The revelation that BBC Worldwide is to develop its profile in Australia by hiring local journalists and launching a dedicated news service on BBC.com is further proof of its expansion strategy. According to the Times, the BBC aims to provide news and features about Australia, including coverage of sport, business, technology and entertainment. Crucially, Unlike the BBC’s British outlets, of course, it will carry advertising. Chris Davies, director of sales and marketing at BBC Global News, was quoted as saying, ‘Australia is a priority market for us’.
This news did not go down well at the Guardian, who last year launched their own Australian online edition. The chief executive of Guardian Media Group, Andrew Miller, said in Polis public lecture at the London School of Economics last week, ‘Australia is already a diverse and highly competitive market. The BBC’s expansion into Australia goes beyond its public service remit. More than that, it does not benefit UK licence fee payers or meet the requirement of the BBC to provide news in parts of the world where there are limited alternatives.’ He also added, slightly misleadingly, ‘that the challenge for a licence fee-funded body that ‘doesn’t have to worry about its funding’ was to ‘constructively support those British news brands that do’.
Miller’s comments on the BBC were interesting, constructive and not limited to the Australian venture, though. He has some workable ideas on how the BBC might ‘constructively support ‘its commercial counterparts. What if, he posits, the Guardian, the Mail and such like had access to the raw news feeds coming in from court cases, Royal weddings, key Select Committee hearings and other global breaking news events? What if the BBC released its back catalogue to content providers ‘to create new content that the BBC doesn’t have the time, inclination or expertise to create’?
To be fair to Miller, he doesn’t imagine that the BBC do all this for free out of the goodness of it’s’ heart. He has a business plan that, ‘where there’s a clear commercial value – especially in territories in which we compete with the BBC for advertising revenues – that content would come at a cost, along the same lines as the agreement the BBC currently has with its own commercial news service’. On the other hand, where there is no commercial value, Miller argues, ‘content should be made freely available for national, local and hyper-local organisations to explore.’
Miller’s speech, in a way the headlines did not pick up on, was clear, pragmatic and for the most part optimistic about the future relationship with the BBC. Of course, his primary interest is ‘to ensure that the Guardian’s journalism can flourish in perpetuity in this crowded digital marketplace.’ But there is a partnership that can be mutually beneficial which ‘strengthens and develops the relationship between the BBC and the UK’s commercial publishers. It promotes the BBC’s content abroad. It gives the BBC additional exposure and dollars. It creates a level playing field between us and the BBC’s commercial news arm. And it allows other publishers – all of whom would clearly have to sign commercial terms – additional content and collateral.’
Some of what Miller said is easily challengeable –it’s worth noting, for example, that BBC World is the commercial arm of the Corporation and therefore its operations overseas are not funded by the licence fee – his description of the BBC as a truly ‘dominant world player’ is undoubtedly bang on the money.
In its 2013/14 annual review Tim Davie Chief Executive, stated that BBC Worldwide was a fully-integrated global content company doing business in over 200 territories which continues to expand into areas as diverse as Cambodia and Romania. Far from not benefitting the licence payer, the continued expansion means that in 2013/14 £173.8m was paid to the Corporation in dividends and investments, whilst £88.9m was invested in BBC in-house productions. Light entertainment formulas are sold all over the world and as the Guardian reported, the Great British Bake Off format has successfully been adapted in various countries including France, Italy, Finland, Ukraine, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Shows such as Sherlock Holmes continue to be internationally successful – it was licensed to 224 territories in 2013 with the third series attracting more than 67 million hits on China’s digital platform YouKu.
Not unexpectedly, China is the key area for growth. A recently published report on UK Television Exports revealed that for the second year running China represented the fastest growing market for British programmes and light entertainment formulas. Indeed, next month sees the Chinese launch of the much maligned Top Gear on national broadcaster, Shanghai Dragon TV. In place of Clarkson, Hammond and May are former pop star and motor-racer Richie Jen, Olympic diver Tian Liang and Chinese Idol presenter Cheng Lei. It’s difficult to overstate the worth of Top Gear to the BBC: the Guinness book of records has it as holder of the world’s most watched factual programme, it is sold to 214 territories, it has 19 million Facebook fans and 2 million subscribers to the Official Top Gear YouTube Channel (which has had over 500 million video views.)
The key thing to remember is that though BBC Worldwide operates under the BBC Charter and Agreement it actually has a commitment to be commercially efficient. In the US, where revenue is close to $600 million, Tim Davie is mapping further growth. For him, BBC America is ‘a small big business, which needs to grow.’ It’s this logic which is behind the most recent developments. American Movie Classics (AMC) Cable Company has bought a 49.9% stake in BBC America for $200m (£125m). Under the terms of the deal AMC will take over operational control and advertising sales of BBC America. Tony Hall, BBC Director-General and Chairman of BBC Worldwide, stated: ‘The U.S. is an important market for the BBC’s commercial activities. This partnership brings together the whole BBC and will help us reach new audiences in the U.S., strengthen BBC America’s position for the long term and create opportunities for the UK creative community.’
So this is the problem for Andrew Miller and others: the BBC’s international power is clearly growing and it is forging alliances with major global players. It is expanding into areas where their business interests will inevitably collide. The case for cooperation and collaboration made by Miller in his LSE speech is persuasive from a public service, utilitarian perspective. Whether the business plan makes sense to BBC worldwide, though, remains to be seen.
An edited version of this piece appears here, in the Conversation.