BBC chief Tony Hall warned Tuesday that repeated cost-cutting and the growing might of global giants such as Netflix and Amazon were endangering the world’s most prestigious public broadcaster, saying it was doubtful that “what we currently do is sustainable with the resources we have.”
The BBC director general called on elected officials and the public to invest more in the BBC – which is funded largely by license fees paid by British households – or else look back in regret several years from now at their “grand national error.” Already, he said, the BBC had endured “a long period of holding back and cutting back,” with budget savings of 4.5% a year over the past decade. New funding sources are imperative.
“We need to find more money,” which could come from “a variety of sources,” Hall said at the Royal Television Society London Conference on Tuesday.
Hall did not elaborate on those potential sources, adding only: “These pressures are really intense for the BBC.” But he declined to describe the situation as an existential threat, saying, “I don’t believe in existential threats.”
He acknowledged what the moderator called the BBC’s ticking demographic time bomb, as younger viewers flee broadcast television. In Britain, Hall said, Netflix’s audience of younger viewers matches that of the BBC and its online service, the iPlayer, combined.
The BBC is currently revamping the iPlayer to become a “destination” service, not just a catchup service, said Hall. A few days ago, as part of its new strategy, the pubcaster dropped all episodes of “Killing Eve” onto the iPlayer, for easy binge-viewing, at the same that it aired the series’ opening installment on TV. (“The disruptor-in-chief, the BBC. Who would’ve thought? – busting its normal model completely,” Jane Turton, the head of All3Media, said earlier during the conference.)
The BBC is also aiming to overhaul its iPlayer Radio app, turning it into “BBC Sounds,” with more audio content available on demand. Hall has, ironically, described it as creating “the Netflix of the spoken word.”
Echoing other British television executives, Hall advocated a more level playing field for traditional broadcasters against the streamers, which are not subject to the same legal obligations when it comes to taxation, terms of trade and production quotas. “That needs re-balancing,” he said.
Hall has also spoken frequently in recent months about the challenges posed by the OTT players, particularly the threat he perceives that they present to locally flavored content as they pursue glittery shows with international (though mostly American) stars and global appeal. Netflix and Amazon each spend more on content annually than the combined spending of British public-service broadcasters ($3.3 billion), he said.
“There will always be content, but there won’t always be British content,” Hall said. “There is an impact on society. The content we all produce is not just an ordinary consumer good. It helps shape our society, it brings people together, it helps us understand each other, and it creates an incredibly powerful shared narrative….
“We have a special duty to make programs about British people and British culture,” he said, adding: “We can’t expect the global media giants to do so.”