, of course, there are pretty much limitless competitors, between cable, satellite and online digital networks like Netflix.
Why should the public pay for a BBC?
It is not an unfair question. But the answer that is being offered, to effectively turn The BBC into another Netflix,not to mention draconian budget cuts to news, is the wrong answer. There are plenty of Netflix, there is only one BBC.
But what makes The BBC so good?
It is not that it puts a TV signal into your home. Admittedly amazing in 1936, today, everyone can do that, even you with your own YouTube channel. What makes The BBC so good is the content that it produces.In the world of television, Britain punches WAY above her weight. And The BBC is able to do that because it is freed from the pressure of having to please advertisers.
Trust me, I know. I have produced more than 8,000 hours of cable programs in the US over the years. Commercial television exists not for the viewer, it exists for the advertisers. The viewer is the product that is being sold to the advertisers.
So how can you save The BBC in this new world of thousands of networks and channels?
The answer is, I think, rather simple.
Everyone else, from ITV to Netflix or Amazon has a platform that has to be fed — every day, every hour. The demand for content today (unlike in 1955) is virtually limitless. And those networks, and there are literally thousands of them, will pay millions of content. Billions in the aggregate.
What The BBC produces better than anyone else in the world is content.
Great content. The world’s best content.
So, like Dreamworks or Paramount or Universal, The BBC should become first and foremost a content producer.
It is true that The BBC produces great content today, but it effectively gives it away. It shows it free of charge (more or less) on its broadcast networks.
I know, BBC does license its programs around the world. That’s how Americans get to see Blue Planet, for example. But that licensing is very much an after thought — after the shows have aired on The BBC. Let’s skip that step. Let’s really amp up the production and sales side.
Listen, in a world of 2,000 ‘channels’, do you care where you see a great program? Do you really notice or care that The Irishman or Roma appeared on Netflix, or was it Amazon or was it Apple, or does it matter? Platforms have become abstractions.
Put The BBC into the business it does best — conceiving and producing amazing programs like Downton Abbey — oh, wait, that was ITV. You see? Does it matter at all where you saw it?
The worldwide television business is a $1.73 Trillion a year industry. That makes it bigger than Big Oil. No kidding. And The BBC is the Saudi Arabia of television.
Sell the stuff.
You could make so much money with The BBC simply licensing and selling that you could not only underwrite the entire news division, but, and I think this is the most interesting — you could, at the end of the year, pay premiums back to the license fee holders — now really share holders in what is called The Corporation.
Well, run it like one.
All the pieces are there. It’s a different world from 1936, the year BBC Television made its first broadcast.