Amid longstanding complaints from many viewers that the BBC is too London-centric, the boss of the world’s most famous pubcaster hinted Thursday that it could move more of its operations and programming outside the British capital.
Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, said the organization had already made “enormous strides” in geographical diversity. “A decade ago, a third of the BBC was based outside London and two thirds was in London. Today, that balance is 50-50,” Hall told a gathering of the Royal Television Society in Cambridge, England. “We’ve moved from less than 10% of our network TV programs produced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to 20%.”
But he said he wanted the Beeb “to think bigger. Imagine a world in which the BBC moved still more out of London. And I think we could be really radical here. Now I know all the risks. It would take time. It would cost money. It could be hugely disruptive. But what an enormous creative as well as operational opportunity.”
Hall offered no specifics about a potential reallocation of resources and activity by the BBC, which has been the target of criticism for years from residents and politicians who accuse it of being too London-focused. Any move would likely meet with vociferous objections from some of the broadcaster’s London-based staff. Only a few years ago, the Beeb shifted some of its operations to the northern English city of Salford, outside Manchester, which is now home to its sports programming, children’s channels and digital operations. However, more than half of the London-based middle managers whose jobs migrated to Salford refused to go.
Currently, fellow British pubcaster Channel 4 is preparing to establish a new headquarters in Leeds, also in northern England, in part because of political pressure to diversify geographically. That move, too, is likely to trigger a wave of resignations of London-based Channel 4 employees.
Leeds, nearly 200 miles north of London, is fast becoming a media hub. On Wednesday, Sky Studios, the new production unit of pay-TV giant Sky, announced that it was setting up an innovation center there to tap into talent across the region. Sky already employs about 1,300 people in the city.
In his speech in Cambridge, Hall said that the BBC was trying to transform itself to keep up with changing viewing habits in the digital era. Key to that is the BBC iPlayer, which began as a simple online catchup service with a limited window but which now offers live streaming, box sets and other forms of content.
“We are already transforming iPlayer from a catchup service into a destination in its own right,” Hall said. “iPlayer will be the place you go to for your news, your sport, the place you go to for drama, documentaries, live channels – everything we do. So iPlayer is going to be total TV.”
The BBC is also a partner with commercial broadcaster ITV in BritBox, the “best-of-British” subscription streaming service that launched in the U.S. in 2017 and is due to roll out on home turf, in the U.K., by the end of this year. On Thursday, shortly before Hall’s address, British media regulator Ofcom gave its blessing to the launch, overriding concerns that BritBox would give the BBC an unfair leg up in the British marketplace. “There is not a significant risk that the BBC’s proposed involvement in BritBox will distort the market or create an unfair competitive advantage,” Ofcom said.
“With Ofcom giving us the go-ahead today, [BritBox will] be coming here later this year,” Hall said. “And it will be a great showcase for stories dreamed up, created and told by British producers and talent.”