Monday 18 July 2016

BBC Annual Report 2015/2016 - Comment

The two sides of the BBC published their annual report last week. In the blue corner, the BBC Trust in 'end of term' mood - and across in the red corner, the hard-working operational BBC Executive.

First the headlines, as Huw might say. Dum Dum.  2015/16 was the penultimate year of the ‘Delivering Quality First’ (DQF) savings programme, which has delivered £621m savings by the end of March 2016. The programme remains on track to deliver a total of £700m in annual recurrent savings by the end of March 17.

The Trust Chairman, Rona Fairhead, assures that “It is clear that there is no public appetite for fundamental change to the BBC’s scale and scope”.

She’s right.  We’d vote to keep the BBC as it is. Not that I’m suggesting a Referendum. We’ve all had quite enough.

Despite both the reputational challenges of recent years and much competitive media, BBC satisfaction remains high, and the BBC’s own polling, Charter consultation and the Government’s own consultation bear this out.   Most people would likely rate the BBC highly and feel it is value for money. 

More savings are needed, however, and listeners and viewers might fear they will eat into quality. Talk to most people on the ground at the BBC, however, and they can easily volunteer further savings which would likely make programme quality and staff morale higher not lower.

The report concedes that, of all the BBC’s ‘purposes’, the ‘nations, regions and communities’ purpose remains challenging.  Average performance scores, however, have grown from 44% in 2008 to 51% now, with the importance of that area growing to 51% from 44%.

There were some declines seen for ‘content that is for people like me’ (59% vs 64% last year) and ‘representing my nation/region in news’ (54% vs 59%).

The Trust recalls that in its review of BBC Local Radio and local news and current affairs in England, it recommended that “the BBC give greater explanation of local political and policy issues on its local services and continue to work collaboratively with other local news providers”.

The cost of BBC local radio in England rises to 119.8m from 115.6m. Its weekly reach declines from 15.5% to 15%. I calculate than (pan UK) ‘BBC Local Radio’ reach amongst 55+ remains at 27%.  Although that is stable, it remains significantly lower that oft-criticised Radio 1 in its sub-34 demographics.

Appreciation of BBC radio overall remains high, now up to 80.9%. It is better rated than TV or online (the latter said to be “affected by relaunches of the Homepage and News sites”.

The familiar warnings on younger listeners are despatched: “radio makes up a much smaller share of audio listening among younger audiences: 15 to 24 year-olds’ time spent with live radio is 49% of their total; this rises to 57% among 25 to 34 year-olds, 81% among 35 to 54 year-olds and 89% among those aged over 55.” As a medium, we need to take this seriously. Not in a defensive way, but simply recognising the reality.

Anyone with kids will tell you that life is not the same as it was when we would have been bereft about a flat PP9 battery. The BBC’s reach is lower among young adults (15 to 24 year-olds) at 55% and this has fallen just slightly, from 56% last year.  So, Rajar suggests than just under half consume no BBC radio whatsoever, and it’s fallen.

Ben Cooper can sleep at night. They are confident in Radio 1’s efforts to rejuvenate:  “Our service review, published in March 2015, concluded that Radio 1 is clearly focused on serving a young audience and discussions we have had with the BBC this year confirm that this remains the case.”

Further up the scale, Radio 2 is clearly a titan of a station, but its audience of ‘35+’ is not so much a target as a whole dartboard. I note it’s doing better with its younger, rather than older shoulders.

Amongst 65+, I calculate that BBC radio reach has fallen from 76% to 74% in a year. Over a quarter of those aged over 65 seemingly find nothing of interest in any BBC radio service, a demographic largely untargeted by commercial radio. Whilst there is much daytime TV and rival attractions for the older vote, this may seem to ask a question about whether BBC radio overall is doing its job for these 11.5m people as well as it might.

The service review of Radio 4, Radio 5 live and their sister digital stations was favourable: “audiences consider the stations to be high quality and distinctive and that they appreciate the range of programming on each station. Many stakeholders agreed with this and said that Radio 4 and 5 live both demonstrate public service broadcasting at its best.”

BBC 5 live gets favourable comment although the Trust says: “In our service review, we asked the BBC to consider how it promotes Radio 5 live, and to give greater emphasis to its news remit so that its reputation can strengthen in this area alongside its reputation for high quality sports coverage.” As any programmer knows, you simply cannot do both. If a news story hits at the wrong time, and we’ve had more than our fair share of late, you have tough choices. In times of crisis, you know what Sky (TV) and LBC will be doing, but unless it’s a major crisis you may have the Archers on Radio 4, a footie match on 5 Live, and a man pointing at a weather map on the BBC TV News channel.

The Trust states: “Our review of BBC Local Radio and news and current affairs in England asked the BBC to improve its local web offer further. We found that audience expectations are still not being met in this area despite improvements such as the introduction of Local Live feeds, which provide more dynamic and up-to-date local news by combining short news updates with links to longer form content from the BBC and other local news providers”.

I agree. I’m not confident the audience has noticed these new initiatives. They are not easy to find. Search a city name and 'local news', or similar, and you get to a different page than the actual dynamic feed, with often aged stories. It’s not obvious that you need to click on ‘Live’ for refreshed content. And, in any case, who follows a rolling news blog of random stories (not least one which shuts down when the digital person goes home)?   

It’s a topic for another time, but I’m thoroughly unsure that the BBC has yet mastered the web/social media/broadcast relationship for local news in a way that really squares with the journey of how real people seek their information. In my past lives, we discovered our journalists would spend ages assembling news copy for the website, but page views were minimal, apart from those stories we had pointed to from social media, so we turned the strategy on its head.

I concur, therefore, that ‘The BBC will need to continue to improve the speed of its local news reporting and flex the ways in which stories are made available in order to meet changing audience expectations’.

Moving to the ‘Executive’ section, the DG of the BBC itself says “Let’s also not forget the essential role our local radio stations played in keeping their listeners and the whole country informed about the floods. And they do so much more besides”.

"So much more besides"?

Am I being suspicious in suggesting that sounds to me as if the DG is not altogether sure what this great thing called local radio is - or does  - in general terms? It does that flood service thingy and...  Disappointing. I know, alas too well, that you cannot build a lasting radio 'business' just out of being relied on in crisis. 

BBC local radio needs a higher profile and a deeper understanding within the BBC.  It remains as unloved now as it was in 1967.  If the BBC really does not want to do it, maybe it should spin off the funding to someone else to love and provide it without the head office migraines.

Maybe that would feed into the ‘proposal to open up BBC Radio to more competition from independent producers and…deliver savings, whilst remaining focused on the quality of our output’.

The BBC trumpets its specific initiatives – and so it should.  Radio 1’s #1millionhours campaign; Radio 2’s ‘500 Words’ and commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain; and Radio 3’s seasons like Northern Lights and Why Music? And the list goes on. We want the BBC to give time and effort to deliver rich content and have dedicated resource to do it brilliantly. Some material we see and hear is breathtakingly good.

Spend is down across radio, apart from at Radio 4 and the Asian Network. 4 Extra incurs a significant drop but its growing audiences have evidently not noticed.

BBC Radio Cymru remains the most expensive radio service, up from 21.1p to 22.3p per user hour. The next most expensive is right down the scale with Radio 3 at 5.5p per user hour, with BBC local at 3.9p.  Diolch yn fawr.  BBC online is at 9.6p, so more per user than any radio service, and that presumably is for a single use, not necessarily an hour.

BBC local radio content costs as much as Radio 1, 2 and 3 added together. In many ways a high cost is thoroughly understandable. However, as the Corporation seeks to make further savings in the next Charter term, this cost will again come under scrutiny.  There are other ways of delivering great local radio across the towns and cities of the UK. Nibbling into the budget inch by inch without making significant strategic changes means there will be nothing left for dinner.

Heads have rolled. The number of senior managers at the BBC throughout has fallen to 356 from 484. I’m glad the role I briefly had has disappeared. It was clear to me on Day One it was unnecessary, and I’m pleased that the equivalent roles are now being expanded to replace other positions. I suspect the post-holders are less bored too. Having said that, the executive pay at the top of the BBC is not over-generous.  There were just far too many of them.

The last year has been one of the most complex ever for the embattled BBC, with some buttock-clenching disputes, a Charter to sort, World Service costs to absorb, a tough and changing political climate, budget reductions, heightened scrutiny, the binning of its ‘regulator’, and a Referendum to cover.

In my ‘Conversations’with Roger Mosey, he reflected how the BBC has 'chewed up and spat out' its DGs over the years. It’s a tough job. 

The BBC is getting a lot right. At this critical time, it needs to be bold, proud and visionary.  Inspire. Let its leaders lead. Devolve. Let its managers manage.

Do what it is supposed to do with energy, efficiency and creativity.

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