COMMENT 

The Beeb’s quandary

The BBC finds that the old media habits on which it previously depended have shattered, writes David Hepworth.

By David Hepworth

The Beeb’s quandary
"When my family first got a TV back in the 1950s, it only received BBC programmes."

James Purnell, the former politician who is now the BBC’s director of radio and education, is the man whose fortunes, like it or not, will be tied to the fate of the BBC Sounds App. This was launched six months back to, I think it’s fair to say, less than unanimous acclaim.

The BBC needed it in order to provide young people, who by and large don’t listen to the radio, with a different, hopefully more digital way in which to access audio entertainment. What does that mean? Well, it means podcasts, audio on demand, clips on YouTube and any other way they can bring their content to generations who are going to be reluctant to sit still and consume it in the way that earlier generations did.

In a recent blog post, which had the distinct flavour of somebody whistling to keep their spirits up, Purnell talked about how many times the app had been downloaded and said that this would give people access to “brilliant new music mixes and podcasts”. In case anybody felt the need to point out that maybe the impact of the word “brilliant” has been diminished by its routine attachment over time to everything from an edgy comedy to the latest way of serving coffee and that in a world where you’re competing against the Niagara of plenty represented by Netflix and Spotify you have to have some kind of edge to compete, he added, “we have something none of our competitors do – the breadth of our creativity”.

When I hear execs talking about creativity, my ears prick up because in my experience, they rarely know what they’re talking about. I know lots of people who work for the BBC. Some are very good at their jobs. Some are OK. There are very few I would accuse of being creative, in the sense of being able to devise something original and to launch it upon the world. It’s the same in publishing. Everybody’s in favour of creativity but nobody knows what it is. Creativity’s the quality which people impute to the development of any product which seemed to work. Creativity is the way they explain a hit. It was successful, they say, because we applied a creative solution to the problem.

Everybody’s in favour of creativity but nobody knows what it is.

No longer the only show in town

For most of my life and I would guess for most of yours, dear reader, the BBC attracted people to its output because it owned the tracks on which the media train ran. The content might have been good, bad, indifferent and even great but the important thing was that you watched whatever was on. When my family first got a TV back in the 1950s, it only received BBC programmes. After a while, the set was magically adapted so that it received ITV as well. Now the BBC finds that the old media habits on which it previously depended have shattered in the face of a different technology which has engendered new habits. And now they have to do the most difficult thing of all, which is trying to get a part of the public who have proved that they can live without their products to realise the error of their ways.

Based on my experience in the magazine business where fortunes were squandered and hours spent in the mistaken belief that you could bring in a new audience from outside the tent, and more recently reading Selling The Pig, Eamonn Forde’s account of the decline and fall of EMI Records, which involved a lot of the same kind of magical thinking from City types who thought they had invented entirely new ways of selling recorded music, it’s interesting to look at the challenges being faced by the BBC and wonder if the thing they’re seeking to do is actually possible to do.

Has there ever been a case of a media property being successfully repositioned and bringing in an entirely new audience? It’s happened occasionally in magazines. Cosmopolitan started off as a family magazine and ended up being for young women. For Him changed into the far more direct FHM and invented a previously unsuspected market. Heat changed from an entertainment title aimed at men and women to a gossip magazine for young women. In all these cases, it was adversity that forced the publishers to do it.

The problem the BBC has at the moment is that the people who sit down every night to watch their TV or listen to their radio are largely happy with what they’re getting. The problem they have is to attract the customers they don’t have, which is the hardest thing in the world. In this, they’re like a subscription organisation which is putting a disproportionate amount of effort into trying to please users that it doesn’t have and inevitably putting slightly less effort into pleasing the customers it already does have. That way madness lies. The other way lies irrelevance. Difficult.

Has there ever been a case of a media property being successfully repositioned and bringing in an entirely new audience?