Shakespeare's Measure for Measure includes a famous line about the excellence of having a giant’s strength, but not of using it like a giant. This is the dilemma facing the BBC, a unique institution with a unique problem. It is hugely successful, with an extraordinary global reach and brand, and it is a true media giant. Yet the more it succeeds the more it breeds resentment, and the more politicians and rivals seek reasons to rein it in, or break it up.
Once again, the Charter renewal process has brought this problem to the fore and challenged the BBC to work out how it can retain the virtues of scale and depth without the vices. The virtues include remarkable quality, ethos and range. The vices include being inward looking, bureaucratic and often incapable of partnering with outside organisations.
Fortunately there is an answer available to the BBC, and to the government. It involves moving from being primarily a monolithic, direct provider of content and services to becoming both a provider and an open platform: an enabler of others and sharing its assets, resources and access to audiences, as the quid pro quo for the continued privilege of raising a license fee.
In the past the BBC often resisted any hint of change. But recent announcements suggest more openness – potentially having non-BBC content on iPlayer, for example – and there are important steps being made towards a more open model in fields like the arts and education. But so far this option has lacked detail. It is undoubtedly contested within the organisation. And it clashes with deeply entrenched habits.
So how could the BBC become a more open, collaborative organisation? In this brief blog I suggest some of the specific elements of a new approach, running alongside new research from Nesta which will give these more flesh over the next few days. I also suggest how the BBC can best use its resources to meet new public needs which aren’t likely to be adequately met through the commercial market.
The central argument is that the BBC needs to add to its historic mission of educating, informing and entertaining, an additional goal of empowering – using its resources to energise a surrounding ecology of other creators and providers.
Here are six areas where that rather abstract goal could quickly become concrete:
Over many decades the BBC has helped to energise the UK’s creative economy. Huge numbers of talented individuals were trained up in the BBC, before heading out into advertising, film and other sectors. But this has always been a happy side effect rather than a deliberate strategy. Our new research begins to show how the network of talent can be mapped in much more fine grained detail, and hopefully will also encourage others – Sky, ITV, Channel 4 – to open up their data too. We hope it will also encourage the BBC to commit itself more directly to supporting the wider creative economy with people, skills and technology.
For well over a decade arguments have been made for the BBC to support the growing field of hyperlocal media. The BBC wouldn’t directly run any of these sites, but would rather provide them with technical support, links and training, offering a platform for thousands of citizens to set up and run their own local services. This is a field Nesta has supported actively (including through our Destination Local programme), sometimes with good engagement from the BBC. But all too often the BBC’s statements in this area – such as this from earlier this week – unwittingly confirm how much it struggles to collaborate with civil society.
The BBC has a long history of research and development, and of supporting technological innovation across other UK industries. As we show in new research published today, the BBC is beginning to make the most of open source innovation – sharing its software via open platforms. This is similar to the approach that has powered many of the fundamental technologies of the Internet. It helps attract and mobilise creativity. Again, it’s a direction of travel that should be much more firmly embraced.
Nesta has shown how the BBC – working with the NHS and others - could make a dramatic impact on people’s lives by offering a comprehensive and reliable online guide to diagnoses and prescriptions. This would be a superior alternative to the messy unreliability of the Internet and the scare stories of the print media, and would support a population that will anyway have to self-manage a lot more in the future. The health knowledge commons would make information available through any kind of device, from smartphones to TV sets, and would tailor guidance to individual cognitive styles. We are convinced there is a viable opportunity within sight that would, once again, involve the BBC in becoming a trusted platform for a range of types of information, guidance and advice, and could become as defining a part of the BBC in the future as things like news services are today.
This year the BBC has backed Make it Digital and shown, once again, its extraordinary power to reach huge audiences in ways that provide people with vital skills. It has built on the work of hundreds of other organisations, from Nesta and Mozilla to Code Clubs. We think this is a good example of the BBC acting as a platform, in the tradition of the BBC’s long-standing partnership with the Open University. Yet, ‘Make it Digital’ is conceived as a one-off project, mainly coming to an end in December. There’ll be some continuation with the Mixital platform that has ambitions to be a permanent platform where young people can be digitally creative with content from BBC brands and other organisations. But the BBC’s default is to think of these things as one-off projects, not as strategies, and the BBC doesn’t seem to want to become a platform for high quality educational materials from a range of providers.
Throughout its history the BBC has contributed to innovation where content meets technology. In doing so it has built up world-leading expertise, for example in special effects and live broadcasts. At a time when many arts organisations are starting to explore new partnerships with technology providers there is an opportunity for the BBC to share its expertise and capacity with the wider sector. Recently, through initiatives like Connected Studio and Taster, the BBC has been harnessing the creativity of others to experiment and develop better BBC content. It should now open up its resources to help other cultural institutions develop innovative content too.
The BBC is a great British success story that has sometimes struggled to keep up with the fast-changing environment around it. The bold move twenty years ago to invest heavily in digital and the Internet paid off. Now we need an equally bold move to jump beyond the rather tired debates that always accompany charter reviews (what services to cut, where to set the licence fee…).
The aim should be to redefine the BBC as a truly 21st century public service, no longer trapped in a zero sum game with its competitors, but able to enrich the many fields in which it operates. That requires acknowledging its unique strengths. But it will also require some humility; some acknowledgement that it too often hoards power rather than sharing it; and above all attention to the most compelling needs of the future, rather than the BBC’s own institutional convenience.