Tuesday, 12 October 2010

BBC Trust chair notes "the absence of a coherent digital [radio] strategy"

On 8 September 2010, Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the BBC Trust, and Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, appeared before the government’s Culture, Media & Sport Committee. They were asked about BBC radio policy by a committee member:

David Cairns: It will be brief because it is about radio. Clearly the [BBC Radio] 6 decision has come and gone. Where does this leave you? There seems to be a slight divergence between the Trust and the executive on the vibrancy and distinctiveness of the offer. You wanted to close Radio 6 to make [Radios] 1 and 2 more distinctive. Now 6 is staying open, so a couple of headlines on where we are in terms of the strategy in radio, with particular reference to 1 and 2?

Sir Michael Lyons: It isn’t part of the Government’s structure that the Trust and the Director General have to agree on everything and indeed we’ve had some criticism for not more frequently exposing to public scrutiny the debates which do take place, which are often challenging. I think getting the balance of that right between how much of that discussion is open is I think a matter for reflection.

Now let’s turn to the strategic review: the Trust rejected the proposal to close BBC 6 in its current form believing that the arguments didn’t stand up as a result of the consultation analysis we’ve done. But what that proposal did do was to bring into really quite sharp relief the two big strategic issues sitting behind it. The first of those – the greater distinctiveness of Radio 1 and Radio 2 – very much the subject of the service reviews that the Trust had undertaken earlier in the year, requiring both stations to work more energetically to distinguish themselves from each other and to serve a rather different audience demographic.

The second issue, of course, is the absence of a coherent digital strategy – not an issue for the BBC alone because it immediately brings in the issue of where the Government stands on DAB radio for the future. So where we are at the moment is the Director General is now working on both of those issues, recognising those are the big issues, the big strategic issues, and 6 continues perhaps for ever but certainly until both of those big issues are clear to us.

Mark Thompson: I think Michael answered that very clearly. We have had, I believe, a real success with our television portfolio, including our digital channels, in helping encourage the public to move from analogue to digital television. We are not alone in that, Sky has done a great deal to help with that and so have others. But we know that our digital television channels have made a significant difference in people wanting to take digital television up. We have yet to see the same level of success with digital radio. We are very committed to digital radio. We support the Government’s and indeed the previous Government’s ambitions around moving towards analogue-to-digital switchover in radio as well. The challenge for the BBC is coming up with a portfolio of services which firstly encourages people to sign up on digital radio, but in ways which support the rest of the radio market rather than producing adverse competition.

We need to make sure that the core mainstream channels, like Radio 1 and Radio 2, are sufficiently distinctive, are really doing something different from their commercial counterparts, but also that we have a range of attractive but also distinctive new digital services.

So I think this is a hard Sudoku. It’s not absolutely straightforward because there are a number of different things going on, and I take the BBC Trust’s response on 6 Music I think in the way it is intended which is there are bigger things at stake here. Go back and look at the broad radio strategy and that’s what we’re doing at the moment.

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On 14 September 2010, Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, appeared before the government’s Culture, Media & Sport Committee. He was
asked by a committee member about progress with digital radio switchover:

Damian Collins: There was a report in the press this morning claiming that a report to your Department has been published today by the Consumer Expert Group, saying that 2015 is too early as a target date for digital radio switchover, and even questioning the consumer demand for it. I wonder what your views are on that?

Mr Hunt: On 8 July Ed Vaizey published a digital radio action plan. We made it very clear that we think when it comes to radio, the future is digital. We aspire to the 2015 date but there need to be some changes in consumer patterns of radio consumption before we would agree to a switch-off of the analogue spectrum. Those include a greater-than-50% market share for digital radio listening. At the moment it is about 25% and DAB is only 16%. It includes, for national radio stations, coverage that is as good as FM and, for local stations, 90% coverage and coverage on all major roads. So until we are confident that those conditions are met, we won’t be signing the bit of paper that says there will be switchover in 2015.

Damian Collins: But do you still see 2015 as a date the industry should be aiming for?

Mr Hunt: I hope that we can deliver it by then but they need to work much harder to persuade consumers of the benefits of digital radio. I would much rather this was a process similar to the transition from records to CDs and from CDs to iPods, which was driven by changes in consumer behaviour, rather than something that we change as a sort top-down mechanism.


[these transcripts are uncorrected and are not yet an approved formal record of proceedings]

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