Floundering in the Mid-Atlantic

By Professor Sylvia Harvey

Delivering the Steve Hewlett memorial lecture in September, Mark Thompson, the CEO of the New York Times and former director-general of the BBC, outlined the risks and rewards of global digital competition.

Thompson said that with support from owner-investors with deep pockets, it had been possible to turn the NYT around, away from the siren voices drawing many news services on to the rocks and into the open seas of competitive advantage. He reported that subscriptions to the NYT had risen from just over half a million in 2012 to 5 million this year, the company’s stock price had more than tripled, and the journalistic cohort had risen, with an extra 300 people employed – all this in a period when most papers were shedding staff. None of this has been easy, and he emphasised the importance of the strategic decisions that had been made to invest in high quality and original news production.

In considering the prospects for television, he noted that, as in the newspaper sector, the advantage that TV once enjoyed in attracting premium-priced advertising has diminished as major players like Google and Facebook have transformed this market. Moreover, the new ‘streamers’ – subscription video-on-demand services such as Netflix – are investing large sums in high quality original programming and challenging previously secure national markets in the production of drama in particular.

This poses a challenge for broadcasters in the UK, especially in a period when the BBC, though not reliant on advertising, has nonetheless suffered two large cuts to its income. In 2010 and in 2015 (in my estimate) the corporation lost some 20% of its programme-making budget in each of those two years. These cuts on both occasions were the result of austerity measures as the Government sought new sources of income, in this case from BBC licence fee payers, that might allow it to reduce government department spending. This has included the cost of paying for the licence fees of the over 75s, previously met by the Department for Work and Pensions.

It is this rather bleak context that has led Thompson to conclude that the outcome of public policy has been ‘to hobble the chances of the UK’s only credible global contender’ in bringing ‘British talent and British ideas to the world’s audience’, tethering it to what George Orwell described as ‘Airstrip One’.

Moreover, national sovereignty in the UK, Thompson suggested, requires cultural sovereignty – the opportunity to recognise ‘your language, your life experience, your community in the prevailing culture’. This is seen as a necessary pre-condition for national self-determination. And the streamers, Thompson  warned, while at first happy to share the fruits of co-production and shared copyright with the Brits, will soon ensure that the commissioning power, the copyright and the cash are directed to meet the priorities of the transnational providers.

Unless the BBC and other UK broadcasters have sufficient resources to produce programmes with the interests of the home audience in mind, it is likely that ostensibly British production will adopt the sort of mid-Atlantic identity that allows it to thrive in international markets, while embodying little that is specific to the already internally diverse British experience. By contrast the successful transformation of the New York Times indicates that investment in quality along with a robust digital commitment can bring great rewards.

Only the British Government can ensure that HMS BBC – one of the country’s few remaining world class assets – ceases to flounder in the icy waters of the mid-Atlantic; new policy developments are awaited with interest and concern.

Sylvia Harvey is a trustee of the VLV and a Visiting Professor in Broadcasting Policy at the University of Leeds