Tony Hall is used to dealing with divas — literally. For a dozen years, he ran the Royal Opera House, a cherished but struggling institution plagued by in-fighting and financial ineptitude. Hall re-established the venue as an ambitious, vital force on London’s cultural scene.
The experience proved a valuable rehearsal for the even tougher post he occupies now. As director-general of the British Broadcasting Corp., Hall sits atop a public broadcaster many call the envy of the world, one with global name-recognition and vast resources. But he took on the job at a moment of deep crisis for the BBC, and was immediately confronted by a host of strong-willed personalities — politicians, viewers, employees — demanding change.
By all accounts, Hall has successfully juggled those competing demands and brought some much-needed stability to a media giant that teetered on the brink of disaster. In his three years at the helm, he has steered the Beeb through a sex-abuse scandal that nearly sank its reputation, and through difficult negotiations on a government-led overhaul that supporters feared — and detractors hoped — would gut the organization.
Instead, the BBC emerged from the fray in far better shape than expected, with its funding guaranteed for the next decade. Money will continue to flow in from the license fee all viewers in Britain must pay, which added up to $4.74 billion out of an overall budget of $6.1 billion in 2015-16. The deal was a victory for Hall, who wants to focus on the future.
“We are stronger for having been through this extraordinary debate…. Our audiences have stood by us, but it’s been tough for everybody,” Hall told Variety in an interview last month. Just a few hours before, he had wrestled with the heavy contraption that stamped the BBC’s official seal on the agreement with the government, known as the charter. “My overwhelming feeling is: Hooray, now we can get on to things that matter.”
For Hall, what matters is the content that has made the BBC a byword for distinction and distinctiveness the world over. Shows like “Doctor Who,” “Sherlock,” “Top Gear,” and spectacular nature programs draw fans across the globe. The BBC’s influence is further magnified by its TV news division and its iconic World Service, which reaches an estimated 246 million people a week. The service recently announced its biggest expansion in more than half a century with the addition of 11 new local-language feeds, bringing the number of languages in which it broadcasts to 40.
As an instrument of soft power, especially for a small island nation whose empire is a thing of the past, the BBC is hard to beat. “Where people know and use BBC services globally, they are more likely to trade and invest with the U.K. It’s not our data — it’s other people’s data which actually shows that,” Hall says.
But challenges lie ahead for the world’s preeminent pubcaster. Despite the assured funding, part of the BBC’s settlement with the government requires it to shoulder the $951 million cost of subsidizing license fees for the elderly. Job losses loom as Hall tries to slim down management. Earlier this year, BBC Television staffers were reportedly warned to expect layoffs of one in four people. Some of those cuts are likely to stem from a controversial provision in the new charter obligating the BBC to put some of its in-house production out to competitive bidding, although, in return, it will now be allowed to make programs for commercial outlets.
“That’s a huge reform. Sadly, that does mean having to let some people go,” Hall says. “I wish we didn’t have to do it, but the government has insisted on opening up television so that there’ll be competition.”
The employees who get shown the door will follow a parade of high-level executives who have left the BBC in the past 15 months, including its creative director, the director of television, and the head of drama. The exodus came amid a shakeup that saw Hall concentrate power in the hands of key allies who are seen by some as more managerial than creative.
“It’s bound to be that some people who have done great things decide they want to go, or we decide that they need to go, and we wish them well,” Hall says with a typically British apologetic air, underlain by a hint of steel. “Anyone who’s run an organization knows you have to do these things. That’s part of the process of renewing an organization.”
Even his critics concede that Hall brought the leadership and diplomatic skills the BBC desperately needed when he took the reins in 2013, replacing a man who lasted just 54 days in the job. The broadcaster was in the grip of an existential crisis over its failure to report on widespread allegations of molestation by one of its most famous presenters, the late Jimmy Savile, who authorities believe sexually abused hundreds of children and adults over decades, sometimes on BBC premises.
Earlier this year, following an independent review of the scandal, Hall publicly apologized to Savile’s victims, acknowledging that “what happened was profoundly wrong…. The BBC failed you when it should’ve protected you. I am deeply sorry for the hurt caused to each and every one of you.”
As director-general, Hall was tasked to repeat the repair work he’d performed at the Royal Opera House, which had been exposed — in a BBC documentary, naturally — as a hotbed of dysfunction. His success at that earlier endeavor helped earn him a peerage in 2010: He is formally Lord Hall of Birkenhead (after the town, near Liverpool, where he was born), and holds a seat in Britain’s House of Lords.
Hall knew the BBC well, having worked there for 28 years, starting as a trainee and climbing up to head of news before he decamped to the opera house in 2001. Returning as the big boss, he set about rebuilding trust in the BBC with his customary energy, meeting with stakeholders all over Britain.
He strove to familiarize himself with parts of the organization he didn’t know. Even now, Hall tries to spend one day a week out in the field, away from his small office, which has no desk — just a glass-topped conference table — and virtually no papers. (Everything is on his iPad Pro.) A portrait of one of his predecessors, Hugh Carleton Greene, looks over his shoulder, and an old radio-studio clock discreetly flashes a red light to tell him when it’s time to move on to the next meeting.
Christine Langan, until recently the head of BBC Films, recalls Hall visiting her on the muddy set of Alan Rickman’s 2014 film “A Little Chaos,” which BBC Films helped produce. “He arrived on set in his Wellington boots … as instructed. He stood in a quarry with me and got rained on,” says Langan, now CEO of Steve Coogan’s production company Baby Cow. “It seemed very important to him to understand how everything worked.”
At the same time, Hall knew not to mess with a good thing. “It was a fairly autonomous unit; he also understood that,” Langan says of BBC Films, which is staffed by about a dozen people. “It did make a big difference to my team … that we had the support and understanding of the most senior figure within the BBC.”
Hall’s accessibility and genial manner were crucial to winning over politicians in the charter negotiations. So was an outpouring of public support: More than 200,000 people wrote in to express their affection for the BBC, which is such a fixture of British life that it’s nicknamed “Auntie.”
“The government has had no petition as big as that, other than the one for gay marriage,” Hall says with satisfaction. “People-power really helped to win it.”
Media analyst Claire Enders views the charter as a clear victory for the BBC, and not just over the government. “Let’s face it: A 30-year campaign by Rupert Murdoch to destroy the BBC came to nothing,” she says, referring to the media magnate’s aggressive lobbying against the Beeb, which he blasts as holding an unfair advantage over rivals like his own Sky pay-TV service. Hall is “going to be remembered as an absolutely outstanding DG, because he pulled off what must’ve seemed like mission impossible three or four years ago when he took on the job,” Enders says.
There have been setbacks. The BBC recently lost the U.K.’s top-rated program, “The Great British Bake Off,” to rival broadcaster Channel 4 in an acrimonious bidding war. Hall’s decision to fire “Top Gear” host Jeremy Clarkson for punching a producer earned him death threats and police protection for him and his wife. The automotive show’s ratings have plunged.
And the BBC continues to be dogged by criticism that its programming is either too crowd-pleasing, such as “Strictly Come Dancing,” or too niche, such as lavish costume drama “War & Peace.” Hall acknowledges the tension between serving up something popular and serving up something distinctive: “The answer is you’re doing both. When I was at the opera, it was exactly the same thing. You’ve got to be sure you’re treading that line.”
He is passionate about encouraging experimentation. “I love it when people say to me, ‘That really felt [like] only the BBC could’ve done that,’” he says, citing the award-winning “Wolf Hall” as an example. “Artists, writers, directors, actors, musicians, composers — we should be the people they come to, to make their dreams happen.”
In 2022, the BBC celebrates its 100th birthday. What Hall hopes to see then is a broadcasting behemoth that has weathered the effects of cost-cutting, tackled challenges such as the declining number of younger viewers, and turned its well-received iPlayer into a world-beating streaming platform.
His message to the nearly 21,000 employees under his command is simple: “Look at where you’ve come from. Look where you can go. It’s a really exciting future.” The guarantee of funding for the next 10 years is an enormous gift, he says. “Let’s play with this confidently. Let’s make the bold decisions that get extraordinary things done.”