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TIME FOR CHANGE – why the BBC needs to abolish the BBC Television quotas and guarantees and set BBC Production free.

A few weeks ago I was invited onto the Radio 4 Media show to discuss the BBC Trust’s review of Content Supply arrangements. I was in discussion with long time friend and professional foe, John McVay, head of the Independent Producers organisation, PACT. I had planned to talk about an idea I discussed with George Entwistle when he was head of BBC Television, and which he had let me put directly to Mark Thompson during our 2011 annual performance review.

However, straight from the off in the radio discussion John called to scrap the current arrangements because of what he believed were the ‘virtues’ of the free market and the “inefficiencies” of BBC In House Production. As I don’t believe in unfettered free markets, and know that there’s no evidence that BBC In House is less efficient than Indies, I scrapped what I planned to say and reflexively entered into a robust defence of the status quo. 6 minutes later Laura Kuenssberg drew the debate to a close.

So, what follows is what I planned to say when I went on that Media show, a view which has become stronger and more urgent following recent events in the supply ecosystem: Its time to make BBC PRODUCTION (Comedy, Ents, Drama and Factual) a wholly owned subsidiary of BBC Worldwide, and scrap the various guarantees for In House and Indie Producers.

Why and why now?

Well the current TV supply system has been in place since 2007 and guarantees BBC In-House producers 50% of the output (the In House Guarantee, IHG), whilst Qualifying Indies are guaranteed 25% (Indie Guarantee, IG) and the remaining 25% is up for competition between In House and Indies (The Window of Creative Competition, WOCC).

I have been a long time supporter of the current arrangements, not just because I was the head of BBC In House Production (2010-14) but also because I believe a 50% IHG protects the public interest by ensuring that half of the IP paid for by the public remained in public control. I am convinced that without the IHG the BBC would never have been able to build strong Network production bases in Glasgow, Cardiff, Bristol and Salford, or make meaningful commitments to Belfast. Its also clear, when you look at the paucity of the offer of ITVPlayer and 4oD, that the BBCiPlayer would not have been possible in its current form if the BBC couldn’t set the terms to the market through control of a significant IP contribution.

However the rapid pace of consolidation in the production sector is rendering the current system redundant. The IG is for ‘qualifying’ Indies only. As they are increasingly swallowed up by the bigger global players they lose their ‘qualifying’ status and become Non-Qualifying Indies (NQI’s – see footnote). The only place for NQI hours to be accounted for is in the WOCC.  For example, ITV’s purchase of SoTV meant SoTV became an NQI and so all the Graham Norton show hours went from the Indie Guarantee into the WOCC, likewise Discovery’s purchase of All3Media will shift all those hours from Indie guarantee into the WOCC. The truth is the rapid pace of indie consolidation has made the WOCC less about creative competition and more about accounting.

Given the centrality of IP ownership in the new media economic model, any change to the status quo arrangements has to allow the BBC to have the same ability to generate IP as their competitors. So, my blueprint for the future – which I will be sending to the BBC Trust review when it opens – is as follows:

  • Make BBC Production a fully-owned subsidiary of BBC Worldwide.
  • BBC Sport, News and Children’s Production remain unchanged.
  • Transition all current titles over to this new entity, about 43% of current supply, possibly with some limited guarantees (12-24) months to enable a smooth transition.
  • BBC Production free to pitch to all other broadcasters
  • Remove all the quotas and supply guarantees around IHP and the WOCC
  • Keep the Nations guarantees to Scotland, Wales and NI (but review Scotland if referendum votes for independence) and maintain the commitment to 50% of production from outside of the M25.
  • Allow BBC IHP to move out of current BBC corporate buildings to more suitable and cost effective premises if they wish. (ie run it as a business, with clarity of costs and no cross subsidy)
  • Allow BBC WW to invest in Indies.

 I believe this model has many benefits

  • BBC Production’s creativity becomes transparent in the volume of business it wins; removing the unfair inference that working for In House is somehow less creative than working for an Indie.
  • Enable BBC Production to offer market rate pay and conditions for production talent and remove the ridiculous comparison to the Prime Minister’s salary and other canards.
  • Enable BBC Production to get better returns on its development investment, with a wider range of buyers and tastes for every good idea.
  • BBCWW has massive potential to increase its wholly owned IP by producing for other channels, UK and abroad, in turn generating more profit to support the licence fee.
  • Allow commissioners to choose best idea from anyone, and introduce real jeopardy into the Commissioning relationship with BBC Production – there’s currently no meaningful ability for an in-house producer to take an idea elsewhere.
  • The monitoring and administrating of the current supply relationships adds a degree of cost and complexity that can be removed, reducing cost and speeding up process.

It also has some potential downsides:

  • BBC channels may become less distinctive – ITV and Sky would lap up BBC blue chip content like Natural History and Drama which audiences and advertisers love. Whitechapel and Primeval were both developed by the BBC….
  • Small risk of missing the Nations guarantees, but maybe now’s the time for Indies to share that burden instead of letting so much of it fall upon BBC Production.
  • Smaller Indies would lose out in the squeeze – an inevitable consequence of consolidation, but C4 has obligations in this regard.
  • BBC Worldwide could be privatised, potentially giving a third party control of the bulk of BBC supply.
  • Public confusion over what it’s paying its licence fee for – BBC research shows only 8% of viewers watch the credits through to the end card, so most probably assume the BBC is making all their content today. How do you explain that their LF isn’t being used to subsidise productions on commercial broadcasters like ITV or elsewhere? This is probably the biggest hurdle.

And what did Mark Thompson say? Well he accepted that support for the idea was strongly held by Board members of BBC Production at that time, but felt that the first big hit that BBC Production made for another broadcaster would unleash a wave on internal recrimination and accusation, plus the confusion issues over what the LF was for. He told us to try even harder to make the current system work better, which is what we have done ever since.

However I now think the current system is irretrievably broken, and I’m free to say so publicly. I’m not sure how widely held my view is today, but if this review is going to be meaningful it is an issue it will have to address.


The current definition of a “qualifying” independent producer excludes those production businesses that share significant common ownership (a 25% or greater shareholding) with broadcasters


Black Humour – The paradigm has shifted

Interesting article in todays Indie which includes my views on importance of Youtube/digital in the world of comedy. Its clear the paradigm has shifted, and that the web will be where ideas are proven and reputations made. We shouldn’t bemoan the decay of a system that has rationed opportunities, we should celebrate it.

Some more context to the article may be useful:

  • Comedy is the smallest genre in terms of budgets, although there’s been significant recent investment from Sky and ITV are returning to sitcom. Overall though fewer opportunities in comedy than elsewhere.
  • Comedy has the highest failure rate of any genre, as humour is most subjective.
  • Some areas of comedy – sketch and impression – seem to have disappeared.
  • This isn’t just a BBC issue.  At least in recent years they have commissioned Jason Lewis pilot, have three series of Citizen Khan on BBC1 and are working on Rudy’s Rare Records pilot. Sky has brought back the Kumars, and we had Youngers on E4..
  • THE BBC has grown some if its biggest comedies via radio – inc. Miranda, Little Britain, Bellamy’s People, Goodness Gracious Me. Citizen Khan launched online, then radio then tv. So it makes sense to use online to grow tv comedies.
  • I’ve seen many creatives claim that accommodating others forced them to dilute or compromise their vision, and this is especially true of stories that sit outside of the mainstream. So starting online gives creators get a chance to produce their vision of their work, and demonstrate it can attract an audience.
  • The current debate on diversity is failing to factor in the digital realities and how they may contribute to transforming the situation.
  • To see the wealth of web based series out there emanating from the UK check, which has done a great job consolidating various series into one place.
  • Want to check new business models try “The Samaritans’ at




For the avoidance of doubt, IMHO if any channel should have closed based on audience need it should have been BBC Four. Why? Because the BBC4 audience is already super-served, via BBC2, Radio 4, Radio 3 and Radio 2.

Sure, BBC4 has some great shows, and it’s a channel I watch myself. But, in terms of how much of the BBC cake different audience groups get in return for their licence fee, BBC4 is like a thick layer of icing on top of a disproportionately large slice claimed by the upper and middle classes whereas the young, poor and ethnic minorities get far less than their fair share.

So how did BBC4 dodge the bullet?

Who knows, but I imagine the reasons could include some or all of the following:

i)              The core ‘upper middle-class’ BBC4 audience includes most members of the political and media establishment, and so the decision would alienated a key group needed to be onside for LF renewal.

ii)             This core group in the country knows how to lobby and turns out to vote, creating further pressure on the political establishment.

iii)           Tony Hall’s increased commitments to the arts would have killed BBC2 as a mainstream channel if it had been forced to pick up the slack following BBC4’s demise.

iv)           BBC4’s budget, at around £35-40M, isn’t big enough to solve or put a significant enough dent into the overall financial shortfall. So as well as the grief in (i) – (iii) above you get further grief from cuts elsewhere.

So that leaves BBC3, which is a shame because as the only demographically targeted BBC television service it was doing well with its target audience. But, before people declare all is lost, its worth considering this ‘online-only’ BBC3 proposition in the context of ever increasing convergence.

For example, in a converged world what does it even mean to be a TV channel, and what will it mean 5 years from now? Given the ubiquity of BBCiPlayer, an online BBC3 would be available on every platform it currently is – Sky, Virgin, Freeview and Freesat – plus many others as well including Playstation, Xbox and mobile.

There’s been much written about the demise of Drama as a consequence of this move, but BBC3 only had one (maybe two) dramas in it budget.  In the age of Netflix there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue on the new service, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t thrive.

Similarly Radio’s 2 and 4 can step in as the nursery slope for Comedy – Goodness Gracious me, Miranda and Little Britain – all evolved through the radio route, so some limited additional investment in radio comedy maybe necessary to mitigate.

The new BBC3 may be an even better place to take risks with talent, especially new and increasingly diverse talent, because freed from the restrictions of a traditional schedule, BARB etc they will have total freedom over content length and form; short-form, singles, interactivity are all possible in this online environment.

From a strategic perspective, if the Charter renewal process was looking radically at the future provision of services for young adults, I would argue it couldn’t continue with Radio 1 and BBC3 as two separate services for the same demographic. A converged world calls out for a single, coherent and co-ordinated offer, which this move could enable.  It would also give the BBC a great opportunity to start modelling what the future on-demand world might look like for a mainstream broadcaster.

What will determine the success or otherwise of this new venture comes down to money, in particular how much money it will have to commission new content and how much money (and prominence) it will have for marketing. It will need sufficient money for new content, and then freedom to spend that money in a way that makes sense to its platform and audience as it grows. It also needs a significant commitment to cross promotion and marketing spend (i.e. cash) so that people know what’s available and when.

Answers to these questions are central to understanding whether BBC3 is changing form or being closed. Done properly, rather than put the licence fee in jeopardy, the knowledge gleaned from this move may turn out to be the best long-term protector of the BBC and its interests.


Newsnight Fiasco: Social media completed the jigsaw

This Guardian report on the forthcoming book, Is the BBC in crisis?*, hints at but fails to nail once crucial point which shows the impact of social media on modern journalism.

As a journalist, when your evidence is strong but falls short of the degree of certainty required to avoid legal action, you often try to publish what you have by going to great lengths to avoid so called ‘jigsaw identification’. Jigsaw ID is a situation where someone collecting all of the separate facts you present could reasonably piece together the identity of the person alluded to.

The Newsnight team never named McAlpine in their report. Their phrasing, “a leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years” and Michael Crick’s “a former senior Conservative official from the Thatcher era” essentially describe the perimeter of the puzzle but deliberately leave the centre empty. These carefully chosen words both cover so many possible people that it would be impossible for any one to claim libel on this point alone.

What Newsnight hadn’t factored in, and what’s new for modern journalism, is that social media – specifically Twitter – had put McAlpine’s name into the centre of the public debate and the Newsnight phrasing put the edge onto the jigsaw and (erroneously) completed the picture.

This is a new development for journalists to consider, especially in fast moving situations. Its going to place a premium on maintaining confidentiality within teams, and a preemptive scouring of social media prior to publication (although how much weight you should give to what you find is another area of debate).

None of this excuses the other shortcomings explained in the article, but perhaps it does help to explain them.

*Is The BBC In Crisis, Edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble (Abramis, 1 March) RRP: £19.95, but £15 to Guardian readers via

One door closes, another one opens


Returning the tools Laptop, blackberry, ID pass

Returning the tools
Laptop, blackberry, ID pass

At midnight tonight I complete my period of notice at the BBC and launch my own consultancy, WeCreate Associates Ltd, which specialises in creative leadership and innovation. It’s personally scary and exciting, all at the same time.

Why now? Well,  after 22 years working for variety of big organisations and corporations I’m keen to experience what its like to work more independently and across a much broader range of industries and sectors especially as digital is forcing many of them to come up with new products, services and business models if they want to survive and thrive. For some of us in the creative sector, which has been in the vanguard of digital disruption, this may sound fairly simply. However most businesses simply don’t have the creative techniques or innovation practices to do this effectively, so at best they make incremental improvements at a time their industries are going through exponential change. Their staff may see and understand the challenges and possibilities of this moment, but all too often their fear of the challenges overpowers their optimism of the possibilities.

This was broadly the subject of my TedX Transmedia presentation in Rome, last September, which explained why broadcasters would not lead the transmedia revolution, and is the broad arena that WeCreate Associates will be operating in.

I will share my experiences here every Monday, and every Friday I will share some other peoples blogs and posts that have captured my imagination, and if you want to talk about it feel free to comment here or contact me at

My final thoughts on leaving the BBC are overwhelmingly positive and I am extremely confident it has the ability to survive the current turbulence.  First it is an unique institution – creatively, journalistically and culturally. Its one of a handful of truly global brands, and the UK’s only global media brand. It’s also world beating value at just 40p per day, or a single Starbucks latte for a weeks content. It does have some issues to address including diversity in employment and services, services for the digital poor and delivering a greater range of voices across all areas of the output, but it’s road to absolute security is very simple; the quality of management and governance has to match the absolute quality and consistency of quality of the content. Tony Hall recognises that and I believe the senior management team will deliver it.

That’s it for this week, as much start-up work still to do including getting a professional web designer to rebuild my website. Have fun