Leading the UK into digital, speech by BBC Director-General Tim Davie

Leading the UK into digital, speech by BBC Director-General Tim Davie

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon
By RTS Media,
Wednesday, 7th December 2022
Tim Davie, Director-General of the BBC (Credit: RTS/Paul Hampartsoumian)
Tim Davie, Director-General of the BBC (Credit: RTS/Paul Hampartsoumian)

Speech by the Director-General of the BBC, Tim Davie, at the RTS event held today at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Good morning. Today, 100 years and 23 days after the first BBC broadcast, I want to talk about choices. Choices for us all. 

Choices that have profound consequences for our society; its economic success, its cultural life, its democratic health. Our UK and its essence. Of what we hand to the next generation. Of growth. 

Choices that concern not just the role of the BBC, but something bigger. About whether we want to leave a legacy of a thriving, world leading UK media market or accept, on our watch, a slow decline.  

Are we simply going to drift to the point where the emergence of vast US and Chinese players marginalise us, while we put on a very British brave face as they do so? Resigned to the fact that our culture and creative economy will inevitably be shaped by polarised platforms and overseas content. Or are we proactively going to take the steps to ensure that we tell our own stories, and remain the envy of the world? 

Today I want make a simple case.  A case for growth, and the choices, as the UK, to own it.    

Too much of this debate is painfully “small”. In BBC terms, we understandably fret about domestic issues, political spats and latest headlines. And, because people care, we keep busy on a joyous treadmill of flare-ups and debates.   

One of my favourite quotes of Lord Reith is “the BBC will never broadcast anything controversial, and has no plans to do so.” If only. 

But beyond the day-to-day, we urgently need to spend more time agreeing what we want to create that best serves our audiences, the economy and society. 

Today I want to set out some of the choices that we need to make, and make the case for ambition.   

This will require the BBC, regulators, politicians – all of us - to work together and make clear decisions. To invest capital and set policy, deliberately, not simply live on hope and good intent.  To create a bigger creative sector supported by strong public service media and a thriving BBC.  

In short, we have reached a defining decade for the future of this incredible sector and this wonderful country.    

But first, a quick look back. This year has shone a light on a venture, a 100 years old, that has delivered outstanding shareholder returns: the BBC.  It has not come about accidentally. It is a triumph of smart invention and intervention. An inspired choice by those early pioneers as they reflected on what really mattered in life after the scars of war. They decided, amazingly, that broadcasting was not simply about money, it was  more important than that.   

It has led to immense returns to the UK public: economic growth, societal growth, personal growth. Value for all.    

It’s easy to forget what a remarkable story of success it is. And how much of it we take as given. Of course, the BBC is not perfect, we make mistakes, we struggle, we commit acts of self-harm, and our funding mechanic, the Licence Fee, is positively described by some as the least worst option. But step back a bit from the noise and look at our legacy. 

There’s the creative health of the nation. 

Tim Davie and Theresa Wise (Credit: RTS/Paul Hampartsoumian)

Ever since those early days in 1922 when 2LO crackled into life, we have backed our culture, through an enlightened blend of smart public interventions, brilliant commercial companies, and inspirational individuals. 

At the heart of that ecosystem is the BBC.  

Critically, our universal brief means we do not simply look to maximise global efficiency and monetise a core audience. We support creativity in every part of the UK and its Nations. Our work helps us understand each other and find communal stories that underpin our national life. 

9 in 10 people say it’s important for our media to reflect the lives of different people in the UK to each other.  

Then there’s our creative industries, a world leading economic powerhouse.  

£109bn in annual GVA – that’s bigger than the life sciences, aerospace, automotive, oil and gas sectors combined. 

If we get it right, we have the potential to more than double that by 2030 growing way ahead of the wider economy, and delivering jobs across the UK. 

The BBC as a catalyst for growth is proven.  

We support over 50,000 jobs – more than half outside London. We work with 14,000 suppliers.   

In Salford, the number of creative businesses has grown by 70% since we moved there in 2010.  In Cardiff, the creative sector has grown by over 50% since we opened Roath Lock Studios in 2011.  

New analysis from PwC shows that increasing the BBC’s footprint in an area by just 15%, doubles the creative cluster growth rate.  By 2028, the BBC’s ‘Across the UK’ plans can create more than 4,500 new creative businesses outside London, along with 45,000 jobs.  

But the BBC’s legacy is also about our democracy. 

We face a growing assault on truth and free reporting. Recent data on our watch is stark and shocking. 

In February, Freedom House in the US found that 60 countries suffered democratic decline in 2021, while only 25 improved.  

Only around 20% of people now live in what are considered free countries – that’s halved in 10 years. Journalism is now completely or partly blocked in 73% of countries. 

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues there are three forces that bind successful democracies: social capital; strong institutions; and shared stories.  Not a bad list if you are in my job. 

But he also believes that social media, while having many benefits, has weakened all three. It weakens political systems which are based on compromise and it fuels mob dynamics that restrict a constructive process of dissent and debate. 

Our own research shows that’s happening here, too. Over 40% of people are now worried about sharing views with those who have a different view. 

Research by the European Broadcasting Union shows that well-funded public service broadcasters goes hand-in-hand with democratic health. The greater their audience, the more citizens tend to trust each other. 

That is why the UK’s strong global voice is so precious.  

Today the BBC reaches nearly half a billion people weekly, a number that has been growing. We are the best known British cultural export – quite something when you consider the competition, from music to monarchy. 

In India, our services reach 70 million people in 9 local languages. In the US, the BBC is now the most trusted news brand. 

When our Russia Editor, Steve Rosenberg, interviewed Foreign Minister Lavrov, a must watch by the way, it got over 7 million views inside Russia. 

So I think that if Reith were sitting here today, apart from giving me that withering stare, I think he would be amazed by what we have created, together.   

These successes are the result of deliberate decision-making and difficult choices.  

There was the birth of TV in the 30s, and the reshaping of radio in the 60s – when we said goodbye to the Home Service, the Light Programme, and the Third Programme. 

The launch of BBC Online in the 90s. The launch of iPlayer in 2007 – a moment that, in the words of Reed Hastings, “blazed the trail” for global streamers. 

Alongside these BBC moves, we have acted successfully as an industry. Freeview, Freesat, digital TV switchover, DAB, Radioplayer, Youview, all successful in developing our media sector, fostering competition but also enhancing public service broadcasting. 

All these moments required a choice, a will, an optimism, and a generosity of vision. A desire to see the big picture.   

There are cautionary tales too. The infamous blocking of Project Kangaroo back in 2009, when the UK PSBs wanted to set up a streaming service.   

But, overall, there is so much to be proud of in what we have created together.   

However, today, I believe we are in a period of real jeopardy. A life-threatening challenge to our local media, and the cultural and the social benefit they provide. This is not an immediate crisis for audiences.  The choice of high-quality TV and audio has never been better. The threat is not about if there is choice, it is about the scope of future choice and what factors shape it.   

Do we want a US-style media market or do we want to fight to grow something different based on our vision?  

I sometimes read that the BBC needs to clock that the world has changed. I can assure you that we do not need convincing.   

The internet has stripped away the historical distribution advantage of having half of the TV channels or FM frequencies. In this world relevance, like trust, has to be earned.   

Industry analysts predict that we have probably seen the last year in the UK when broadcasters make up the majority of video viewing. Five years ago broadcast TV reached nearly 80% of young adults a week. Today it’s around 50%, and radical changes are happening across all ages. Tik Tok is now bigger than the BBC in video for 16-24s in the UK. 

So today is the right time to ask the question, are we happy to let the global market simply take its course or are we going to intervene to shape the UK market? 

Now, before looking to the future, let me just give a quick update on how the BBC is doing.  

We have been working on transformation rather than just managing decline. Despite market changes and cuts, we have coped well by focusing entirely on providing value to all. Not simply saying we are a good thing but being used.   

Our Value For All strategy is clear: ensuring we are impartial, delivering must-watch UK content and developing a world-class online offer. Supported by ambitious commercial plans.  

Nearly 90% of adults, and 75% of 16-34s came to the BBC every week, and every month nearly every adult uses us in the UK. These reach numbers have held up well. Over 30 million browses in the UK used the BBC online yesterday, the only online UK brand to really mix it with global players.   

When it comes to hours of video watched in the UK, the BBC remains bigger than Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus, combined.  

Editorially we have wind in our sails.  Award-winning shows from Time to Motherland.  9 million watched the launch of Frozen Planet II, a peak audience of 17 million watching the Women’s Euros final, 42 million streams of Glastonbury.  And the coverage of the Queen’s funeral showed what only the BBC can do. 

More recently, in its first seven days since launch, episode one of SAS Rogue Heroes had an audience of 6.5 million, compared with 3 million for episode one of the latest season of The Crown.   

We’ve grown BBC Sounds to over 1.5 billion listens.  

And, in the midst of culture war storms and Twitter rage, the numbers of people saying we offer impartial news has held firm. 

Commercially, BBC Studios has grown rapidly in the last 5 years delivering a stretching target of over £1.2bn in returns and growing profits 70%. 

We also drove the UK economy. Our Across the UK plans are well underway and mean we’re on target for £700m of additional spend outside London by 2027/28.  For example, we’ve announced £25m investment in the North East, a new Birmingham base in Digbeth, and we’ve moved news teams. We relocated 8 Radio 3 titles yesterday in Salford. And we continue to invest in unique and strong content in the Nations and Regions.  

At the same time we’ve stepped up our commitment to a highly efficient BBC, fit to deliver maximum possible value. We’ve reduced our overhead rate to within 5% of our total costs. We cut over 1,000 public service roles last year.  All our senior managers are assessed and we are stripping away bureaucracy as we create a world-class culture. 

Overall our progress over the last 2 years has been good. In many ways, thanks to the exceptional talent in the BBC, it has been gravity defying. But looking to 2030, it is not enough. 

So now let’s look to that future. Imagine a world that is internet only, where broadcast TV and radio are being switched off and choice is infinite. There’s still a lot of live linear viewing but it is all been delivered online.  

Far from decline, could we harness the possibilities of this interactive digital landscape to increase public value and stimulate the UK media market? What would it actually take to deliver that?  

I think there are four choices that we need to make to give us a real chance of achieving success for the UK. They need urgent action. Namely:  

  • Should we, as the UK, own a move to an internet future with greater urgency? 
  • Should we transform the BBC faster to have a clear, market leading role in the digital age? 
  • Should we proactively invest in the BBC brand as a global leader?  
  • Should we move faster in regulating for future success?  

Of course the answer to these choices is yes.   

I don’t intend to answer every question in detail today but let me outline some thoughts. 

Firstly, we must work together to ensure that everyone is connected, and can get their TV and radio via the internet. This isn’t something to resist. A fully connected UK has very significant benefits for society and our economy. It would unleash huge opportunities for innovation. 

For the BBC, internet-only distribution is an opportunity to connect more deeply with our audiences and to provide them with better services and choice than broadcast allows. It provides a significant editorial opportunities. A switch off of broadcast will and should happen over time, and we should be active in planning for it.  

Tim Davie (Credit: RTS/Paul Hampartsoumian)

Of course, there’s a bad way it could happen. Where access to content is no longer universal. Or is unaffordable for too many. Where the gateway to content is owned by well capitalised overseas companies.  

So, we must close gaps and guarantee accessibility for all. Forecasts suggest that by 2030, about 2million homes will still not be using fixed-line broadband and even in a few years 5% of the UK landmass may not be covered by 5G or 4G to provide content on the move.  Now I know that there is a renewed effort to drive this coverage by Government and the DCMS; this is critical. 

While the BBC cannot fund the build-out it can collaborate with others to make a move to online attractive to all, and play a big part in educating people about  the transition. We will become more active as part of a coalition to make this happen.  

Let’s all work to plan it flawlessly and leave no-one behind, and ensure that UK businesses and audiences get maximum benefit. 

In this new world, the next choice we need make is to champion a clear, market leading role for the BBC. How will we inform, educate and entertain in 2030? 

The answer must be to differentiate and not copy.   

The BBC will focus its effort on the following in the digital world: 

Nurturing an informed society through impartial, trusted news and information 

Inspiring and supporting people of all ages with trusted knowledge and training 

Engaging audiences with high-quality local British creativity from across the UK 

Over time this will mean fewer linear broadcast services and a more tailored joined up online offer. As examples, we will double down on the latest work in News on disinformation, or accelerate the drive to ensure that Network drama is sourced from across the UK which differentiates us from others. 

We believe that if we drive this transition successfully we can deliver universality despite a world of intense competition. We will achieve this not by creating derivative or niche content but ensuring maximum relevance of our core output.  To be clear, by universality we mean three things, which global players do not do. Namely: 

Access: making sure all audiences in the UK can get to the BBC 

Relevance: making content that aims to appeal to all UK audiences not just monetizable groups 

Engagement: reaching and being used by the vast majority of UK audiences 

In the future we will need to transform the BBC faster to deliver a compelling online offer. 

We are working on how an IP BBC could be the best version of the BBC shaped around people’s interests and needs. A daily partner to your life, bringing the BBC together in a single offer with personalised combinations.  A world in which local news, areas of interest and hidden gems can be found more easily.   

Digital offers a huge opportunity to unlock more audience value but it requires big organisational change: a radical overhaul of how we use data, a heavyweight world-class tech team, new operating models, new creative solutions and ideas. Imagine news re-imagined for the iPlayer or increased functionality when watching the game online.  

We will be world-leading pioneers in this. No-one in the world has created a digitally led public service media company of scale and the global opportunity for us is there for the taking.  

Within the BBC this means significant change. We will have fewer brands overall, and consolidate more activity behind a simple, single brand in the UK: the BBC. And you’ll see this globally as well. We will also simplify sub-brands such as BBC News. You can see a first step in our bringing together of the BBC News Channel and BBC World News as one brand: BBC News.  

We will share more plans in this area in the coming months.  

Inevitably all this requires another choice and that is to actively, dare I say happily, invest in the BBC.  

Any transition of a legacy, broadcast organisation to a digital future needs capital. As the owner of even the biggest companies are finding out, it is not for the faint hearted. Moving to digital is not the challenge in of itself, moving to digital while not losing most of your audience and burning millions of pounds unnecessarily is the challenge.    

In the BBC we are privileged to have the Licence Fee until 27/28 but if you take the period 2010 to 2028, we forecast that core funding for the BBC  has been cut by a whopping 30%. Now my key metric is providing great audience value for that fee. But others have been driving up pricing and driving up media costs reducing the BBC’s ability to deliver great value. As we look to the 2030s, we are open minded about future funding mechanics. But we are clear that it is critical that we need a universal solution that fuels UK public service growth not stifles it while offering  audiences outstanding value for money. 

Of course, the latest settlement did include the increased debt facility for BBC Studios which was welcome, and we are ambitious about its prospects. Alongside commercial plans, we will keep cutting costs to invest and attract more partner investment as well such as the latest deal we announced with Disney on Doctor Who.  But under the most ambitious scenarios, this will not change the need for serious public service investment. 

And in the short term we will need more money to support the World Service to avoid further cuts and we will be discussing this with the FCDO. The Russians and Chinese are investing hundreds of millions in state backed services. We have a choice to make. 

We will of course complement this world service growth with ambitious plans for BBC Studios. 

The BBC is one of the most powerful and well recognised brands on the planet and we should be backing it. It’s as simple as that. 

Lastly, we need to regulate for success at speed. 

This is not a new theme. It’s no secret to anyone here that our legal and regulatory environment has not kept pace with the market.  

The Digital Markets Act, Online Safety Bill, the Data and Digital Identity Bill, and the Media Bill planned for this Parliament are essential. We need rules for the prominence, availability and inclusion of PSB content in new platforms, in video and audio. Organisations providing content need the detailed data that will be the lifeblood of success in the new world.   

But it cannot be right that we have to wait years for legislation to recognise change in our sector.   

So we need a regulatory framework that is proactive. It must be agile – able to respond without endless consultation and process. I am pleased that Ofcom is working in this area.   

Part of this is allowing the commercial arm to thrive and a regime that is ex post, not ex ante, responding to obvious harm when it occurs, not defining every possible negative outcome in advance and restricting UK innovation as a result. 

So, in summary, four choices for our future.  

  • Move to an internet future with greater urgency 
  • Transform the BBC faster to have a clear, market leading role in the digital age 
  • Proactively invest in the BBC brand as a global leader 
  • Move faster in regulating for future success urgently 

Shaping the online future of the UK to work for all of us. To lead not to follow. To grow. 

Thank you. 

You are here

Speech by the Director-General of the BBC, Tim Davie, at the RTS event held today at St Martin-in-the-Fields.