These are tricky times for the UK’s terrestrial broadcasters. It’s
not just that the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are under siege, as
they battle for a positive press and the share of coverage and attention
for their programmes. The real problem is that they are caught with one
foot in the past, at a time of rapid transition.
It’s no accident that there’s a great deal of heart searching, and
changes in both corporate communications and programme publicity
policies at all these networks, with a more targeted, less scattergun
approach winning favour.
BBC Television controller of publicity Sally Osman who, since arriving
in February, has reorganised her 100-strong PR team, says: ’We have got
to be much much smarter. But, while being more strategic, we also have
to promote the range of output. That’s what the BBC is about.’
At Channel 4 the aim of chief press officer Matt Baker, who heads a team
of 20, is for it to be ’the most talked about, noisiest TV channel’. But
it is also taking the lead from the BBC and Channel 5 in being more
There have also been issues, such as the alleged fabrication of
documentaries, which all the networks have been anxious to play
At ITV the network centre has taken Channel 5’s lead in deciding which
handful of key programmes to throw resources behind with on-screen
Apart from that ITV head of press Carol Millward only uses outside PR
agencies in exceptional circumstances.
ITV is also beefing up its in-house lobbying operations, with the
appointment of Nicola Howson, from Flextech, as director of corporate
But the degree of rethinking going on explains why the influential Royal
Television Society’s Cambridge Broadcasting Convention this summer had a
session on branding, chaired by Greg Dyke, the BBC director general
designate. This built on the first session on PR and marketing at last
year’s Edinburgh Television Festival.
Multi-channel television - with up to 120 channels, tiers of
subscription, and pay-per-view - is available to more than 30 per cent
of the population, with blanket coverage now the Government’s policy
objective for 2010.
The ultra-competitive market created has totally changed conditions,
including the cost of buying key strands, star talent, writers, films
and sporting events. The BBC has doubled its sports spend in the last
five years, but you’d never know it from the outcry when it has failed
to renegotiate contracts, such as Test Match cricket.
Meanwhile ITV, under the guidance of network chief executive Richard
Eyre, is well advanced on a fairly successful damage limitation exercise
to reverse the decline and push up audience share to 39 per cent this
year, but only within a carefully defined period of prime time viewing,
freed of the News at Ten.
Apart from Channel 5, traditional broadcasters have all started their
own niche services in a bid to hold on to their dominance, with varying
degrees of enthusiasm and financial commitment.
But at the heart of the terrestrial network’s dilemma, is the fact they
are still expected to cater for the majority who pay the licence fee (at
pounds 101, above the crucial pain barrier of pounds 100), and do not
have the multi-channel option.
So they labour under heavy regulation, while watching key groups such as
young families with children, migrate across to digital. They are
pumping out mixed schedules, containing religion, children’s programmes
and news and current affairs, as required. But the commercial channels
are increasingly chafing at restrictions, hence the big increase in
lobbying, and programmers veering towards a pure entertainment schedule
in peak time, typified by ITV’s scheduling of Who Wants to be a
Millionaire? - while the BBC, especially BBC1, is being asked to
redefine itself as an aspirational public service broadcaster, aiming
just above peoples’ heads.
How do you communicate all of this? ’It’s hard, very labour-intensive
work,’ says Osman, who points out that she has no money for marketing
programmes, and that the use of outside agencies is rare. She says the
plus side is that there are huge numbers of magazines and papers eager
to fill pages, whatever the editorial columns are saying.
One of the biggest communications tasks for the BBC this year has been
the consultation over proposals for its new digital services. The
proposals are controversial: they include a new children’s channel,
interactive content for its existing BBC Knowledge channel, an on-line
news service for schools, and its own electronic programme guide, to
help viewers around.
The proposals are not costed. But they are designed to flesh out its
case for a ’buoyancy’ of income, rather than the current, broadly static
position, in order to flourish in the new digital environment.
The consultation runs alongside another launched by the Department of
Culture, Media and Sport on the Davies review panel report, ’Funding the
BBC’, published in August, which recommended a mixture of ’self help’,
more transparent finances, and a tapered digital fee for households as
they connect, providing an extra pounds 150-pounds 200 million a year -
at best a third of what the BBC asked for. It has been snubbed.
The PR challenges faced by the BBC were immense. The commercial sector
united in opposition against the digital fee, saying it would slow
take-up. The latest stance is that the Government is preparing to scrap
plans for a digital TV levy and restore the link between the standard
licence fee and inflation.
There is also outrage among dedicated commercial channels such as
Nickelodeon and Fox Kids over the proposed children’s channel. Meanwhile
commercial broadcasters are also mocking the BBC’s claims of poverty.
They say its duties must be more carefully defined. There is a firm
belief the BBC is not getting enough ’bang for its buck’ as far as
programme spending goes.
However, it’s not all gloom. BSkyB’s complaint to the EC over the BBC’s
free service, News 24, has not been upheld. That’s a big boost for a
children’s channel. There are real fears about preserving the best
traditions and quality of programming in the digital age, and there
remains a basic bedrock of goodwill towards the BBC, identified by
Davies, and also obvious at a key vote at the Cambridge Broadcasting
Convention, which supported a motion that it would be adequately funded.
The BBC’s desire to stretch the licence fee ever further is also
provoking suspicion of undue empire building.
Another seminal terrestrial broadcasting event of the past year was the
well publicised ending of News at Ten, which has fed the public
perception that the quality of mainstream television is falling.
ITV won the battle for a 6.30pm Nightly News last November, after much
careful preparation and lobbying of all interest groups including
advertisers, despite the personal opposition of Tony Blair and culture
secretary Chris Smith.
The Independent Television Commission, unwilling to tie the hands of
ITV, over-rode the preferences of viewers, though only with a split
decision, believing overall the new strands of films, extended drama and
new 10pm comedy would eventually have more appeal.
But, as it turned out, it has been a (limited) public relations
disaster, in so far as opinion formers go. Even Zenith Media, as
hardnosed as any advertising air time buying house must be, says in its
current autumn TV preview ’it was not necessary’.
However, ITV’s prime time ratings rally, combined with new hits, such as
Cold Feet, and international awards for its lavish Hornblower dramas
have softened some critics.
ITV is fortunate that chief executive Richard Eyre has outstanding
qualities of diplomacy and integrity: he was selected to give TV’s
important MacTaggart lecture this year and used it as a platform to
explain that the fierce inevitability of market forces would ring the
death knell for public service broadcasting, though not kill off serious
programme making of interest to the public. Eyre will be a tough act to
follow when he leaves to slip into Dyke’s shoes at Pearson TV, but he
has also had luck.
ITV’s discomfort at the poor performance of regional programming, and
new current affairs programme, Tonight has been dwarfed by the ongoing
negative coverage of the BBC.
It has been a terrible year for the corporation on all fronts. Its
message, that the audience share of BBC1, now running permanently below
30 per cent, is not by any means the sole measure of success, has not
permeated the press. Nor has the perception that schedules rely heavily
on repeats been reversed, and the BBC’s insistence that it has lost only
three big sports events has fallen on deaf ears.
These problems have been compounded by the tortuous process of selecting
a new director general, and the now glacial speed of handover between
Sir John Birt and Dyke. Experienced communications experts outside of
the BBC say that it can only start to turn things around when Dyke is in
place, and when the organisation is certain what the core messages are
going to be. Then it may still have a lot going for it.