It is, by common consent, the job from hell, but within days of starting as BBC director general, Tim Davie, achieved the impossible by generating positive headlines in outlets normally critical of the Beeb.
He achieved this simply by reversing a decision not to sing “Rule Britannia” — a patriotic song linked to the United Kingdom’s colonial past — at the famed Last Night of the Proms, the finale to the BBC’s annual summer music festival, and as much a part of the English psyche as Wimbledon and tea drinking. Whether Davie can repeat this deft touch, which overturned an initial decision to skip the lyrics and only play an orchestral rendition, once he gets into his stride is anyone’s guess. But he has hit the ground running.
In his first speech as DG on Thursday, Davie appeared to break with the BBC’s past by saying the BBC must “have more impact by making less.”
This marked a potentially seminal moment for the broadcaster. He also emphasized that the BBC needed to be more scrupulous regarding impartiality, focus on “unique, high impact content” and build commercial income. “If we really care about this precious institution, we must protect it by reforming it,” he added. “Repeating what we have done over the last few years will not be enough — we must all lead reform.”
“He’s a real toughie,” says one ex-BBC staffer who spoke to Variety on condition of anonymity. “To date, the BBC has had a good crisis, so Tim has six to 12 months to bed in with government and get the politicians on side.”
In contrast to his predecessor Tony Hall, he is a business-savvy “alpha male,” a sports nut and marathon runner, who, unlike the urbane Hall, can be abrasive. “Tim has a huge intellect, but he also has a temper,” says someone who knows him well.
There are huge financial challenges facing the BBC, exacerbated by the pandemic. At the heart of these are complex issues over the licence fee, which is mandatory for anyone who uses key BBC services in the country, that brings in more than 75% of the BBC’s £4.89 billion ($6.48 billion) income.
Negotiations are due to start soon over the level of the fee for the second half of the 10-year Charter period negotiated by Hall, which runs until 2027. “Tim’s going to have to pilot a way through that with a government that has a big majority, is a bit vengeful and not very strategic,” says a senior British broadcaster. “That’s not easy.”
“Technically, the government could reduce the size of the licence fee to one penny,” he adds.
That, of course, won’t happen, but there are at least two ways in which British ministers can increase the financial squeeze on the Beeb.
There is a running battle over free licence fees for people over 75 years old, the majority of which — other than those receiving pension credit — will no longer be paid for by the BBC unless the government forces the BBC to do a U-turn. Another problem is decriminalizing non-payment of the fee, which, if it went ahead, would cost the public broadcaster several million pounds in lost income.
The ultimate challenge for Davie, however, is the survival of the fee or something similar. There is a growing consensus that in an on-demand age, radical reforms are required to fund the Beeb.
Ideas being floated include replacing the licence fee with a household media tax, paying for the BBC from direct taxation or moving BBC services to a subscription model. Time will tell how genuinely radical Davie is prepared to be. Unlike all his predecessors, he is a global deal maker who, unusually for a BBC director general, possesses a keen commercial sensibility.
Another fundamental problem is addressing how he persuades more young people to use the BBC. In that debut speech, he made it clear that there would be no more expansion of linear services. Any new launches would be at the expense of existing ones, a signal that we can expect more investment in on-demand content and functionality, critical to securing younger audiences.
Hall cited transforming the BBC iPlayer into a destination, rather than being solely a catch-up platform, as one of his biggest achievements.
The problem for Davie is that iPlayer is only responsible for 15% of online viewing in the U.K., according to figures cited during a BBC interview last week; increasing that in a crowded market led by Netflix and where Disney Plus is making big inroads won’t be easy.
Getting the balance right between on-demand viewing and linear viewing is a conundrum facing all legacy broadcasters. Dollar for dollar, there is no way that the BBC can compete with the tech behemoths, but it does have significant advantages both at home and abroad that they lack.
In the U.K. the BBC’s reach remains high, as the majority of Brits use its services every week – 91% of the population for nearly 18 hours, according to Davie. Globally, the BBC is regarded as a trusted British brand. Davie can do more to take advantage of this, especially as the U.K. exits the EU.
“The government understands that the most trusted and admired British brand is the BBC,” says a senior broadcaster. “Davie needs to leverage that in favour of U.K. PLC trying to do trade deals with the rest of the world, and deploy even more effectively things like program exports and its international channels.”
In other words, by using the BBC’s so-called “soft power.”
Equally important is to negotiate more canny content deals with rivals including the tech giants that benefit both the BBC’s brand and its coffers — without the corporation having to invest a fortune.
“Outside the U.K., everyone thinks ‘Line of Duty’ is a Netflix show, but it’s a BBC show. Davie needs to do more to reinforce BBC content globally and its global brand value,” says one former U.K. studio head.
In his speech, Davie referenced recent BBC deals with FX, Discovery, Tencent and ITV as important ones for the corporation. One of his most pressing appointments, however, is finding a new head of BBC Studios. One possible candidate is the present CEO of ITN, Anna Mallett, a former BBC colleague of Davie’s.
Aware of the need for the BBC not to appear too male-dominated, his first internal reshuffle was to up BBC content supremo Charlotte Moore, who in her new role as chief content officer now occupies a seat on a slimmed down executive board. Notably, head of radio and education James Purnell has lost his seat on the board.
Crucially, Davie has already experienced managing the BBC during the proverbial shitstorm — when he was acting DG in 2012 in the midst of the crisis over serial pedophile Jimmy Savile. Overall, there is optimism that he can rise to the challenges that lie ahead.