Emily Bell: What Conversation Exactly?

April 30, 2008

N.B. My personal views. Not my employers.

I was interested to read Emily Bell’s column about the BBC in Media Guardian on Monday.

There is an irony of course in saying “we need to start a new conversation about the BBC” in the dead format of a newspaper column. It’s not a blog so there’s no opportunity to comment. So there’s no chance of a “new conversation” actually happening.

But since Emily wants a conversation I’ll try and start one.

It’s also ironic that Emily’s column appears on the same day as Steve Hewlett’s which casts doubt on Channel 4’s plea that it’s in terrible trouble (a point also made in Media Guardian’s podcast last week).

Personally I think to blame the BBC for C4’s predicament is odd. As Maggie Brown (another Guardian writer) says in this week’s Ariel, C4’s troubles are in part of its own making (I quote: “C4 needs help… but not dollops of cash to splosh around”).

Is the BBC really to blame for the rise of Google?

For the recession? For the downturn in advertising revenue (inside the UK the BBC doesn’t have any impact on advertising revenue)?

Can all the troubles of the traditional broadcasters and the newspapers be laid at the BBC’s door?

I appreciate that from the outside the BBC can seem like a huge death star crushing all before it (when you’re on the inside it can seem like a cross between Kafka and the Keystone Cops – the Borg it certainly isn’t!). But it’s an absurd overreaction to say:

“But the ecology of some parts of the UK media is now so uncertain and fragile that it can be depleted by a single blow from the end of the BBC’s tail as it rolls over in its sleep.”

This is just not true. When the BBC wants to launch a new service it now has to go through all the regulation the rest of the industry has always wanted precisely to prevent this happening.

I also disagree with Emily about newspapers. Newspapers (like the Guardian itself) seem to me to actually understand what’s going on better than the traditional broadcasters. I predict they will thrive and give the BBC some healthy competition.

At least Emily has the grace to admit that the BBC has done all that everyone has asked of it. I happen to think that the BBC Trust is doing a good job (and can hardly be accused of being a management poodle after it closed BBC Jam). But there are people inside the BBC who think the BBC’s creativity, ability to innovate and public service remit is being stifled by over regulation and constant sniping from the rest of the industry.

Emily’s suggestions deserve examination.

“Maybe the iPlayer should have everything?”

Errm… well that wouldn’t exactly help the commercial sector as it wouldn’t be able to have adverts on or raise revenue. Project Kangaroo is a much better bet. Essentially this is a collaberative, commercial version of the iPlayer: the BBC helping commercial broadcasters make money. Perhaps if the Guardian wants to make money out of video they could be a partner in Kangaroo. I’m sure they’d be welcome.

“…shouldn’t BBC radio pages on bbc.co.uk carry buttons and players for all commercial rivals in those regions or market segments?”

It’s true the BBC needs to link out to other sites and providers more. And I suspect in the coming year we will see a lot more of this. But this is a cultural problem which will be solved as more and more people in all media companies (not just the BBC) realise the importance of linking. Heavy handed attempts to force the BBC to link will just result in a lousy user experience.

It’s also true that the BBC should be more open and help the rest of the industry with sharing ideas etc. Mark Thompson has said he wants this. Anyone who reads my blogs will know this is something I believe in. And I like to think that in a small way the Internet Blog that I edit and more importantly things like BBC Backstage are steps in this direction. But again this is a cultural problem which won’t be solved overnight.

It’s unusual (and a strange kind of conversation) to attack someone and in the same breath ask for their help.

Perhaps Emily could make some more suggestions about the ways the BBC and the rest of the UK media sector could work together.


16 Responses to “Emily Bell: What Conversation Exactly?”

  1. Emily Bell Says:

    Hello Nick – gosh that’s a bit of a rant if you don’t mind me saying so! And I thought I was being kind to the BBC – as I said – it’s not a situation of your making.

    Other people will have much better ideas than mine for how the BBC can become more open and supportive rather than an unintentional business threat…..IN FACT – why don’t you start a Wiki to collect them so we, the media community, can collaborate over ideas which will help us and therefore help you help us?!

    Well it’s a start. Sorry about the fact it’s a newspaper column not a blog post – I’ll repost it to our own blog is it makes you feel beter. We are getting commenting on articles facilities/ better community tools etc – but it would be much quicker if we had £100 million a year to spend on our site too :).

  2. @Emily … if you had £100 million, wouldn’t you have to be some kind of “public service publisher” and that would change the nature of the Guardian somewhat? (A swear box in the podcast studio for a start!)

    Are ITV and C4 really that “uncertain and fragile” … certainly don’t look like they are about to be snuffed out with a killer blow from the great whale’s tail. Maybe if they gave away DVDs or wall charts on the front of every programme they would attract audience and advertiser loyalty?

    Surely a wide smattering of sugar from the “creative and distinctive” shaker might go a long way to re-energise commercial stability right across the different (or is that, converging) media sectors? Seems to be room for the Guardian’s podcasts alongside Auntie’s as well as the non-commercial bedroom offerings.

  3. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    I think it would be an excellent idea to republish Emily’s column as a blog post with comments. Many more people would read it than read my blog and there might be a chance of a bigger conversation happening.

    Sorry if you think it’s a rant. You should have seen it before I edited it (on second thoughts perhaps not).

    A wiki is not a bad idea. But there may be something that the BBC is already doing that would do instead. I will have a root around.

  4. @Nick… has the BBC started measuring how many external links each site has, or how much traffic these generate?

  5. @Nick… oh, and he £116m/yr the BBC spends on bbc.co.uk has never been subject to a public value test, so Emily’s point stands.

    Whats more, the BBC could, for example, launch a fully commercial, UK-focussed, environment site without the Trust even knowing about it, let alone requiring approval or a PVT.

    Oh look, hang on, what’s this? http://www.BBCGreen.com

  6. Russ Says:

    Andy Duncan should be sacked. Start there…

    Then, if C4 cannot make it with a better CEO (with a vision beyond government handouts) it should be privatised. I’m sure Viacom or Disney would love to own that brand and could make money whilst still providing people with great programming.

    I think arguments and debates about the BBC are a bit separate. I do think the tax that supports the BBC is too high and supports non-PSB activities. I think a meaner, leaner BBC would much better suited for things like children’s programming, nature shows, etc. But that was a debate that people like me lost in 2006.

    For now, let’s focus on C4 — is it a burden on the taxpayer? Not yet — we should sell it before it becomes another Northern Rock! (he he)…


  7. Russ Says:

    Oh and one more point, actually a rebuttal:

    Nick, you say ‘[I]nside the UK the BBC doesn’t have any impact on advertising revenue’.

    How can this be true? The BBC is not a UK advertiser that’s true, but that doesn’t mean it has no impact whatsoever.

    Ofcom, for example, has conducted an MIA of the BBC’s HD proposals which shows how the BBC’s entry into new services can affect advertising revenues in the commercial sector.


  8. nickreynoldsatwork Says:


    1. I don’t know if the BBC has started measuring links. I will try and find out and if I can tell you I will.

    2. I am sure that you (and Emily) are aware that bbc.co.uk just went through a review of its service licence with the results to be published later this year.

    This included public consultation and I assume that if people thought it was distorting the market they could have said so. The Trustees are obliged when looking at the bbc.co.uk to look at market impact issues.

    Would you like each and every existing BBC service to go through a formal market impact assessment every time its service licence is reviewed?

    3. As for BBC Green, this comes out of BBC Worldwide. The BBC Trust is obliged to look at WW proposals for market impact (as they did for WW’s purchase of Lonely Planet – see this link:


    Whether they did this for BBC Green I don’t know as there’s no info I can find on the Trust’s website. Possibly BBC Green was too modest in scope – but again I’ll try and find out. Possibly it was in WW’s five year plan – which was also considered and approved by the Trust.

    But its not true to assert that WW can just launch a significant service without the Trust knowing anything about it or considering the impact on the market. see this:


  9. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Russ – no direct impact as the BBC inside the UK doesn’t take advertising. And I think if I remember correctly OFCOM gave this the all clear.

  10. Russ Says:

    So now ‘doesn’t have any impact’ means ‘doesn’t have any direct impact’? Direct or indirect — it’s still cash money… (he he)

    Yeah, I’m still waiting for the day when Ofcom tells the BBC ‘no’… If I recall correctly, the final decision on PVT rests with the BBC Trust — Ofcom’s role is only advisory in nature anyway.

    So we are having a debate about one arm of the state (Ofcom) proposing options for another arm of the state (C4) that would potentially harm another arm of the state (BBC)… ????

    If Neelie Kroes weren’t so busy chasing MSFT…

  11. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Point taken Russ – but I never really understood this bit of work – is it really cash money or just numbers in an Ofcom report?

    You don’t have to wait for someone to say “No” to the BBC. The BBC Trust already said “stop!” to BBC Jam.

  12. Russ Says:

    I’m unsure… I read most financial statements of big U.S. media firms, but I can’t be bothered to read C4’s annual doom-and-gloom-fest…!

    People used to say no one will pay for a bearish analyst’s report, but I think with the top-slice-licence-fee-booty at stake, C4 has every incentive to be bearish…

    From a corporate governance perspective, C4 is a train wreck.

    Have a good weekend!

  13. Just a quick note to say that I have found an FOI request that shows how BBC Green was approved by the Trust:


  14. Robert Says:

    If The Guardian really wants to compete with the BBC can I suggest that it gets a decent embedded Javascript video player for a start? The current one doesn’t play properly on any computer that is more than a couple of years old, including the one I’m writing this on. The same applies to video on The Telegraph site. This PC is an XP2200, with 1Gb RAM, Windows XP and powerful enough to edit DV on, yet it’s not enough to play a tiny video on The Guardian website.

    This is not a question of cash, because I have the free Flowplayer on some of my sites and it plays just fine. As does the BBC iPlayer and with a much larger window than The Guardian uses.

    Congratulations to the BBC for ensuring that is the case. Just one example of the difference between an organisation that has a public service remit and a commercial business.

  15. RobBole Says:

    As an outsider – from America yea gods – but an admirer of bbc.co.uk’s content, presentation and style, one of the critical questions that I always consider is the impact of the media on actually improving lives.

    Perhaps I am precipitous in this post as I am still wading through the hundreds of pages – again, yea gods! – and looking for how the BBC evaluates the use of digital media to improve civic life, educational outcomes, financial management knowledge, cultural understanding, etc. I have read a lot about mission and interests, but not much on how the BBC has moved grade point averages or the confidence of voters on voting on real issues.

    This is not a really criticism of the BBC as digital media is plagued by being led for the purposes of either deforming technology (“check out how cool is this…”) or by fulfilling quasi-entertainment interests (“guy, can you meet me for a beer right now”). BUT, if we, and I include the NGO I work for, One Economy (www.one-economy.com), consider ourselves as public purpose media entities then I think there is brighter bottom line measurement of our impact in the world.

    In return we get caught up in the organization of the media, rather than its ultimate purpose. The balance of the conversation of licenses, commercialism and market forces is out-of-whack with ultimately do these forces help or hinder the core purposes of the media?

    For example, the plurality discussion that Emily brings up always seems to leave the last beat off of the song. The question is plurality (of vendors of channels of voices…) for what purpose? I KNOW there are well-reasoned purposes for plurality, but they are never really dicussed, but rather assumed. However, in this Tilt-A-Wheel digital media world, should we not make too many assumptions, but rather be rather clear about what we are trying to accomplish?

    So, Nick, I love the BBC blog and your thinking. And I love the style and content of the BBC, but like our own public broadcasting system in the States, we need to continue to reaffirm both the mission and evidence of public purpose media. Otherwise the BBC will continue to have problems in making a clear value proposition that distinguishes itself from the more commercial competitors.

  16. […] on BBC Worldwide. I was particularly interested in this as some of the points raised by it were discussed on this blog in May of last year. It’s worth reading, and thinking about. Possibly related posts: […]

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