I think the area of marketing and communications is most certainly going to be down-graded, and probably weakened, to the immediate benefit of rivals, headed by ITV, Channel 4 and Five.
One of Greg Dyke’s legacies to the BBC was a serious marketing division, which was used to promote a key set of programmes, channels, new launches, output and, of course, Freeview.
That area – currently with a budget of £90m (cut to £83 million next year) and staff of 450 – is now facing swingeing cuts because it is included as an overhead and not in the production/output side.
Yet, in fact, it was a key to making Dyke’s BBC so formidable. It was no accident that his commercial background led him to recruit one of Unilever’s brightest, Andy Duncan. The man now polishing up Channel 4’s positioning.
Dyke identified marketing as a key issue going forward for all media in a very crowded market place, while acknowledging that heavy spending/activity carried real problems for the BBC. You only have to look at BSkyB’s current hyperactivity to see the truth in his prediction.
The fact that the marketing spend on The Alan Clark Diaries cost more than the modest drama itself was a controversy he was prepared to face down.
But the new, purged regime is clearly going to take a different tack and strip it back, while in the run up to the safe delivery of a new charter, promotional activity will clearly be directed to PSB.
Second, the BBC has decided to unilaterally withdraw its plugs for BBC magazines, even those relating directly to programmes, such as Top Gear, while insisting magazine launches, etc, in future should be directly linked to BBC programming. That should lance one boil, though the freed-up slots will likely be filled with promos for other multimedia services.
Third, and it is very much up to industry lobbyists to ensure this, Thompson and Michael Grade promise more certainty – predictable boundaries in future between what the market can provide and what public service money should fund.
This issue is tied up with the reform of BBC regulation and governance, and while Ofcom is not going to get the BBC, a solution is still in hot dispute. But, aside from these areas, this remains a BBC which is far from retreating and one run by a director-general trying to regain the charter process initiative.
Thompson has unilaterally rejected large sales and decided that the BBC must keep control of its brand extensions – including a new set of global channels – rather than offering licences. I find it odd that a BBC which insists it keeps magazine publishing is not wedded to the very guts of broadcasting, BBC resources and BBC Broadcast where so much training takes place. Yet these are the divisions now up for sale or offered as joint venture partnerships.
The bigger point is that the BBC is hedging its bets. It utterly depends on the licence fee, but it cannot forfeit commercial revenue or the potential to grow more multimedia assets from successful content.
In the short term, a 15% cut in programme budgets could take the gilt off effective BBC activity, cause a blip in concentration on audiences, though exemptions are being made – the BBC sports budget for example is left untouched.
But a war chest of savings, redirected into the massive channel expansion Dyke pushed through could, longer-term, create an even more powerful BBC presence. Note that BBC 3 and 4 are staying in the family of television centre.
By Maggie Brown