The new Director-General, Tim Davie gave his introductory speech last week. Whilst some thought his sentiments were bold, others welcomed the proposed changes with open arms. 

We take a look at five of his key messages, and explore the universal challenges facing UK broadcasters.

  1. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to fund programming 

“Looking to the future, and at the success of initiatives like Britbox in the US, there are big opportunities to develop direct-to-consumer services in news, video and audio across the globe.”

There are no two ways about it – 2020 has been one of the most challenging years for broadcasters to date.

The growing reluctance to fund the BBC through a compulsory licence fee left some hoping Davie would scrap the fee after 2027 and shift to a subscription-based, opt-in model. But Davie rejected a subscription model, instead proposing commercial funding and partnerships much like the model used for BBC Studios to boost funds; citing partnerships with ITV (Britbox) and BBC Worldwide, which earned around £243 million in 2019

Similarly, commercialised television is facing funding challenges. Broadcasters have certainly taken a hit in the recent months – notably, last week we saw ITV lose their FTSE 100 title. COVID has struck down TV ad revenue at an enormous pace, and ITV shares have fallen by 60% in the year to date. 

With a global recession fast approaching, the future of funding broadcasters is even more unclear. Smart thinking and innovative approaches will be required to secure funding, and create new revenue streams.

2. Which eggs to put in which basket? The tension between linear and on demand 

We are well across the bridge from linear to on-demand, but we will be in a hybrid world for decades to come. We have no short-term plans to shut channels or radio networks. I think it would be silly to close the shop windows that showcase our work to millions.”

It’s not a new challenge for broadcasters, but with incomes diminishing, allocating funds to the most profitable services could prove challenging. We’ve seen the decline in linear media consumption over the past decade, with younger audiences spending more TV time on SVOD and OTT services. But linear still provides a vital service, especially for older audiences. 

Davie’s ‘hybrid’ concept argues linear and OTT shouldn’t be seen as two separate services – instead positioning OTT as an ‘extension’ of linear TV. The BBC have categorically said that Davie’s introduction marks the end of its linear expansion; which perhaps assumes that the recent speculation of bringing back BBC Three to linear TV won’t be going ahead? But as we know, the online, on-demand world is an increasingly challenging place to compete.

Moving forward it will be interesting to see how broadcasters bridge the perceived gap between OTT and linear.

3. The need to be flexible in any environment – including global pandemics

“And when we get it right, as we did so often in these Covid-stricken times, audiences come to us in huge numbers – whether that be local and national news coverage, landmark dramas, our remarkable Bitesize educational offer, or our ambitious coverage of events like VJ day that bring us together.”

The pandemic, as we all know, has required organisations to adapt and change at great pace. Indeed, those who were able to adapt fast have been rewarded. 

The BBC quickly adapted to COVID, where other broadcasters may have struggled. ‘Retro’ EastEnders episodes were shown in place of its usual slot on BBC One whilst filming was suspended, and press conferences and news interviews adapted via Zoom (with a few ‘technical difficulties’ along the way). The BBC was also praised for the accuracy of its  health information and educational programming (in the midst of a nation attempting to home-school) by the culture secretary Oliver Dowden. It became the public service the nation needed at a time of crisis. As such, the BBC’s relevancy grew amidst the pandemic, seeing surging audience figures and growing public trust as audiences turned to the national broadcaster in a time of national crisis.

We saw other broadcasters adapting too. Channel 4’s show with Steph McGovern traded the studio for her living room to keep to schedule, and Jamie Oliver hosted a cooking show from his larder. ITV hosted Sheriden Smith’s series of short dramas named ‘Isolation Stories’, and they recently announced that  I’m A Celebrity will now take place in a (supposedly haunted) Welsh castle.

Adapting the offering to remain relevant during the most ‘unprecedented times’ isn’t crisis-management anymore, it’s a necessity. Keeping up with what is needed by the public in real-time is becoming increasingly important. Making quick decisions within commissions as well as keeping its marketing relevant is the major challenge that broadcasters will have moving forward. The world is changing quicker than ever before, and broadcasters have the difficult job of keeping up without missing a beat. 

4. Choosing between ‘big budget content’ over ‘content for everyone’ 

“But the truth is that we have tried to cope with increasing competition by making more and spreading ourselves too thinly.”

Davie called for a new mentality – shifting more money into the big-win programmes, and cutting back on the breadth of content the BBC produces. For an organisation whose remit is to serve everyone in the UK, this was a bold statement to make, and certainly an interesting one. 

If the ‘Tiger King’ stage of lockdown didn’t reaffirm it, nothing will: content is still the reigning monarch. Tiger King broke the record for the most-watched title on Netflix for the longest time period, holding the top spot for 15 consecutive days. 

Injecting more funding into tried-and-tested audience grabbers like Line of Duty, Blue Planet 2, and Normal People feels sensible for the BBC, but it’s not the strategy every broadcaster is taking. 

Sky has gradually been producing more specific, genre-led channels with clear propositions. Sky Crime launched last year, and Sky Comedy launched in February 2020 – suggesting Sky are seeing great benefits from their wide-ranging portfolio. The Sky Crime channel proposition was born out of the UK’s resurgence of our true crime obsession in 2019. Last year was the year of true crime, and whether it was podcasts, documentaries or docuseries – we couldn’t get enough. With less linear TV viewing, having clear propositions which represent different moods and genres creates easy viewing decisions. Having decisions made for you on linear TV can sometimes be easier than endlessly scrolling through Netflix. 

There are some difficult decisions for where broadcasters choose to put their money moving forwards. Ensuring budgets are in place to fund big-wins, but also serving the nation’s interests and needs, is a tricky balance to get right. 

5. The ever-growing demand for diversity 

“Seeking a wider spectrum of views, pushing out beyond traditional political delineations and finding new voices from across the nation. We have begun this work but we can go further. I want staff to spend much more time outside the BBC listening to those who pay for us.”

The ongoing battle for authentic and representative diversity has only heightened this year. BLM has shone a harsh light on the realities of how much further the media landscape has to go to fairly represent the entirety of the UK

Channel 4 are ramping up their POC (people of colour)  representation with ‘Black Takeover Day’ to be held on the anniversary of the death of George Floyd. Audiences will see flagship programmes such as Celebrity Gogglebox, Countdown and Hollyoaks all presented by and starring black talent. 

But interestingly, political diversity was a stronger theme in Davie’s opening speech. Earlier this month, Ofcom awarded a licence to a new channel under the name ‘GB News’ – a Fox-style news channel to rival the “the out-of-touch incumbents” at the BBC.

The BBC is no stranger to criticism to a perceived lack of political partiality. In his address, Davie highlighted that the impartiality agenda isn’t about neutrality – it’s about digging deeper from alternative political directions in order to offer a balanced argument. Whilst there are still continuous calls for more diversity in ethnicity, gender identity and LGBTQ+ representation, Davie admits that many in the UK are yearning for political diversity too. 

What does all this mean for broadcasters?

While we’d all happily never hear the word ‘unprecedented’ ever again, we can’t ignore how much the pandemic has forced UK broadcasters to focus their budgets carefully. The future of commercialised television may be uncertain as we’ve seen how quickly brands are willing to pull ads, and the increasing pressure to adapt to ‘the new normal’ may completely alter the shape of broadcasting permanently. It will be interesting to see which direction each of the different broadcasters will take. The challenge of continuously maintaining relevant to audiences, in real-time is a gamble without increased research and strategy. Insight will certainly be paving the way for broadcasters for the rest of 2020 and into 2021. 

You can read Tim Davie’s Introductory speech in full here.