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The Death of the BBC

December 16th, 2009 · 18 Comments

…and the Case for Public Service Games

The BBC is a world-class broadcaster that produces some of the very best TV, radio and news. It’s also an organisation that is desperately holding on to its past glories, while ignoring the potential and importance of the internet.

What is the BBC for? According to its Royal Charter, the BBC’s purpose is to create and distribute content that will “inform, educate, and entertain,’ – content that would not exist without a broadcaster that is publicly funded by a compulsory TV licence fee. As the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, said recently:

The BBC exists to deliver [...] programmes and content of real quality and value. Content that deepens understanding, changes attitudes, makes people encounter the world with new eyes and new ears. Content – news, music, drama, documentary – which would not be made and which they would never enjoy if the BBC did not exist.

Look around you. Look at commercial media both here and around the world. Is it possible in 2009 to believe that – with all its undoubted shortcomings – if you took the BBC away you would end up with anything other than a big black cultural hole?

The BBC’s mission is truly noble. It spends millions spent on science and nature documentaries that are the envy of the world, thoughtful examinations on history and politics, daring and challenging dramas, news that strives to be fair and impartial, and unabashedly intelligent radio and music. If you took the BBC away, there really would be a cultural gap because I really doubt that the commercial sector would take up the mantle.

But, of course, that’s not all what the BBC does. It also spends hundreds of millions on game shows, soap operas, dramas, chat shows, pop music, and light entertainment – genres that are served reasonably well by the commercial sector. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this, providing that the BBC’s programmes were somehow better or different than those on ITV, Channel 4, or Sky; but they’re not. Eastenders, Spooks, and Strictly Come Dancing may be great shows, but they’re not unique or distinctive when compared to Coronation Street, Primeval, and the X-Factor on ITV.

As it happens, most people seem perfectly fine with the current state of affairs, and they don’t care if the commercial sector is harmed by the BBC. To most, the BBC provides good value for money – it gives them a decent selection of shows that they watch regularly – some of which really are unique and ‘public service’, others which are simply entertaining – and they neither think nor care that this is unfair.

Nevertheless, the fact that the BBC openly competes with the commercial sector when it isn’t supposed to is a contradiction that has severe consequences. This contradiction is a legacy from when it was very expensive and difficult to make TV, and there were technical limits to the number of channels that could be broadcast; under those circumstances, it made sense to have the BBC create a wide range of programmes. But now that it’s easier to make TV and we have more or less unlimited channels via digital TV and the internet, the BBC’s production of decidedly ‘competitive’ TV and radio programmes seems less justifiable but somehow excusable given that it’s been doing so for the past several decades.

And so, we love the BBC for its documentaries and its worthy cultural content, and we ignore the fact that many show we enjoy, like The Weakest Link and Eastenders, are in fact perfectly possible outside of the BBC. Given popular sentiment, the BBC is not likely to stop making game shows and soap operas, so there’s nothing to worry about there.*

(*Except for the problem of the high salaries being paid to top performers like Jonathan Ross, which continues to draw negative attention from the media and the government. We’re outraged that a publicly-funded organisation is paying such a high salary to anyone, but it’s mainly because the BBC is competing with the commercial sector, and in the commercial sector, salaries can reach into the millions).

Putting aside the BBC’s anti-competitiveness for a moment, there are two other big problems.

The first is the issue of the TV licence fee and its murky future in a digital world. The second is the fear and lack of understanding the BBC’s upper echelons have of the rapid shift in audience attention to interactive forms of media and entertainment; that is, games.

The TV Licence Fee

Today, I could listen to the radio, read BBC News Online, and watch hundreds of hours of drama, comedy, documentaries and movies on iPlayer on my TV (via my PS3 or Wii), and I wouldn’t need to pay the licence fee. This is because you only need to pay the licence fee if you’re watching live TV.

If this sounds bizarre and unfair, it is, but this is the BBC’s take on it (by Ashley Highfield, while he was still working there):

…The number of homes that currently have no television licence, but that do have broadband subscription is currently estimated to be infinitesimally small. The chances are if you want to watch BBC TV programmes via catch-up over the web, you are also watching some BBC programmes at other times, live or time-shifted, via a TV set, and will already have a TV licence.

If we saw, over time, that some people stopped receiving live broadcasts at all, stopped paying their licence fee, but continued to consume televison programmes, solely on-demand through the iPlayer (or other players), then we might have to consider talking to the Government about Part 4 of the Communications Act 2003 and the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004, so that they can then consider whether on-demand tv viewing might be brought within its aegis.

For several days running, one of the most popular New York Times stories has been about a writer cancelling his cable subscription and streaming shows via the internet, saving him hundreds of dollars a year. Clearly it’s struck a chord among the Times’ cash-strapped readers, and where the US goes, the UK will follow. There is a real chance that increasing numbers of people will give up the not inconsiderable £142.50 annual licence fee and simply watch through iPlayer for free, and if this happened, you would probably see a ‘broadband licence fee’ to replace the TV licence fee. Sounds simple, but it isn’t.

Up until a few years ago, it was an fair assumption that anyone with a TV would of course watch the BBC, mainly because there wasn’t much choice; and since pretty much everyone in the UK had a TV, everyone paid the licence fee, so it wasn’t necessary to start encrypting transmissions or similar since there were very few people outside of the system. This also meant that the BBC could provide a whole range of other content via the radio, and recently the web, again with no encryption or authentication required, because it could simply assume that pretty much everyone was paying anyway.

But the internet is not like TV or radio. The internet is all about choice, and it’s perfectly conceivable (if still unlikely) that you could have a broadband connection and not consume any BBC content. This means that the collectors of a broadband licence fee would need to prove that you had, in fact, consumed BBC content in order to make you pay up. In practice, this would involve either ISPs monitoring customer traffic to see if they’d visited a BBC site (a privacy nightmare), or more realistically, users needing to log in – thus proving they’ve paid the licence fee – before accessing BBC content.

The problem with making people log in is that it makes the BBC feel uncomfortably like HBO – in other words, an optional subscription service. It would also link the BBC and the licence fee much closer in people’s minds. You might think that they’re already very linked, but on my TV licence, the BBC is mentioned precisely two times, in small writing, on the back of the letter. They’re certainly weren’t mentioned in the scary and threatening adverts the TV Licencing used to run. If the BBC begin requiring people to prove they’ve paid, there’ll be no avoiding this link, and just imagine the customer service and billing nightmares the BBC would now have to handle.

But I think the most powerful argument against any kind of licence fee is that we’re used to the BBC being ‘free at the point of use’. We want everyone to have access to the BBC’s content that ‘informs, educates, and entertains’, even if they can’t afford it, even if they think they don’t need it.

The alternative to a licence fee is a ‘BBC tax’.

The idea of a tax, instead of a licence fee, is fiercely opposed by the BBC Trust for two major reasons. The first is that the BBC wants to maintain its independence from the government, which will be much harder if it’s funded directly by the government. The second is that the Trust thinks it’s important for people to feel that they have a direct connection with the BBC.

While TV licence fees are common in Europe, the public broadcasters in Australia and Canada receive their funding through a government grant. The CBC maintains its independence from the government by being a ‘crown corporation’ (i.e. a state-owned enterprise), governed by a 12-member Board of Directors – who are, yes, appointed by the federal government. With the government picking the Board of Directors, the CBC sounds dangerously vulnerable to political intervention, no?

Well, how is the BBC run? It too has a 12-member Trust that formulates the strategy for the corporation, assesses the performance of the Executive Board, and appoints the Director General. Given the professed independence of the Trust, you might think that its members might be elected by licence fee payers, or in some equally non-governmental manner – but of course not! Here’s how the BBC tells it:

Those who apply to be Trustees are shortlisted and interviewed. The interview panel is chaired by a senior civil servant from DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport). The panel also includes an independent assessor and the BBC Chairman. Their recommendation goes to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, then to the Prime Minister, and finally to the Queen.

So, wait – the governing body of the BBC is ultimately approved by… the government? What happened to the independence?

The Trust would probably respond by referring to the BBC’s Royal Charter and Agreement, which sets out the corporation’s purpose and funding, and decrees that it should be free of any private or governmental influence. They would also say that the Charter is only renewed every 10 years, providing the corporation with some protection against the vicissitudes of politics

But let’s be clear – at the end of the day, the BBC is not free from governmental influence, unless you think that the Queen is the actual sovereign power in the UK. When the Conservatives are telling everyone who’ll listen that they’ll freeze or cut the licence fee if they come into power, and when the Trust and Director General are constantly feuding with cabinet ministers about BBC Worldwide and performers’ salaries, you know that there’s not as much independence as claimed – or at least, any more than the CBC enjoys.

And as for the second reason, if the BBC really thought it was important for people to feel connected to the BBC, we call it the ‘BBC licence fee’ and put the BBC logo on it. But we don’t, because that would look bad. Frankly, I don’t buy it, and I don’t buy the idea that a tax would make people feel any less connected.

With the licence fee looking increasingly dated and unfair as time goes by, it’s hard to see why the BBC Trust is spending so much time, energy, and political capital fighting the battle to keep it, other than through some strange notion of purity. Ultimately, the licence fee will change, and the BBC will continue to make TV shows that are generally free of governmental influence.

The reason we should care about any of this stuff is that the Trust’s battle is not without its casualties – and these casualties are what will really kill the BBC.

Online

The BBC’s Royal Charter from 2007 states:

The BBC’s main activities should be the promotion of its Public Purposes through the provision of output which consists of information, education and entertainment, supplied by means of television, radio and online services

Sounds great; the newest, most-promising, and fastest-growing communications medium, the internet, is mentioned right along side those old stalwarts, TV and radio. Clearly the BBC understand that as audience habits change, so should their content.

Or perhaps not.

The BBC’s 2009 Annual Report reveals that £177.2m was spent on online, compared to £2,335.8m for TV and £587.9m on radio. Remarkably, the online spend dropped by £5m from the previous year; in comparison, the TV spend held steady, and the radio spend dropped by £11m. They don’t provide a spending breakdown for online, but a large chunk of it will be for the iPlayer and BBC News Online. This means that the total spend on original, non-news, online content is in the tens of millions; and much of that will be supporting TV and radio content.

Tens of millions? That sounds like a lot, but it’s not.

According to the 2009 Ofcom Communications Market Report, the average person watched 225 minutes of TV per day in 2008. That same average person spent 25 minutes online, up from only 9 minutes in 2003 (in comparison, TV watching increased by a mere 1 minute) – and this number doesn’t include time spent online at work, which certainly makes 25 minutes an underestimate. These numbers do not take into account any time spent playing games, or the relative depth of engagement between TV watching and internet use; 25 minutes spent surfing the web or playing games is clearly not equivalent in terms of attention to 25 minutes watching the TV while eating dinner or chatting with friends.*

*It gets worse. When asked which media activity they’d miss most, 51% of adults said the TV, 15% the internet, and 2% games. Among 16-35 year olds, that changes to about 39% TV, 20% internet, and 4% games. In other words, despite the supposed 9 times more minutes spent watching TV than online, everyone values the internet and games disproportionately highly.

Let’s be generous and take the numbers at face value: TV commands, at most, nine times more minutes than the internet. So why does the BBC spend13 times more on TV than online? And why is it reducing its online spend when internet usage is growing and TV viewing is stagnating? Why, in speech last month, did the Director General say:

Expect to see reductions in some kinds of programmes and content – a look for example at the current scope of our website – and a close examination of the future of our service portfolios once switchover has been achieved.

Here’s what I think. The BBC’s aversion to the internet (in matters other than children’s content, news, sport, (some) education, and delivery of video content) has its origins in two broad areas:

  • The BBC’s tendency to creating content that competes with the commercial sector muddies the issue when the BBC tries to make online content that the commercial sector doesn’t
  • The £150m calamity that was BBC Jam
  • Massive aversion to risk and conservatism regarding major online projects outside of the core children, news, sport, etc area (and often within those areas as well)

And also:

  • An apparent lack of interest, and a definite lack of experience and direction, in interactive media production and commissioning (call them games, if you like) at the very highest levels

The Conundrum of the Commercial Sector

I’ve already written enough about how the BBC competes directly against the commercial sector on TV and on the radio; just take one look at Bonekickers and ask yourself how that fulfilled the BBC’s core mission. But the situation is different online.

In 2003, the government commissioned the BBC Digital Curriculum (later called BBC Jam), an online educational service aimed at schoolkids, tied directly into the National Curriculum. It launched in 2006 and was promptly  suspended a year later owing to complaints from commercial educational software producers to the European Commission, who claimed that it was anti-competitive.

Following these complaints, the Trust and Ofcom conducted a review of BBC Jam’s public value, and decided to pull the plug, with only 10% of the content having launched. The full cost of BBC Jam was  £150m. Not all the money and content went down the toilet, but a lot of it did.

The problem with BBC Jam, as seen by the commercial sector, is that there was already plenty of perfectly good paid-for online educational services out there, and the BBC muscling in with its £150m of content would destroy their market. Conversely, the BBC would probably claim that BBC Jam content was going to be ‘distinctive’ from the commercial sector’s offerings and thus not competitive.

Given that I don’t know what most of the BBC Jam content was going to be, I’m not able to comment on this. However, I find two things very confusing. Firstly, it’s not clear why the BBC would decide to spend quite so much money on online education for schoolkids; it’s not as if the BBC is trying to convey much of the National Curriculum on TV or radio, so it’s odd that it would do so online. I agree that it’s an important area, but if the government really wanted to provide a free online educational service, it probably should have done it outside of the BBC – and really, the BBC should have resisted the impulse to take or use the cash.

Secondly, I don’t understand why BBC Jam was so harshly criticised when BBC Bitesize – an online GCSE revision guide – competes directly against a host of other online and offline revision guides. I suspect the answer is that more people complained about BBC Jam, but that doesn’t explain the difference in principle.

Whatever the truth behind BBC Jam, it’s clear that it spooked the BBC; losing £150m tends to do that to you. Unfortunately, it also made the BBC overly cautious about doing anything else online. After all, if you can’t do education online – the word that comes after ‘inform’ and before ‘entertain’ – you might as well give up and go home. Which is, to an extent, what the BBC did – it’s spending less and less online, and in order to prevent a repeat of the Jam debacle, all interactive content has to be unimpeachably ‘public service’, or even better, in the service of TV shows (many of which are anti-competitive themselves).

CBBC

I have fond memories of CBBC’s shows: there was Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, the broom cupboard, Blue Peter, strange Australian fantasy dramas, and plenty of weird cartoons. When I got back home from school, I’d often watch whatever was on until Neighbours. This habit continued until we got the internet at home and I basically stopped watching TV; alas, CBBC couldn’t compete with the attractions of the web.

And so today, if you visit the Children’s BBC website, it says “Free games, cool clips, and more CBBC fun,” and if you google CBBC, the top result is its games portal. Clearly CBBC – a brand that serves 6-12 year olds – really cares about games.

On the surface, CBBC turning into a major game developer and portal (and if you don’t believe it is, just ask some parents) ought to be cause for considerable alarm from the commercial sector; after all, it owns some of UK’s best known brands and it can cross-promote them between the TV, the web, books, DVDs and other platforms. But bizarrely, CBBC hasn’t met the same fate as BBC Jam. Everyone knows that its target audience wants to play games, and so unless CBBC is going to abandon that audience to Disney and Nickelodeon, who are busy spending hundreds of millions on kids games, it must make games.

OK, but why do we care about CBBC at all? If Disney and Nickelodeon are doing so well at entertaining our kids, why not let them get on with it and save some money by axeing CBBC? It’s because CBBC informs, educates, and entertains in a way that Disney and Nickelodeon do not. Not all of its games are good, and not all of them are informative or educational or ‘distinctly entertaining’, but many of them are, and so I entirely approve of CBBC’s focus on games. Not that they need my approval – it’s just the obvious thing to do.

Oddly enough, as soon as you turn 13 and leave the comforting embrace of CBBC, the BBC is no longer interested in making games for you. “You’re on your own, buddy – don’t let the door hit you on the way out. We hear there are some fun games at Miniclip and Kongregate, if you’re into that sort of thing!”

I’m being a little unfair here, but not that much. A couple of years ago, the BBC belatedly realised their utter poverty of teen-centric content and created BBC Switch, which is also a brand, not a channel. Switch has a few TV and radio shows on BBC 2 and Radio 1, plus a smattering of online video, and 13 mostly cheap Flash games, with a couple of Myst-like exceptions (once again, tied into TV shows).

I’ll put it this way: if you go to BBC Switch, you aren’t going to think it has anything to do with games, and you aren’t going to find many decent games, despite the fact that most teenagers remain avid gamers. And anecdotally, when I did some game testing in schools for Smokescreen, I found the teens were playing games on Miniclip and CBBC, not Switch. It’s not that the BBC can’t do games – CBBC shows that it can – it’s that not enough money is being spent.

And that’s just children and teens – what about adults? We play games as well!

The Case for Public Service Games

You may now be thinking, “Games?! Why is he banging on about games? Why should the BBC make Grand Theft Auto or Championship Manager? Isn’t the BBC all about TV and radio?”

The answer is that games are the most promising route for informing and educating not just young people, but all people. No-one thinks that the best way to educate kids or adults is solely through books and lectures; we know that it’s important for them to interact with teachers, experts, hands-on experiments, and with one another. Interaction is a vital part of learning.

It happens that when you make interactive content that informs or educates, you tend to make things that look suspiciously like games. This isn’t because you’re pandering to your audience, but because games formalise a lot of the learning, assessment, and reward structures that already exist in education – things like marks (scores), exams (bosses), textbooks (levels) and gold stars and awards (achievements). So when I talk about games here, I don’t exclusively mean entertainment (although, of course, many of the best teachers and lessons are entertaining); I mean any interactive tool that contains an objective and a goal and learning process. Those are games.

Unfortunately, the words ‘game’ and ‘play’ are associated with frivolity or worse in many people’s minds. What’s more, many people in power have no experience or conception of the idea that games could be used to inform and educate people; add in the incessant demonisation of games from politicians and tabloids, and you have a very negative atmosphere for public service games.

What many people fail to realise is that TV was also labelled as a cultural wasteland not too long ago, and radio, and even novels. When the very first English novels were being written (Pamela, Clarissa, etc) over 250 years ago, MPs could be found decrying the terrible effects these novels had on youths, who were wasting their lives away sitting on ’sofas’, with their head buried in these frivolous ‘fabrications’. Today, we make our kids study novels in school.

Like TV or radio or novels, there are games purely for entertainment; like Modern Warfare 2 and World of Warcraft; there are games that are both entertaining and educational, like Civilization, SimCity and World of Goo; and there are games that open your eyes to the world and edify your soul; like Passage, or The Longest Journey, or The Path.

Recently, I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed 2 on the PS3, a role-playing game set in Renaissance Italy. In the game, you become Ezio Auditore de Firenze, the son of a nobleman in Florence who gets caught up in all sorts of politicking, intrigue, and general Da Vinci Code-style conspiracies. What’s important is that the game has astoundingly beautiful and accurate reconstructions of Venice, Florence, and Rome, each containing hundreds of real towers, churches, buildings, and palaces, complete with impeccably digitised artwork. Everyone I’ve shown the game to, gamers and non-gamers alike, has been genuinely taken aback by the simulated world.

Assassin's Creed 2 Screenshot

And while Assassin’s Creed 2’s story takes plenty of liberties with the truth, it tries to stay as close to the historical record as it can while remaining fun. As a result, you’ll be rubbing elbows with the Medicis, the Borgias, the Pazzis, Leonardo Da Vinci, and dozens of other historical characters. I bet you don’t even know who the Pazzis are, either, but rest assured that their actions in the game are surprisingly interesting and close to the truth.

Someone who doesn’t know anything about Renaissance Italy (i.e. 95% of the playerbase) would have to try extremely hard not to learn something about the relationship between the Church and State, the independence of Venice, the Doge, the power of the Pope, the various festivals in Italy – and so on. Assassin’s Creed 2 manages to convey this education despite the fact that it wasn’t made for any public service purpose – it was made to make money. It just so happens that you can make money and be educational at the same time, and people appear to enjoy that; personally, I was so intrigued that I booked a holiday to Italy.

I spent somewhere between 15 and 20 hours completing the game. Try getting me, or the average teen or young adult, to watch 15 to 20 hours of a documentary about Renaissance Italy. In fact, try getting us to watch just three hours of a documentary. Good luck.

It could be argued that if Assassin’s Creed 2 is so wonderful, the market is providing great content already and the BBC can rest easy. Nonsense. The reason I mention Assassin’s Creed 2 here is because it’s exceptional: exceptionally good, and exceptionally rare. There is a gaping hole in the market for ‘public service games’ that inform and educate people of all ages; where is the Britain from Above of games? Or the Power of Nightmares, or Life, or the Reith Lectures, or the Newsnight, of games? We are seeing an entire generation go by without content that is suited to their habits and preferences.

If we think it’s important that people learn about WW2, or impressionist art, or the slave trade, or climate change, and the commercial sector isn’t providing that content at a good price and a good quality, then it’s the BBC’s responsibility to step in. By all means, the BBC should make a documentary or a radio show where appropriate for the content and the audience, but we may find that these subjects must be addressed through games in order to get certain audience, or simply because games are the most appropriate way (imagine a game that lets you run climate change simulations, or explore the Black Death).

And if we are happy with the inconsistency of the BBC producing TV drama and entertainment that competes with the commercial sector, then maybe we should be happy with the inconsistency of games that don’t seek to mainly inform or educate. I don’t mean that the BBC should produce the gaming equivalent of Bonekickers; rather, the equivalent of Life on Mars, or The Thick of It, or The Office – all distinctive and original pieces of entertainment.

There are many good people at the BBC who are fully capable of commissioning original, high quality, public service games. They’re smart, they’re skilled, and they’re motivated by a real desire to help people, but they’re hamstrung by the lack of a coherent and consistent games strategy. I have yet to see any BBC games strategy be articulated, and believe me, I have asked many times over the past few years.

Instead, all we have is fear, and a lack of understanding at the very highest levels about the value of games, and how to go about commissioning them, which I find tragic. I think the Trust just do not believe games are important. Either way, the BBC needs to decide whether it’s going to make public service games at all, and if so, it should spend proper money on it befitting its significant and growing attention among the public. It should also understand that entering any new medium entails risks that are ultimately justified by the rewards. We didn’t stop trying to reach the Moon because it was expensive, or the rockets blew up, or we didn’t know how to, or even because astronauts died. We kept on going because we thought it was important – because we thought it was worth doing. Not every game the BBC makes will be amazing, but those that are will make up for the necessary failures.

The BBC also needs to think about the distribution and marketing of games. Its TV content benefits from a captive audience, cross promotion, and prime placement on electronic programme guides, not to mention significant PR and advertising. Games currently do not enjoy such benefits, and as a result, the BBC focuses almost all of its biggest games on its biggest brands, which is a frankly uninspired and cheap strategy. The BBC needs to spend real resources on reaching the tens of millions of gamers out there; that means going out to gaming portals and social networks.

Or, indeed, making its own gaming portal. The BBC actually has hundreds of games online, the legacy of a decade of unco-ordinated games commissioning and throwaway Flash games. Most of them are bad, a few are very good. Unfortunately, there is no way to see a list of all of the BBC’s games; you’d have to visit each separate department instead. The reason is that a games portal might be seen as anticompetitive, which is laughable because:

  1. No-one in the games industry seriously views the BBC as a competitor
  2. CBBC, which actually does spend a lot of money on games, already has its own games portal

It is wilfully foolish of the BBC not to have a games portal.* Surely the BBC wants people to play its games? Isn’t it a waste of money to not have these games played? Or is it only worthwhile for people to games if they also watch the associated TV shows?

*(I should note that the BBC is doing some technical work in aiding the discovery of games and integrating them into social networks, but it’s no replacement for a true games portal, or a proper budget for games content)

Last year, gaming overtook music, and TV and film, to reach the number one spot in terms of money spent on entertainment. It is, without a doubt, the dominant form of entertainment for the 21st century, and it will become the dominant medium for informing and educating people as well. The BBC can either step up, or slowly and painfully die.

The BBC’s Choice

Last month, Sir Michael Lyons, the Chair of the BBC Trust, talked about ’streamlining’ the BBC’s online offerings:

…We want to question honestly what licence fee payers really expect to get from their licence fee and what they might be surprised to see the BBC doing in the online world.

Specifically, the Trust is asking the BBC to investigate:

Beyond the core offer of news, sport, education, children’s and the iPlayer, which parts of the online service are essential to the BBC’s mission and which could be stopped?

In particular, where should the boundary be drawn between the online expression or extension of BBC programming and the creation of new online content with a less direct relationship to BBC programming?

These seem like reasonable enough questions in a time when we’re all facing lighter wallets, but frankly, the Trust is begging the question. If online is to be considered for ’streamlining’, why not also TV and radio? Why is drama or entertainment not among the ‘core offer’ of BBC online, when they are firmly part of TV’s core? Why aren’t they asking if there is online content that licence fee payers want from the BBC, but they’re not currently getting?

And, in particular, what lies behind the assumption that BBC programming must exclusively originate from TV or radio? The implication that ‘new online content with a less direct relationship to BBC [TV or radio] programming’ is less deserving of funding speaks volumes of a Trust that cannot conceive of original online content that is capable of fulfilling the BBC’s public purpose. Or let me put it another way way; if it’s not TV or radio, and it’s not news, sport, education or children’s, then it’s not worth doing.

The BBC Trust is fighting a battle on many fronts. It’s trying to protect the licence fee and prevent BBC Worldwide from being sold off, in order to retain its budget. It’s also trying to justify the high salaries being paid to top performers, because it feels the BBC needs to continue making popular, and often anticompetitive, content, in order to keep the British public happy with it. Finally, there’s the fight to justify the BBC’s online presence. Unfortunately, the Trust has decided to largely abandon the fight for the internet, and leave it to the commercial sector, so that they can defend the areas they think are more important.

It’s brilliant news for the commercial sector; they understand the internet is the future, and while the BBC is cutting its online budget, they’re rapidly increasing theirs. It’s great for the BBC Trust as well; they get to save the BBC’s remit and its licence fee for another decade, and by the time that the internet and games have overtaken TV -well, they’ll be retired.

The BBC exists to make “of real quality and value. Content that deepens understanding, changes attitudes, makes people encounter the world with new eyes and new ears. Content – news, music, drama, documentary – which would not be made and which they would never enjoy if the BBC did not exist”. It’s here to make content that other people won’t. Shows like Eastenders, The Weakest Link, and Strictly Come Dancing are popular, but they’re not public service, unlike BBC News, documentaries, debates, and education.

If the BBC doesn’t continue its proud tradition of creating great public service content and games onto the web, and give that content the resources it deserves, it’s the walking dead.

It shouldn’t be hard for the BBC to make public service games. First, define a clear and consistent games strategy that defines what can and cannot be made. Second, significantly increase the budget to reflect the growing amount of time people spend online. Third, streamline the process of commissioning games, and give commissioners the same freedom that TV and radio commissioners have.

Fourth, the Trust should accept the risk inherent in this new medium, and commissioners should be more free to experiment – you could have the BBC1, the BBC2 and the BBC3, and BBC4 of games. We have some of the best game developers in the world, from Lionhead and Rockstar to brilliant bedroom programmers – the BBC’s games could come in all prices, from cheap to expensive, so any experimentation need not break the bank. Where sensible, some games might be related to shows (e.g. Doctor Who), while others might be wholly original. Who knows, you might even make a TV show out of a successful game!

Fifth, create a games portal and make it easier for people to discover the BBC’s games. Finally, take the successful games and sell them worldwide, just as shows like Top Gear are sold. These games could make money!

Every time I ask people at the BBC about games, I’m told that “things are going to change soon.” I’ve heard that so many times now that I just don’t believe it. Five years ago, the BBC commissioned the State of Play report on gaming, which revealed that – surprise, surprise – people of all ages and sexes play games. Unfortunately, nothing happened, and two of the top BBC execs involved in online and gaming – Matt Locke and Alice Taylor – left to join Channel 4, where they’re busy making a whole host of award-winning public service games that attract millions of players, on a budget a fraction of the size of the BBC’s.

What’s the future of BBC? Making TV and radio, as the audiences stagnate and slowly decline? Mark Thompson, the Director General, said there’d be a ‘big black cultural hole’ if you took away the BBC.

Do we really believe that the internet is full of culture, free to British citizens, that “deepens understanding, changes attitudes, makes people encounter the world with new eyes and new ears”? Do we really think that the internet has websites and games as good as Planet Earth, or Life, or Radio 4, or The Power of Nightmares?

If that content exists, brilliant: there’s no need for the BBC to do anything.

But if that content isn’t there, then it’s time for the BBC to get started.

Tags: bbc · future · games · politics · tv

18 responses so far ↓

  • Nathan // Dec 17, 2009 at 1:14 am

    That’s a fantastic and insightful piece Adrian, thank you.

    I would argue though, that the somewhat incidental nature of the educational value of titles such as Assassin’s Creed 2 would equally justify many mainstream “entertainment” TV shows which similarly can educate. Programmes such as “Life on Mars” or Spooks are no doubt quality programmes which could have been developed commercially, but I have found to also be hugely educational, at least to the extent that AC2 ever was.

    So would you advocate that the BBC only stick to the educational “Life”, “The World at War” and “Planet Earth” of games (a form which I would argue hasn’t yet been successfully made into a coherent, /good/ game); or should the entertainment instead be placed foremost?

  • Mike Jones // Dec 17, 2009 at 9:11 am

    The BBC games sites are among the top traffic game sites in the UK.

    The government has told them that they are not allowed to do games yet they are taking traffic away from UK Internet companies who are in a fast moving business so it hurts them much more that it would companies in other slower moving markets.

    Other countries help their home grown companies and in the UK the BBC is trying to put them out of business.

    This is no way for the UK to succeed on the Internet. It is the opposite of what should be happening. Say good by to the tax money that the government will never collect from high flying UK internet companies that will never be.

  • Adrian Hon // Dec 17, 2009 at 9:25 am

    I would agree that there is education to be found in Life on Mars and in Spooks, but the same level of education might be found in commercial sector TV; I’m sure the viewers of Primeval have learned a thing or two about dinosaurs!

    But if people feel that the BBC’s entertainment content like Life on Mars is distinctive and educational in a way that the commercial sector isn’t, why not also make similar entertainment and drama online? What I’m trying to do here is point out the inconsistency of the BBC’s actions.

  • Frankie Roberto // Dec 17, 2009 at 10:50 am

    I agree completely that the BBC should be able to innovate online, and create new projects/products that aren’t connected to TV/radio shows (which fulfil some kind of public service). I even worked on one or two of these before the BBC put the kibosh on this kind of project.

    Aside from the political fear of not wanting to be seen as overly competing with the commercial sector (which is much more obvious with standalone projects – it’s harder to argue that there would be a commercial market for websites that tie in with TV shows, although sites like Digital Spy clearly do quite a good job covering shows like Eastenders).

    The other possible reason for the reticence in doing online stuff that doesn’t connect with a TV show is that they’re a lot harder to market, and so often get a smaller audience. Whereas even basic TV-support websites like Two Pints of Lager… get a sizeable audience without having to do very much (sad as that may seem).

    One response to this problem is to start to measure the quality and public service value of the audience engagement, rather than sheer numbers (so that a few thousand people getting an in-depth learning experience is seen as worthwhile as a few hundred thousand people downloading a Spooks desktop wallpaper).

    Perhaps more important though is to find better ways of making the online games and experiences findable and discoverable – as you say, a “games portal” would be a good first step.

    As an aside, I’m always a bit dismayed to see suggestions that the BBC shouldn’t compete with the commercial sector on “game shows, soap operas, dramas, chat shows, pop music, and light entertainment”. As a response to this, I invoke a quote from Stephen Fry:

    “How could an audience be brought to a channel that showed nothing but worthy programming, no matter how excellently produced. Isn’t the whole point of the BBC as a major channel, a real player in TV production across the spectrum of genres and demographics, isn’t the whole point of that BBC its ability to draw audiences into PSB programming by virtue of their loyalty and trust in a brand that provides entertainment, pure and simple?” (from http://www.stephenfry.com/2008/06/18/the-bbc-and-the-future-of-broadcasting/)

  • Adrian Hon // Dec 17, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Yes, that was a good speech by Stephen Fry, and I agree with him. What I’m trying to do here point out the huge inconsistencies in the BBC’s position. They can’t have it both ways by spending huge amounts on entertainment, and pretending that the justification of their existence is worthy programming; that’s not compatible with what Fry is saying (and it’d still ignore the fact that they aren’t spending much money on ‘worthy’ content online).

    And if they *did* move to Fry’s stance and started vigorously defend their great anticompetitive programming because that’s ‘the whole point of the BBC’ – then why shouldn’t they spend proper money making similarly anticompetitive programming for online?

  • Trippenbach // Dec 17, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    You said that the BBC’s

    It’s brilliant news for the commercial sector; they understand the internet is the future, and while the BBC is cutting its online budget, they’re rapidly increasing theirs. It’s great for the BBC Trust as well; they get to save the BBC’s remit and its licence fee for another decade, and by the time that the internet and games have overtaken TV -well, they’ll be retired.

    This is a fail-safe solution, of course. Once the current generation of top leadership is gone, they’ll be replaced by people who have been gaming all their lives and understand the value of interactivity.

    Hope it’s not too late by then.

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  • Nick Reynolds // Dec 18, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Interesting blog post which is however not quite right in many respects.

    There are not

    ” huge inconsistencies in the BBC’s position. They can’t have it both ways by spending huge amounts on entertainment, and pretending that the justification of their existence is worthy programming; that’s not compatible with what Fry is saying”

    No one in the BBC argues this – in fact Fry’s argument would be agreed with by most people in the BBC. The BBC does argue for the importance of its entertainment programmes and that they are also distinctive i.e. different from the marketplace.

    I could write a much longer response but I think I will do so on my personal blog.

    But its not true that the BBC Trust is cutting back on BBC online content. In fact in March this year it was the one area of the BBC that got an increase in budget:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7954874.stm

  • Adrian Hon // Dec 18, 2009 at 9:39 am

    You say, “The BBC does argue for the importance of its entertainment programmes and that they are also distinctive i.e. different from the marketplace.” I am very keen on hearing those arguments, because I think most people would be hard pressed to see a distinctive difference between many BBC, ITV, and C4 shows. ITV even makes costume dramas. And if the BBC does want to defend its distinctive entertainment on TV, why doesn’t it allocate a similar and proportionate spend to similar entertainment online?

    Yes, in March the Trust belatedly announced an increase of about £30 million over three years on the BBC’s ‘websites”. £10m/year is hardly enough to reflect the massive ongoing increases in audience use of the internet; “the extra money for the BBC’s suite of websites was less than the £52.7m increase managers had requested.” It also remains to be seen how that £10m/year is allocated, and whether any of it goes to interactive factual and entertainment (i.e. games).

    (BTW, online is not the *only* area to receive an increase – this year, an extra £25 million over three years on childrens, and extra money on arts, have been announced.)

    I don’t want to come across as an enemy of the BBC; you’ll see me up on the barricades fighting against Murdoch. I am saying that the BBC needs to significantly increase its online spend in order to match audience behaviour, and fulfill its mission on to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ on the internet.

  • Adrian Hon // Dec 18, 2009 at 10:57 am

    I took the opportunity to look at the detailed service licence for BBC Online, published in August 2009:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/our_work/service_reviews/service_licences/bbc_co_uk.shtml

    It contains some budget breakdowns for 2009/10 for different departments:

    Audio and Music: £14.6 million
    Formal Learning: £10.4 million
    iPlayer: £3.9 million+
    Knowledge, Entertainment, Childrens: £29 million (annoyingly, there is no further breakdown for this rather large area)
    Nations and Local: £23.9 million
    News and Sport: £30.5 million

    The areas I’m most interested in are Formal Learning, and Knowledge, Entertainment and Childrens (FLKEC), which would create the sort of non-news interactive content I’m really talking about here, and the total spend across both areas is £39.4 million per year, and of course, this would include spend on infrastructure and distribution in addition to content.

    (for reference, BBC Four’s total spend is £71.4 million, of which £54.8 million is on content.)

    An interesting comparision is the ratio of news and sport spending to the combined FLKEC spending. I think that news and sport are done very well, both online and on TV, and so I believe that both online and TV budget for news are pretty reasonable and a good benchmark. Online, news and sport has approximately 75% the budget of FLKEC.

    What I’d like to find out is what the ratio is for news vs. FLKEC on TV; then we can work out whether the FLKEC budget for online is too high, too low, or just right (or alternatively, you could suggest a better comparison to make).

  • Nick Reynolds // Dec 20, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    “This is because you only need to pay the licence fee if you’re watching live TV.”

    Not true. You need to pay a licence fee if you own a device which is capable of delivering a live TV broadcast, whether you actually watch live TV on it or not.

  • Nick Reynolds // Dec 20, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    “But let’s be clear – at the end of the day, the BBC is not free from governmental influence, unless you think that the Queen is the actual sovereign power in the UK. When the Conservatives are telling everyone who’ll listen that they’ll freeze or cut the licence fee if they come into power, and when the Trust and Director General are constantly feuding with cabinet ministers about BBC Worldwide and performers’ salaries, you know that there’s not as much independence as claimed ”

    Personally I think the fact that these arguments occur actually proves that the BBC is independent from government.

    And the key thing here is EDITORIAL independence. The point of the BBC Trust is to create an arms length relationship with government. A minister doesn’t make editorial or strategic decisions, the BBC’s Director General does. And s/he can’t be appointed or sacked by a politician.

  • Adrian Hon // Dec 20, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    I agree with you that the BBC does have editorial independence from the BBC, and I think it generally does a good job at remaining impartial. My point is more that this level of independence could be maintained without the licence fee.

  • Adrian Hon // Dec 20, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    I stand corrected on the question of the conditions of paying the licence, although I would still argue that this is basically unfair.

  • Nick Reynolds // Dec 21, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    “My point is more that this level of independence could be maintained without the licence fee.”

    I disagree. Maintaining the BBC by Government grant would make independence harder. Which is why the Trust fights so hard for the licence fee.

    All forms of taxation or raising money for public activities are unfair in some way. If you never use a public library the fact that your council tax is used to pay for it is unfair.

  • Adrian Hon // Dec 21, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    I don’t see why a government grant *would* necessarily result in the BBC having less editorial independence. It doesn’t seem to have resulted in CBC News being some sort of government stooge; having said that, I am willing to be convinced.

    As for all forms of taxation being technically unfair, you’re correct. The difference, however, is that taxation is usually progressive, so that poor people pay less towards those services; in contrast, the licence fee is more like a poll tax and is effectively regressive – it eats up more of a poor person’s income than a rich person’s income.

    If we think that the BBC’s content should be available to everyone in the country, regardless of wealth or status (or whether they use it, like your library example), then at least from a monetary point of view, it would be fairer for it to be paid by a progressive tax.

  • Frankie Roberto // Dec 27, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    “And if they *did* move to Fry’s stance and started vigorously defend their great anticompetitive programming because that’s ‘the whole point of the BBC’ – then why shouldn’t they spend proper money making similarly anticompetitive programming for online?”

    Well, personally, I agree with you – I think they should be allowed to move in to making ‘anticompetitive’ programming online.

    I’m guessing that part of the problem with this though is that whilst the BBC has always been part of the TV and radio market (indeed, it helped build it), this isn’t the case with online, and it’s politically much harder to justify moving into a new market, than maintaining the status quo of a position within a market.

    Interestingly, there were similar arguments over the BBC moving into the home computer market with the BBC Micro. Perhaps though, the BBC benefited from the market being relatively new (like it did when the BBC first went online).

    Maybe the strategic moral of the story is that the BBC should enter new markets early, establish itself as an essential player, and thus make it much harder for opponents to argue that it should withdraw.

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