Tuesday 4 July 2017

BBC - Interim Annual Plan - Summary and Comment

It surfaced a day later than Ofcom suggested it might, and Wales is still on tenterhooks, but the BBC annual plan, has arrived today. 

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 governed. 

My conclusion

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 .

Detailed Analysis

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:


There is 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 learning

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 & Distinctive 

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 Humberside. 

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 way.

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 In Concert".

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 communities.

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 ambition".

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"

“As 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 partnership work."

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.

Performance measurement 

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". See above.

"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 something.

"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 by Ofcom?

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 Asian music".

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 licence. 

"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? 

Get my book, 'How to Make Great Radio' now!  

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