It surfaced a day later than Ofcom suggested it might, and
Wales is still on tenterhooks, but the BBC annual plan, has arrived
Whilst it may not sound like great holiday reading, the
missive emerges at a critical time. The BBC has a funky new Board that sets its
strategy, runs its operations and is responsible for its output - and, for the
first time, the Corporation will be regulated to a much greater extent by Ofcom. The BBC is set to "reinvent itself for a new generation".
We have seen Ofcom's first stab at a BBC Operating licence,
consultation for which is still underway and about which I have concerns. This document from the BBC itself sets out how it might deliver on those draft requirements from Ofcom - and on the BBC Charter.
• It seeks to outline the BBC’s creative plans that show how the BBC’s output contributes to its
mission and public purposes.
• It strives to demonstrate how BBC services contribute to
distinctiveness, through the conditions in Ofcom’s draft Operating
Licence - and adds 'additional BBC commitments'
• It describes a performance framework that the Board will
use to judge BBC delivery.
• It seeks to set out the BBC’s three-year strategy, work
plan and top-line budget.
• It also outlines changes proposed to public or commercial
services that might be potentially material and how the BBC will be
My view is that the general direction of travel in this report is sensible, and it recognises how people are consuming, particularly news, in increasingly different ways. It addresses digital head on and incorporates it strategically. It indicates wisely a keen focus on younger audiences which are crucial for the future of the medium as a whole - and it's right the BBC should do its bit in that territory.
I worry that the radio overall, however, which is not particularly well-defined by the draft Ofcom rules is still not clearly defined. Are the elements that listeners really care about protected? Is the BBC really being charged with, inter alia, delivering radio content that the commercial sector cannot provide?
The BBC has suggested 'additional commitments' beyond what is required by Ofcom. Whilst that may lend for a pithy line in a speech, I'd invite scrutiny of the 'additional' pledges for radio. Overwhelmingly, the BBC simply dreams up illustrative examples of how it would meet the Ofcom requirements. Rarely more. Let's remember too that the Ofcom requirements were, in the most part, already diluted down from what the Trust had required in the ancien regime.
I worry most about BBC local radio. The Ofcom licence offers very little by way of safeguarding the real character of this huge network. I had hoped to be reassured by additional pledges from the BBC, but my forehead is furrowed. Much programme sharing may be permitted, news bulletins may be 'at intervals' rather than hourly, if desired, and the stations have no further need to champion their local areas.
Crucially, the 'over-50' target audience demand for BBC local radio has gone. No BBC service is charged with serving the over-50s specifically, despite the generation being the most loyal radio listeners.
“Our refreshed strategy for BBC local services in England will prioritise improving our digital proposition”. I wonder if that's what my dad wants.
Remember, the Trust triggered a reversal of decisions on 6 Music and BBC local radio last time. Will Ofcom prove an easier regulatory bed-fellow?
Once again, just as Frank Gillard struggled in the sixties to get the BBC locals on the air, the network remains unloved and misunderstood - by decision-makers based in areas which are not the heartland of these potentially wonderful animals.
If the BBC is claiming to reach out geographically and demographically to diverse communities, as its Chairman claims and its Charter demands, why does it not pledge to keep all its local stations originating much dedicated local output and playing a full role in their areas, providing companionship for 50 plusses? I understand the need for a more efficient, cheaper operation, but just ask any decent member of staff - they will help you identify the cost savings you need .
The BBC's Chairman, the respected David Clementi, opens this report with his key
themes. He notes people are now playing hide and seek for their news; and
there is a general commitment to offer a safe trusted place for children to
find content. He speaks of strengthening the profile of trusted, impartial news vs the threat of fake news; and highlights the importance
of reflecting the UK's different cultures and voices. Finally, he refers
to the range and breadth of programming whilst allowing space for
creative freedom and risk taking. The last point maybe says to Ofcom, 'don't
stick your nose in too much'. It's a solid start.
DG Tony Hall says the BBC's aim is to "reinvent itself for a
new generation". This is to be achieved by reaching the right numbers of people,
delivering good value and being creative. It'll be underpinned by financial
stability and making the BBC a great place to work. Yes - keeping the BBC looking forward is important.
He outlines a dozen BBC priorities, including young
audiences; growing the World Service; reflecting diversity; and growing and
developing audio. There is welcome mention of some radio jewels in the effusive
account of things to be proud of, but no specific mention in dispatches
of Radio 2 or BBC local radio.
Addressing the BBC's four purposes:
an acknowledgement that consumption is slipping from TV and radio and a wish that news should "sound and look more modern than it currently does". There's a
pledge too to monitor how young audiences are using BBC news in its various
incarnations. They are correct, radio's role - certainly for under-55s - is fast-changing.
File on 4, post-election and Brexit Radio 4 programming and
‘ad hoc commissions’ merit special mention and (the brilliant) 50 Things That
Made the Modern Economy.
2. Children and
Radio does not feature under the 'Children's purpose'. With 'learning', radio on-air also appears not
to be a crucial element of the BBC's pledge to “transform” “our mission in
education” - only Radio 1's Academy in Hull is specifically highlighted.
3. Creative &
Natural history issues and storytelling is highlighted, with a
pledge that Radio 4 will continue to explore natural
history and conservation. 'Tweet of the Day', the inspiring ‘Dawn Chorus’ and 'Natural Histories' are also cited. In
science, we learn that Radio 4 will play a key part in the 'Tomorrow’s World' season and 5live will contribute to topical science news and
analysis with 'Naked Scientists'. Radio 4 promises new programmes covering
histories of China, the Cold War, the Middle East and the End of Empire, and a
range of Reith Lectures.
In religion, the report states that "Radio 4 is a key
service for religious programming" with "space to reflect" and
grappling with ethical implications,
alongside regular programming such as 'Thought for the Day', 'The Daily Service' and 'Daily Prayer' on Radio 4; Sunday mornings on Radio 2; and 'Choral Evensong' on
Radio 3. BBC local radio’s regular faith
programming on each one of its stations fails to merit a mention.
In arts, Radio 4’s 'Front Row' (not my favourite programme -
mind you, I hated 'Kaleidoscope' too) is mentioned; "a regular weekly offer on
Radio 2" (Ken Bruce recreates his favourite Archers moments?); and Culture UK "will
dominate the Arts agenda" with related content on BBC Four, Radio 3 and Radio
4. Hull, as City of Culture, is mentioned yet again – and the desire to reflect the City nationally and internationally, but no mention of poor old BBC Radio
It’s reported that Radio 4 will showcase a range of landmark
seasons crossing music, popular arts and art and politics - and Saturday Review
will be replaced with a weekend edition of...'Front Row'. Oh no. Radio 3 will
continue to provide stimulus for deeper thought and contemplation with 'Free
Thinking'; and there’s mention of that fab ‘new’ phenomenon of ‘slow radio’,
which Auntie does brilliantly.
In Contemporary factual and documentaries, there’s an
assurance for the future of 'Gardeners’ Question Time' (b. 1947), 'You and Yours' (b. 1970), 'Moneybox' (b. 1977) and 'Woman’s Hour' (b. 1946).
In drama, witness a pledge to showcase a range “which demonstrates
the ambition of the BBC, focusing on largescale series and serials that create
impact”. The brilliant Home Front is commended. Radio 3 plans 30-minute plays
from emerging Russian writers and a special Joe Orton season
In comedy, the report recognizes how TV steals radio’s ideas.
You’re welcome. We like that. 'Just a Minute' is mentioned, 'Mark Steel’s in Town',
alongside the new offerings some of
which I really don’t get – but hey, comedy divides. The New Comedy Awards will continue in 2017.
In sport, it’s asserted that radio 5live and 5live sports
extra offer a wider range of sports than any other UK broadcaster: “We will
also provide live radio commentaries of 144 Premier League matches this season,
more than any other radio broadcaster in the UK, part of BBC Radio 5live’s
unparalleled commitment to the nation’s favourite sport”.
There’s a pledge to continue to explore
ways to broaden the range of sports coverage broadcast on 5live sports extra
including a range of podcast content. So, not on your actual 5Live.
Music. The range across the BBC is highlighted, “from
classical performance and full-length opera on Radio 3 to urban freestyle on
1Xtra or Glastonbury coverage across TV, radio and online”; and the role in
supporting new or unsigned UK artists through platforms such as BBC Introducing
or Radio 1.
“Our strategic focus in music will be on refreshing music
radio and supporting Radio 1"
”Radio 1 is the home of new music on the BBC for
young audiences. In 2017/18, it will continue to be a focal point for live
music and exclusive coverage of live events”
As for Radio 1’s 50th birthday. It’ll be special. “September
2017 will also mark the 50th birthday of Radio 1, and the station will mark this
moment with special output”. You’re doing a special offshoot service, by the
In 2017, “Radio 1 will launch a new Brit List initiative to
provide long-term support for emerging British artists. This year, 1Xtra will
celebrate its 15th birthday with special 1Xtra Live, Carnivals coverage...and another season from Jamaica”
BBC Asian Network will "continue its strategy of refocusing
on a younger audience and developing its role as a source of new talent".
Radio 2 will “continue to bring specialist music to
mainstream audiences with a mix of jazz, country, blues and folk programming
and events...the showcase for Glastonbury...another Hyde Park event, and...another season of
Radio 2 will “try harder to reach younger and more diverse
audiences”. Again, a desire for the BBC
to focus younger even on Radio 2. “It will build on the new Saturday night Soul
Zone with a Black History month".
“It will continue the use of overnight genre playlists which
have replaced scheduled presenter-led programming“. Yes, be assured that this
odd approach remains as odd as it was.
I’m sorry, Radio 2 should be a live human being overnight - the right
live human being. And don’t say it’s
about cost savings – it needn’t cost a lot.
6 Music will "continue to provide the soundtrack to the lives
of specialist and alternative music fans. The station remains a champion of alternative
and independent music… The station will continue to grow its reputation as a
significant tastemaker...and add important context to important moments in music".
Radio 3 “continues to provide a comprehensive range of
Classical music programming with definitive seasons to accompany landmark
moments" and “context to wider BBC TV seasons on opera”
Of note, “Online, we will progress with our plans to offer
greater personalisation within iPlayer Radio as part of wider plans to offer an
audio product that can meet changing audience expectations. Over time this
could include a richer digital music offer, which would be subject to a
materiality assessment.” Watch this space.
4. Reflecting UK’s diverse
The challenge is recognised. "it is not straightforward to
represent or portray every aspect of British life across all of our services.
However, the BBC has a major role to play here. An important step has been the creation of a single Nations and
Regions division inside the BBC, with the appointment of a new Director".
In diversity amongst its own staffing, the BBC seems to be
making real progress with achieving its targets, and it’s exceeded its LGBT goal! By 2020, it seeks further progress on-air and in lead roles.
There'll be "increased investment in Scotland,
Wales and Northern Ireland across the next three years which will deliver
output across a wide range of genres. We are committed to telling the story of
the whole of the UK and our refreshed strategy will help us achieve that
In Scotland, only Breaking the News on Radio Scotland merits specific mention. The BBC pledges more funding in Wales - and Radio Wales will benefit from seeing
its FM signal boosted, making it available to an additional 175,000 households. Radio Cymru will offer a new breakfast show on DAB and digital
platforms. “On radio, Tudur Owen remains central to the
comedy output on Radio Cymru“.
In Northern Ireland, “new digital content for younger
audiences and new digital investment in radio” is promised. On Radio Ulster, comedy will be reflected in
a new series, and new talent showcased on Radio Ulster and digital. The importance of news is
also recognized: “BBC Newsline, Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle and BBC News NI
Online are all key outlets”
It’s good to see something substantive written about BBC
local radio, albeit we are now at page 31; and there appears an odd lack of
role for BBC local radio for all the other BBC purposes.
“Our refreshed strategy for BBC local services in England
will prioritise improving our digital proposition”. The report refers to “shifting resource to
digital specialist teams, and produce stories in formats that are attractive
and engaging on both BBC and social media platforms. To make our content more
available when they want it, we will develop an improved local digital news
service aimed at weekday breakfast commuters to complement the current news
bulletin coverage on TV and radio”.
“We will also pilot a local news bulletin service for the
new generation of voice-activated platforms"
more listeners begin to use digital platforms for local information, there is
an opportunity for us to develop new and engaging radio formats and programmes
that bind communities together. Our local radio faith teams will continue to
work together on campaigns".
"In a partnership with Radio 2, we intend to examine the role
of neighbours in building communities."
"Each local radio station will partner with at least one
local music festival as part of a BBC Music project to showcase the range of
music festivals across the UK."
"A new radio format to follow the work of the mayoral regions
will also be tested. These local politics programmes will also draw on the
journalism provided by the 150 local democracy reporters funded by the licence
fee but employed by other local news organisations as part of our local
5. Reflect the UK to the World.
With the World Service now
fully in the BBC tent, it is hailed as “the UK’s most important cultural
exports. It inspires and illuminates the lives of millions around the world,
helping them make sense of the world they live in”. The impressive growth in language
services, announced a few months ago, is hailed as the biggest single expansion
since the 1940s; and the array of specific programmes flagged is impressive.
The BBC heralds “a new way of
looking at the performance of the BBC and will require new surveys and updated
methodologies”. It’s right they should
be investigating new methodologies, and sensible to evaluate by the strategic
objectives, but I imagine almost
everything is covered off somewhere in the BBC’s compendium of online, radio and TV
services, and it is challenging to hold it to account through such reviews. There'll always be a cunning alibi. The average listener or viewer, however, cannot sample all that the BBC
broadcasts. Radio listeners, particularly to BBC services, are
notoriously loyal, they only care about their own selected services. Such scrutiny will come as little comfort to the 31% of BBC local listeners who consume no other BBC radio.
Contribution to distinctiveness
The BBC says it will respond shortly (Only a couple
of weeks to do it!) to Ofcom’s consultation on the draft Operating Licence and
expects to propose a ”small number of changes to avoid negative impacts,
clarify differences in definition, capture most up-to-date performance, and
reflect achievability over the long term”.
Ofcom, of course, has to balance any BBC pleas against any other
feedback it has received from we treasure-hunters who managed successfully to track down
the consultation on the Ofcom site. “We think that regulatory conditions should be used only
where absolutely necessary and that they should not unduly restrict creative
freedom or the Board’s ability to set the BBC’s strategy”. It argues that they want to be creative and
not sitting around ticking boxes. I get that.
The Ofcom proposals for the draft operating licence are explored. This part of the document puzzles me.
The BBC volunteers how it will implement the
conditions of the Ofcom licence and, in a dedicated proud column, suggests how it might generously add to them. One imagines the BBC hopes that, by volunteering extra commitments
themselves, they will avoid extra regulation and reserve more freedom to change their mind, as they wish.
Let's examine some of those 'additional pledges':
The BBC proudly trumpets an additional commitment: “Radio 1 will play a more distinctive mix of music than
comparable providers, with a daytime playlist that features a greater range of
songs”. I am unsure how that is an
additional pledge beyond Ofcom’s requirement for "a broader range of music
(number of plays and size of playlist) than comparable providers during peak
and daytime". It sounds even less of a promise!
“Radio 1 will support the discovery and development of new
and emerging UK artists, including through BBC Introducing and new initiatives
such as The Brit List”. I am not sure why this is incremental to Ofcom’s
requirement for “at least 50% of the music in
Daytime is New Music, of which a significant proportion must come from new and
emerging UK artists".
“Radio 1 will continue its year-long campaign focused on
mental health issues. The Radio 1 Teen Awards will celebrate the achievements
of some of the UK’s most inspiring young people. There will be coverage from a
diverse mix of live events" There is here a nod to social action which Ofcom does not require - although the Trust did demand two social action campaigns. So, it's still less than they had to do before.
"Radio 1 will maintain an editorial focus on its key audience
of listeners aged 15-29". That’s not
hugely different from Ofcom’s demand for "a broad range of young listeners". Is a
focus the same as a ‘target audience’?
"1 Xtra has commissioned a special selection of documentaries
for its 15th birthday". Yo! Happy birthday. But, actually, that’s not an extra commitment - the Ofcom draft licence dictates 40 documentaries.
"1Xtra will continue its commitment to supporting UK artists
in daytime", volunteers the BBC. Phew. As opposed to what exactly?
Just playing Gordon Lightfoot?
"1Xtra will continue its commitment to new music in daytime,
retaining its position as the home of new urban music". Ofcom asked for “A
service of contemporary black music, with a focus on new and live music,
alongside significant speech output for young audiences”. Is the BBC's pledge really going
above and beyond?
"1Xtra will focus editorially on young and BAME audiences".
"Radio 2 will play a more distinctive mix of music than
comparable providers, with a daytime playlist which features a greater range of
songs". Ofcom dictated: “the station plays
a broader range of music than comparable providers, taking into account both
the number of plays and the size of the playlist, at both Peak Listening Time
and Daytime”. I’m not sure the BBC has
offered anything further here.
"Radio 2 will broadcast an broad mix of genres and
programming, including the Arts Show, 500 Words as well as specialist music
output from jazz, folk, blues and soul to the popular Sounds of the 80s on the
Red Button". This does offer a specific commitment to jazz, folk and blues which is absent specifically from Ofcom's
demands, but Ofcom did require a “broad range of popular and specialist music and speech output including
news, current affairs and factual programming – and arts programming “not
less than 100 hours.”
"Radio 2 will act as a showcase for new and heritage UK
artists as well as BBC Introducing artists". Is this anything more than Ofcom
asked: “In each Year at least 40% of the music in
Daytime is from United Kingdom acts; and at least 20% of the music in Daytime
is New Music, of which a significant proportion must come from new and emerging
United Kingdom artists”. the Trust, however, required "opportunities for new and emerging musicians from the local area" for local radio.
Radio 2 should be “a champion of new and heritage artists,
with a variety of live events coverage... It will stage a
special concert from Hull as part of the City of Culture celebrations. It will
introduce more live music into daytime with the Piano Room as part of the Ken
Bruce Show.” Well, that helps to meet the
Ofcom requirement for “In each Year it
broadcasts at least 260 hours of live music”
"Radio 2 will maintain its editorial focus on listeners aged
over 35". Earlier on, there was a
suggestion that Radio 2 would “try harder to reach younger audiences”. One imagines that this is about target versus
delivery – Radio 2’s audience is still older than its ambition. But, the BBC volunteers, at
least, a stated focus – not that
anyone would seek to programme this station to anyone else.
Radio 3 will "maintain its role in unique and challenging
drama – the only place on UK radio where audiences can consume full length stage
plays of over 2 hours’ duration". That’s
more than Ofcom required specifically, but less onerous that the Trust’s
service licence which stipulated the amount of drama required.
"Radio 3 will continue to promote new talent". Well, if it has to spend
40% of its budget outside the M25, as is required, it’s got to spend it on
"Definitive seasons to accompany
landmark moments...pioneering new approaches to live classical music". That’s good news – and will meet the Ofcom requirement for “at least 45% of the
station’s music output consists of live or specially recorded music; at least
440 live or specially recorded performances; it commissions at least 25 new
musical works (excluding repeats); and it broadcasts at least 35 new
documentaries on arts and cultural topics (excluding repeats)".
Radio 4 "will sustain its commitment to drama and comedy, and
will look to innovate in format and focus with new digital drama ...it will celebrate milestones such as 50 years of Just a Minute" (as opposed to just snubbing Nicholas in the BBC lift?). So - drama and comedy is pledged as an extra commitment. Is that a different drama and comedy from the
“drama, readings and comedy” already required
Radio 4 Extra will "continue its commitment to drama and comedy as well as archive. It will evolve
its drama and comedy offer with a focus on younger and changing audiences". this additional commitment sounds remarkably similar to Ofcom's
demand for "a speech-based service offering comedy, drama and readings, mainly
from the BBC archive”.
5 Live and Sports Extra will "broadcast a broader range of sport
than any comparable service, including a huge variety of sport in 2018...to regular season coverage of mainstream and specialist sports". Again, Ofcom
required "at least 30 sports’ so is this something new?
"5live will showcase a
range of seasons on news and current affairs, such as Brexit – One Year On,
Trump – The First 6 Months". But Ofcom
requires anyway that "news and current affairs programming is not less than
75%; and...extensive coverage of local and general elections, and of elections
to the United Kingdom’s devolved chambers, as well as regular coverage of
European and international politics".
"5live will continue to be a showcase for voices from across
the UK through daily debate and regular outside broadcasts..." This is a fresh commitment to OBs,
although the commitment to daily debate is probably essential if you are
required by Ofcom to deliver ‘24-hour coverage of news and sport’
Similarly: "It will have regular seasons across the schedule on issues
such as mental health and cyber security. It will continue to innovate in its
content mix". There is a new commitment
to social action here.
5live and Sports Extra will "continue to review their
schedules, talent and on-air contributors to reflect the diversity of the UK", says the BBC. Good - but Clause 14.1 of the Charter demands more: “The BBC must ensure it reflects the diverse communities of the whole of the United Kingdom in the content of its output, the means by which its output and services are delivered (including where its activities are carried out and by whom) and in the organisation and management of the BBC".
The BBC says 6 Music will "continue to provide a mix of specialist music
programmes and documentaries, including a season on Gay Britannia". Ofcom
required: "speech output which
provides context for that (outside the mainstream) music".
"6 Music remains committed to championing new and alternative
music", states the BBC. Ofcom required “A service of
popular music outside the current mainstream, together with speech output which
provides context for that music”.
"Asian Network remains committed to a balance of speech and
music across daytime that reflects and represents the views and interests of
its audience". Ofcom demanded “24 hours a week of news and current affairs “.
"Asian Network will continue to act as a showcase for the
British Asian sound and a platform for the best new music and artists", says the BBC. Yes, Ofcom wanted that: "the BBC Asian Network: a service bringing a wide range of news, music and factual
programming to audiences of British Asians".
"Asian Network will be a key platform for creative talent and
events, from new comedy voices to landmark events. The station will evolve to remain relevant and engaged with
a younger British Asian audience with blend of new talent, new UK and South
BBC Local radio will "continue to offer a broad mix of
content genres relevant to local audiences across speech and music, including
BBC Introducing". Woah! If “a broad mix of content genres’ is an extra commitment, it’s
not going to be challenging to meet!
'BBC Introducing' is a new commitment, albeit one which replicates the requirement for "encouraging local new and emerging musicians" which existed in the Trust service
"Local radio will enter into more partnerships to promote
local arts and events, and each station will partner with at least one local
music festival as part of a BBC Music project". This is a new commitment , yet
would have been the sort of activity which would have been regarded as 'championing' a local area' by the erstwhile Trust licence. It's not what drives the audience.
"An impact fund will finance investigative journalism at
local stations and allow stations to join up on editorial projects to create
more audience impact". To my knowledge, this is cementing something which has already
existed, to good effect. It helps to meet the
Ofcom requirement that “BBC must ensure
that service provides news and information of particular relevance to the area
and communities it serves at intervals throughout the day; and it provides
other content of particular relevance to the area and communities it serves.
There is no commitment from
the BBC to volunteer anything further for BBC local radio than the Ofcom requirement for bulletins
‘at intervals’ through the day. That's worrying.
Output will also draw on "original journalism provided by 150
local democracy reporters recruited by local news providers in partnership with
the BBC". This measure has already been announced. Whilst there is value in the scheme, the
journalists will serve other outlets. And where is the journalism going to live on-air, if bulletins are only broadcast when someone can be bothered?
Local radio will "continue to reach audiences with locally
relevant content across the whole of England". This is no more than Ofcom's shallow requirement that "the BBC must ensure
that service provides news and information of particular relevance to the area
and communities it serves at intervals throughout the day; and it provides
other content of particular relevance to the area and communities it serves."
Having read this, I have serious worries specifically about
the future of BBC local radio. Neither
Ofcom nor the BBC is pledging to retain a comprehensive service of local news,
nor extensive locally tailored output. They have researched BBC local radio fully - they know what the audience values - and that is safeguarded neither by Ofcom or the BBC. My impression is that stations may be
merged, if desired, and programmes shared with considerable ease, which will erode their character. My concerns remain as expressed here.
Ofcom's 'distinctiveness research (March 2017) praised all of BBC radio "suggesting no significant changes to improve distinctiveness". The only note of caution was "a few participants suggested that BBC Radio could be more distinctive by showcasing even more non-mainstream music, or by more coverage to local issues and music". More coverage of local issues? Where's that in the plans?