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Backing the BBC: How can the Beeb remain loved, admired and relevant?

The BBC is in the midst of a testing period over its funding and future. Should it get rid of the licence fee? Could it work with advertisers? Would a Netflix or Spotify model work?

All manner of scenarios have been conceived in the wake of the debate over the government’s plan, issued last week, to review key areas of the broadcaster later this year.

The social media campaign which inevitably emerged saw the nation fall into two camps: those that would #BacktheBBC or #SacktheBBC.

But with the support of 97 per cent of Brits firmly in the #Back camp, according to a study conducted by BrandWatch on behalf of The Drum, there is the resounding belief the near 100-year old corporation is a “national treasure” and that a “diminished BBC would mean a diminished British.”

It regularly tops ‘most loved brands’ rankings and in financial terms, according to the Independent, it could be worth as much as £7bn. This would place it between Starbucks and Ebay in Forbes’ Most Valuable Brands List.

But amid the rise of online video, streaming services, and a younger audience loathed to pay a fee for TV content, the BBC recognises that it has to change. But, it will have to tread carefully as it walks the road of trying to stay viable whilst offering the level of content that has turned it into a British institution.

“The BBC is the broadcasting equivalent of the NHS - there’s political careers at stake here if the public don’t buy it,” mused Steve Parker, co-chief executive of Starcom MediaVest Group.

Parker is firmly a #Backer saying nobody wants a world without the BBC. However, he suggests that not enough emphasis has been put on the public’s point of view in the debate so far.

“It has been focused largely on political posturing, third party self-interest and the media (and, I’m including myself here),” he said. “Clearly, the BBC needs to change […] it must become more relevant to its audiences, not less so.

"The politicians and the BBC themselves must not lose sight of the viewer/user/listener throughout this debate. In fact, they must make them front and central in every consideration otherwise this whole review will end in disaster and a national – if not international – outcry.”

Advertising

So what do audiences want? According to a TubeMogul survey, a surprising majority (60 per cent) want to see the end of the licence fee and are open to advertising as a trade-off.

“People, especially younger people, have a serious issue with paying for content, whether that be online, in print, on the radio or on a TV screen. They especially don't like it when they see it as a flat tax, which is essentially what the licence fee is,” explained, Mauricio Leon, commercial director for the UK at TubeMogul.

Leon argues that an ad-funded BBC would be positive for the brand both economically and when it comes to audience sentiment.

Firstly, ads have the potential to bring more revenue into the BBC than it currently generates through the license fee which would ensure its long-term future.

“Younger audiences are turning away from traditional TV like never before. We are seeing record advertising revenues generated by the commercial networks and - I would argue - the BBC could generate even more,” he said.

Secondly, if the bulk of the population (seemingly) don’t want to pay the licence fee it could be argued that making the BBC ad-funded would make the British population like and appreciate the broadcaster more.

On the other hand, will the some seven million EastEnders viewers react positively to ad breaks when they are not used to them on the BBC? Probably not. And if audiences react negatively then so will advertisers.

Cutting Services

Another highly contested issue among the #Backers and #Sackers is the sheer volume of content the BBC produces. In the 90s it had two TV channels and five national radio stations. Fast forward 20 years and audiences have no less than nine television channels, ten national radio stations, as well as a backlog of content on BBC iPlayer

“I don’t think it would hurt its brand if it cut back in areas where it has no genuine remit,” suggests Parker, believing struggling local newspapers, for example, might benefit from the BBC scaling back.

However, cutting services will result in fewer audiences which could encourage a greater shift in polling towards removal of the licence fee.

Staying Relevant

The biggest question to be asked is how the BBC stays relevant and monetises its iPlayer service, where the majority of revenue from the licence fee is being lost.

It will come up against online services such as Netflix – with over 65 million users – which boasts the same level of original content that the BBC lauds when asking for the nation to cough up £145 a year.

"Subscription services succeed because they provide content that people want. For the BBC to remain a loved, admired and relevant brand, it must continue to produce the kind of high-quality content expected from the corporation. That means maintaining a level of funding similar to what it currently enjoys,” said Leon.

While the Netflix model of monetisation might be a step too far, it could look to the likes of Spotify whereby users are given a choice of subscription: a free one with ads or an ad-free version you pay for.

“That gives people a choice, and it helps to prevent the BBC from seeming outdated, in the same way as iPlayer did,” suggested Brand Union’s worldwide head of strategy and planning, John Shaw. “And it would help the BBC stand up to competitors like Amazon Prime and Netflix.”

Getting to the other side

For many, be they #backers or #sackers, any change will be see the BBC under pressure, scrutiny and criticism from audiences, government and media.

But change is needed if the long-term success of the BBC is to be guaranteed and failing to fully embrace the opportunity for radical overhaul would be a far worse road.

“The fact that it is one of Britain's most loved brands means that audiences will - most likely - give it a bit of flexibility while it gets the balance right,” said Leon. “Until they figure out the best way to secure revenue and funding in this ever-changing media landscape, they are going to have to rely on that love and swim their way through it to the other side.”

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Jennifer Faull

Jen Faull is deputy news editor at The Drum with a remit to cover the latest developments in the retail and FMCG sectors. Based in London, she has interviewed major business figures including top marketers from Mondelez, Unilever, Tesco, and Lidl.

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