The BBC, a global force to be reckoned with

Article  by  Jean-Luc EYGUESIER  •  Published 28.09.2010  •  Updated 29.11.2010
 Founded in 1927, the BBC is a historic corporation that has established itself as a global benchmark in news and quality programming, active in television, radio, digital media, production, sales and the export of content.



The BBC, or British Broadcasting Corporation, is responsible for most of the public audiovisual media services in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1927, it is a historic corporation that has established itself as a global benchmark in news and quality programming.
It is active in television, radio, digital media, production, sales and the export of content.

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A model for public audiovisual media

In Great Britain, the BBC is the object of regular debates and has come under severe criticism. It has been reproached for its gigantism, bureaucracy, hegemony over the media sector, and wasting public money, but in more than 80 years of existence, the Corporation has resisted all the vagaries and changes of government, since it is also a veritable British institution, appreciated and supported by the general public.

As a result, it undoubtedly dominates the domestic market in its sector. Its two long-established television channels, BBC 1 & BBC 2 are leaders. Their challenger, the private station ITV, created in 1955, has never climbed higher than number 2. Two other analogue competitors, Channel 4 and Five are not serious rivals.

In the mid-1980s, the televisual landscape changed for the BBC with the appearance of the satellite channel Sky, whose success was based on football rights and a continuous news channel, Skynews (more than 2 million subscribers in 2009 according to its statistics).  The arrival of this serious new competitor has not eroded the BBC’s domination, however. In 2009, BBC 1 & 2 retained an annual audience share of 28.4% despite a growing number of competitors, with the “others” - the new digital and satellite channels - recording a steady rise to 41.4%[+] NoteSource: Barb – Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board. [1]. These figures can be compared to those from 1981 when the two channels obtained a 51% audience share in the face of extremely limited competition from one other channel, ITV, which therefore obtained 49% and captured an audience share of 17.8% in 2009.

The BBC’s supremacy is even more clear-cut when it comes to radio. Taking advantage of habits based on a monopoly that lasted until 1973, the BBC offered its national audience four “big” channels broadcast on FM throughout the country: Radio 1 (music for young people), Radio 2 (light music and programmes for adults), Radio 3 (classical music and highbrow cultural programmes), and Radio 4 (a reference in news and serious programmes). More recently, these have been joined by a further 6 channels for digital broadcasting and Internet. It also has a network of regional and local channels covering the entire country. In the second half of 2010, BBC radio as a whole recorded an audience share of 54.60% (with Radio 2 responsible for 15.90%) in the face of a fragmented private sector whose leading network, Heart, gained an audience share of 5.80% (source: RAJAR – Radio Joint Audience Research Limited).

To finance this continual development, the BBC relies on income from licence fees, which are high: £142.50 for each household equipped with a colour television (this rose to £145.50 in April 2010), representing a sum of £3.466 billion in 2008. Its total revenue[+] NoteLicence fees+sales revenue+subsidies…X [2] amounts to £4.79 billion (source: annual report 2009-2010). There is no advertising on the BBC’s national networks.
This money enables the corporation to invest in the quality programmes that have made its reputation as well as in light entertainment, which though perhaps less prestigious has ensured its popularity with the public.
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Recognised independence

Even though the institution is the subject of endless debate, the politicians have never interfered in the basic independence of a media protected by “Royal Charter” and a specification that is reviewed every 10 years.

Nevertheless, the history of the BBC reveals frequent spats with successive governments, those of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and then those of Tony Blair. An optimistic analysis of the situation would be that the best proof of independence is that the BBC has succeeded in making enemies of governments of every political stripe. Since the signature of the 2007 Charter, the public service is also protected structurally by a Board of Governors, called the BBC Trust. The Board appoints the Director General (Mark Thompson since 2004) and acts in a supervisory capacity over the Corporation. The Trust is explicitly responsible for guaranteeing the independence of the Corporation and representing the public interest. However, the 12 members of the Trust are appointed by the Queen upon a suggestion by the Government and although the powers-that-be cannot intervene directly in the running of the Corporation, there are many ways of exercising pressure, especially economic pressure, above all with regard to the amount of the licence fee (fixed by negotiation with the government). For example, since his appointment, Mark Thompson has had to submit several economy and staff reduction plans to the Corporation in the name of the proper management of public money. Moreover, in the name of the market and free competition – in a United Kingdom generally won over to free enterprise – the Corporation is accused of stifling and distorting the audiovisual sector. It is therefore regularly asked to reduce its activities[+] NoteSee, for example, Qui veut en finir avec le modèle de la BBC? By Jean-Claude Sergeant in Le Monde Diplomatique, July 2008.X [3].
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Influential networks: BBC World Service and transnational televisions

Outside the domestic market, the BBC World Service is the spearhead of audiovisual media policy outside the United Kingdom. Developed in the 1930s as a short-wave radio service, it is known throughout the world. The network was originally baptised “Empire Service” and its objective was to broadcast to the British colonies. Its first programmes were therefore directed at Australia, India, South and East Africa and Canada.

Today, shortwave technology has been joined by a growing number of FM relay stations in the big cities, and the Internet network. Providing programmes for “partner radios” is another way of making its presence felt in the world. For example, radio stations in the American public service NPR network have, for a long time now, been broadcasting the BBC’s international news bulletins. The same is true in Africa where the development of local FM radios is enabling the BBC World Service to increase its cover still further. According to the BBC, in 2000, 70% of its audience listened on shortwave, but this is rapidly declining. The BBC World Service gives its weekly audience as 180 million adults throughout the world.

The BBC World Service does not receive any of the money from the licence fees. Its operating budget is attributed through government subsidy (via the FCO, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and amounted to 268 million pounds sterling in 2009/2010. The Government determines its major development choices such as the languages used, but officially, the BBC retains its editorial independence.

Today, the World Service broadcasts in English and 31 other languages. The choice of languages reflects the developments of global geopolitics and London’s diplomatic interests. In 2005, most of its services in Central and Eastern European languages were dropped. Considered as essential during the Soviet era, they barely survived the fall of the Iron Curtain and European integration. This development has been to the advantage of new “buoyant” zones such as Central Asia and has strengthened strategic zones such as the Chinese, Arab and Persian-speaking communities.

Amongst other major developments, for example, the Government and BBC World Service have decided to branch out into transnational television. The first of these channels, BBC Arabic Television was launched in March 2008 and has been broadcasting 24/24h since January 2009.

A Persian-language TV service, BBC Persian TV, was launched in January 2009 and is currently broadcasting 8 hours a day to Iranian, Afghan and Tajik audiences. These developments have been paid for in part by an increase in Government subsidies, but the BBC World Service is also seeking to make savings: the virtual abandon of European languages is one (the Romanian service disappeared in 2009) and relocation is another solution. 2010 saw the transfer to Dakar in Senegal of part of the BBC Africa editorial team (the last French-language service broadcasting to Africa).

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New media challenge the home/abroad distinction

Although the BBC World Service came late to television, one transnational TV news channel bucked this trend: BBC World News, a 100% news channel broadcasting in English that has proved a serious competitor to CNN. Created in 1995, it drew on the reputation of BBC news though it had to self-finance in order not to be a drain on licence fee revenues (reserved for financing the British public service). Its funds come from advertising revenue and the rights paid by the cable and satellite stations that use its programmes.

On the same economic model, the BBC broadcasts widely on thematic channels that benefit from its know-how, catalogue and the BBC “brand”: BBC Entertainment (ex BBC Prime), BBC Lifestyle, Animal Planet and People+Arts, etc. In 1998, with the aim of making a profit from its programme catalogue, it launched BBC America for the United States and, in 2001, BBC Canada.
A public service broadcaster in the United Kingdom, the BBC sells itself abroad as a “premium” network and prestigious brand. To handle all these commercial developments, the Corporation has created a private law structure, BBC Worldwide, which also deals with programme sales, and the distribution of around fifty magazines, newspapers, etc. It is a profitable business: the subsidiary recorded a profit of 145.2 million pounds in 2009/2010, an increase of 36% compared to the previous year, money that adds to the revenue of the BBC.

The BBC website, BBC Online, launched in 1997, has blurred the distinction between home/abroad a little further and therefore receives mixed funding. The BBC devoted almost £200 million to it last year. It is reputed for its “news” section that features reports produced by the network and sometimes complete news programmes. BBC Online has become a portal for accessing programmes on demand. Over and above the usual pages (programme schedules, weather, financial information etc.) BBC Online offers a whole range of sub-sites: for children, English-language learning, British short films, recipes and gardening tips. BBC Online has just relaunched its “travel” site in collaboration with the Editor of the Lonely Planet guides, bought by the BBC in 2007.

BBC Online is classed world N°2 in the “news” category by the Web analysis company, Alexa[+] Note Taking all categories together, it is 6th in Great Britain after Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and YouTubeX [4] and has 27 million unique users each week[+] NoteAnnual Report 2009/1020X [5]. These results have led to recurring accusations of hegemony. As early as 2004, the GRAF Report, commissioned by the Government underlined the risks of the site expanding and its negative influence on the emerging market[+] Note [6]. Following this Report, the BBC closed several sections, but in 2010, the question resurfaced with a vengeance.

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A hegemonic institution?

2000-2010 was marked by the development of digital and at the same time, of offers from the BBC. On Freeview, the terrestrial digital system, the BBC has nine television channels whilst Internet and DAB offer ten national BBC radio stations.

Accusations of hegemony and anticompetitive behaviour to the detriment of the private market are nothing new, but have increased considerably in recent years. Free market supporters and the right-wing press never miss an opportunity to point to the shortcomings of the “State monster”. In 2009, at the Edinburgh television festival, James Murdoch, Vice-President of his father’s News Corp. Conglomerate and President of BskyB (Sky’s satellite offer) launched a full frontal attack on the public service broadcaster, stating that if state broadcasting continues to exist, it must be on a ”far far smaller scale”, since “the scale and scope of its (the BBC’s) current activities and future ambitions are “chilling”, and “the expansion of State-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision

More worrying for the Corporation, is the fact that Labour Culture Minister, Ben Bradshaw, seems to share this opinion. “The BBC has reached the limits of what is reasonable”, he suggests, putting forward the idea of a partial redistribution of the licence fee to finance the creation of local television and a reform of the BBC-Trust, the control body, considered too ready to comply with the Management
[+] Note [7].

But it is doubtless the prospect of a Conservative victory in general elections – a victory that came to pass in 2010 –, which incited the BBC to introduce anticipatory restrictive measures. The Conservatives are traditionally critical towards the BBC and very sensitive to the arguments put forward by Sky, the print press controlled by News Corp.
[+] NoteIn Great Britain: The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, News of the WorldX [8] and the private sector in general.

Mark Thompson therefore introduced a plan to “do fewer things better”, a strategy defined in a March 2010 document called “Putting Quality First”, which was submitted to the BBC Trust, the Corporation’s regulation body, for examination and approval. The BBC has put forward a vast economy drive wherein 600 million pounds could be rechannelled into “high quality” programmes.

The list of measures includes a salary freeze, the suspension of bonuses for top management (salary levels have been severely criticised), and a reduction in scale of the Internet site whose budget would be reduced by 25%. The BBC has also suggested closing two digital radio stations, BBC Asian Network and BBC 6 Music, for which audience figures remain confidential. In July 2010, the Trust accepted most of the reforms put forward by the BBC Management, with the notable exception of the shutting down of Radio 6 Music, stating that the case had not been made for its closure
[+] NoteBBC proposals to its Trust can be found on:, as well as the Trust’s provisional response in July 2010: [9].     

It was undoubtedly large-scale mobilisation by listeners that saved Radio 6. The Facebook campaign “Save 6 Music” attracted 180,000 followers and the Trust received 50,000 online messages during the public consultation phase. 78% of these were about 6 Music. The case is already being seen as a victory for social media.

However, the horizon is not completely unclouded for the BBC. Jeremy Hunt, the new Minister of Culture, continues to talk about waste and reducing the licence fee, linking it to the austerity measures taken by the Government
. The agenda favours negotiations. The licence fee will have to be renegotiated from 2011 (to be applied as from 2012), whilst the mandate of Sir Michael Lyons, President of the Trust, expires next spring and he has already announced that he does not wish to renew it.
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Against the background of a United Kingdom hard hit by the economic crisis, the BBC is preparing to live through times which if not difficult, will be agitated to say the least. The Conservative Government denies any hostility but is multiplying its threats and remains largely favourable to the arguments of the private sector. It sees the media and audiovisual production as a sector with potential for growth...if the BBC doesn’t put a spoke in the wheels. Moreover, having introduced a vast austerity plan, it will certainly attempt to introduce a popular measure in the shape of lowering the licence fee. The Corporation will certainly agree to a few sacrifices (reduction of personnel, budget and activities?). For several years now, the BBC has been adopting restrictive measures without altering the service provided in any noticeable way, which would seem to show that it does possess room for manoeuvre. There remains the highly political question of limits: to what extent can it economise, what can it sacrifice, without losing its identity? In view of the longstanding nature of the complaints and ideas for reform that are put to it, we can count on the heavy machine to play the passive resistance card to the full. It also has heavyweight allies. In the vanguard are the British themselves who are very attached to their public service. A recent ICM/Guardian opinion poll assures us that 77% of British people are proud of the BBC. 63% think it represents “good value for money”.

On a political level, the Conservatives are in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats who could oppose any drastic measure that seriously threatens the BBC. As for the Labour Party, now in opposition, they have already made safeguarding the BBC a unanimous cause. Lastly, no politician seems to want to seriously challenge a British institution that is so important not only in the United Kingdom, but also abroad.

And it is abroad, preserved from internal political quarrels, that the BBC remains a strong world brand and a benchmark in quality news and programming. It also benefits from being broadcast in English all over the world, a lingua franca whose correct use it dictates. Its main commercial successes (programme sales, setting up channels, etc.) are in the developed world, but the growth of emerging countries and their media sectors is opening up fresh prospects.

Nonetheless, this development has another side to it: the development of media represents stiff competition for the BBC, in particular as a global broadcaster. Studies by the Word Service show a clear drop in audience figures in the two test countries, India and Nigeria, where political and economic liberalisation has encouraged the emergence of a network of strong local media. In this respect, the appearance of big regional groups producing news and programmes that are better adapted to the audience could be the biggest threat. An example would be the increasingly powerful Arab media that the BBC are now trying to beat on their own ground with the launch of a dedicated TV station. In Great Britain, as in the rest of the world, it is the ability of the BBC to remain popular, attracting the biggest audience that is at stake, faithful to the last to the founding principles and ambitions of the Empire.

(Translated by Elisabeth Guill)
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Key Data

Countries: United Kingdom
Status: Public company
Turnover (total income): 4,790 million pounds in 2009/10
Number of employees: 17238 (2006: 18860)
President of the Trust: Sir Michael Lyons
Director General: Mark Thompson
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