Jeremy Lee on Media: Thompson's kidding no one

Jeremy Lee
Jeremy Lee

The BBC's Strategy Review proposals serve neither its audiences nor its claims to fair competition.

Having received a Jesuit education, one might have thought that BBC director-general Mark Thompson would be well-versed in the tradition of the mea culpa. It's also something that commercial media, and by extension marketers, will have been looking forward to hearing after years of the BBC's unbridled expansion into areas in which it had no rightful place.

Sadly, his Strategy Review did not deliver any confession of such sins, let alone a promised reining-in of the BBC's output and acknowledgment of its limitations. In fact, it's difficult not to see it as a rather cleverly drafted document that has been cynically designed to do the minimum damage to the corporation and its expansionist ways, while reminding the British public of why it is so important to us.

While most advertisers and audiences would welcome a refocusing of BBC finances on the 'high-quality content' that Thompson claims the review will deliver, his proposals fall well short of the steps that would be necessary to achieve this. After all, it would give the corporation's recession-choked commercial rivals a chance to get some of their breath back.

However, Thompson's assertion that the BBC now recognises the 'lead role that commercial radio plays in serving popular music to 30- to 50-year-old audiences', in an attempt to justify the closure of digital radio station 6 Music, sounds disingenuous. Commercial stations are, by and large, focused on a younger demographic: the audience that 6 Music has served so well has hitherto never been properly catered to by any broadcaster.

It also flies in the face of the BBC's self-appointed lead role in promoting digital radio. It is a cause it has been forced to take up, given that its commercially funded rivals have been too busy consolidating in order to survive, while Channel 4's ill-fated 4Radio venture has proved to be one of former chief executive Andy Duncan's most embarrassing legacies.

It is unclear quite how scrapping one of the few services that fulfills the BBC's remit of being 'distinctive', caters to an audience that had never been served before and costs just £6m a year to run will produce the £600m of savings that Thompson promises will be spent on 'original, quality content'. In fact, it's difficult not to see this as showing how valuable the BBC is when it is at its best and, in the process, making a profound statement to any government that may want to interfere in its future funding.

If Thompson were serious about not impinging on the ad-funded sector, surely a more appropriate candidate for closure would have been BBC Three, which, arguably, should never have been allowed to launch in the first place. Costing more than £100m a year to run, it targets the 16- to 24-year-old adults that are already super-served by the likes of Sky1, E4 and ITV4, among others. However, none of these channels has the budget to compete with it, depending, as they do, largely on advertiser support.

Equally, Thompson's vague comments about BBC Worldwide's future provided little cheer for the commercial sector - having already grown like Topsy with the egregious purchase of Lonely Planet, the review declared only that any future growth will be 'principally organic'.

Any advertisers that were hoping commercial media would now be given more freedom to supply audiences without the dead hand of the BBC around their neck will be disappointed. Thompson has not donned a hair shirt: rather, he seemingly continues to revere the BBC and its market-distorting ways.

Jeremy Lee is associate editor of Marketing. Read his blog at marketingmagazine.co.uk

30 SECONDS ON ... BBC 6 Music

- BBC 6 Music is a digital-only radio station. It went on air on 11 March 2002, with the breakfast show presented by Phill Jupitus, who recently described the proposed closure of the station as 'an act of cultural vandalism'.

- The station is available in the UK on DAB, digital TV and across Northern Europe via the Astra satellite.

- It is positioned as an 'alternative' station; while it plays music from well-represented genres including indie, rock, funk, dance and hip-hop, the fact that any of these could be played within a single show makes it unusual.

- In the last quarter of 2009, 6 Music had 695,000 listeners, up 11.4% on the previous three months and 12.3% year on year, according to Rajar. The average age of its listeners is 36.

- BBC director-general Mark Thompson said earlier this month that 6 Music and the Asian Network would not close before the end of 2011.

- The 6 Music website has a link from its home page to the BBC Trust's online consultation on the proposals.

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