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The BBC’s Director-General, Tony Hall, has been laying out his vision of the broadcaster’s future, with personalized content experiences at the core. But this may be overestimating the demand for these services, and underestimating the continued appeal of linear TV.
The future of the BBC is a big deal in the UK, especially with a general election imminent, and its funding model is now under scrutiny by a government committee. The BBC is still the most important media company in the UK with the lion’s share of the country’s TV, radio, and online audiences, and is also a global pioneer in launching products and services – such as the iPlayer – that anticipate and shape the market. All things considered, there are many reasons to take note of what Director-General Tony Hall has been saying this week about the corporation’s future.
Especially interesting was Hall’s vision for a more personalized BBC, where viewers sign up and have an interactive and dynamic relationship with the BBC, complete with recommendations based on what each individual viewer consumes. The next step, he suggests, is from iPlayer to MyPlayer.
Maybe, but even for those of us who consider ourselves digital evangelists, this thesis feels a little off. Are we really on a road towards a fully personalized media landscape? Is that what most consumers want, and does it underplay the BBC’s great strength in curating great content for a mass audience? Is it not the case that linear TV still has a huge role to play, even with young viewers? As Hall acknowledges, the BBC last week saw record audiences for its flagship soap, Eastenders, which was broadcast live. One million tweets around the program’s transmission suggested that live, linear broadcasting, shared by millions, is still central to the proposition of a mainstream broadcaster, even in – especially in? – the age of social media.
Yes, the ground is shifting, the changes are profound, and the BBC’s role is evolving. But has the corporation exaggerated its existential threat? Is it in danger of overplaying the decline in old-fashioned linear TV viewing? The decision to kill off the youth-focused channel BBC3, making it online only, is being positioned as a visionary strategic move (rather than, say, a messy attempt to divert funding to the more mainstream channels). The kids, the elders of the BBC seem to be saying, don’t watch TV. But actually they do, even if they watch less of it than before. The assumption underpinning much of the BBC’s focus – that live TV’s share of overall video consumption among young audiences is in terminal decline – seems fundamentally flawed. The BBC seems too ready to concede on this issue: Live linear TV, which is the BBC’s great differentiator over its upstart Internet-based rivals – still has a role to play even for younger viewers. They certainly won’t be watching it on BBC3 after it is taken off air.
There is another premise underpinning the BBC’s strategy that invites further discussion – that in a multi-platform, multi-device universe, amid competition from multiple content providers, recommendation is the silver bullet. Recommendation, TV executives reckon, could unlock the untapped value of their expensively created content – both linear and on-demand. This may be true, and it was echoed in our global survey of TV executives in 2014, who agreed that content recommendation and discovery was their top priority. Yet the fact is that, as Hall acknowledges, no broadcaster or content provider has got the formula right yet, or moved beyond Amazon’s deceptively simple “other customers bought this” model. Could it be that content recommendation is – whisper it – a solution in search of a problem? (Not to mention a potential money-pit.) Consumers are happy to recommend and share via social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that exist already. And while it may be unthinkable for some in the industry, it could also be the case that most consumers don’t care enough about most of the content that is available to them.
Even if that is the case, of course, it would be another reason to invest in a better user experiences, as well as better content. The BBC, in what it calls “the Internet era” (which sounds a bit quaint) does need to adapt and respond to the new competitive landscape. Although broadcasters Sky, Channel 4, and ITV are its obvious rivals (and the Daily Mail newspaper its most vocal enemy), the real challenge in the next decade will come from the likes of Google, Netflix, and Amazon. Yet the BBC has massive advantages over those pretenders, notably daily engagement with millions of consumers in the UK and beyond, and an unrivalled track record for creating and curating great content. While the BBC must avoid fighting the last war, neither should it compete on the terms created by its new digital rivals either.
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