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BBC linear shutdown is a symptom of a pubcaster in crisis

The BBC has announced a number of major cost-cutting measures as it looks to modernise – where have we heard this before?

The decision to shift factual channel BBC Four and kids network CBBC to online-only has a touch of déjà vu about it to the linear shutdown of BBC Three in 2016 and its subsequent relaunch earlier this year.

This latest announcement however feels more decisive though. In 2022, the BBC is facing a government that is outwardly hostile; a government which has pulled the plug on its major funding source and a culture secretary who has accused the organisation of having “an impartiality problem” (though at least BBC execs can take solace in the fact that she also isn’t fond of rival pubcaster Channel 4 either.)

The simple fact for the BBC is that it will have to make £2.5 billion worth of cuts in the next five years as a result of the licence fee abolishment. On top of this it is struggling in the attention economy to compete with global streaming services – both in video and audio.

For the BBC, It is going to get worse before it gets better. If it gets better.

A mountain to climb

You could understand director general Tim Davie being disturbed by events that have occurred since his appointment in early 2020.

On top of all the drama surrounding the licence fee and ongoing spats with the government, the broadcaster has also had the little matter of the Covid-19 pandemic to deal with. 

British television screenwriter and director Russell T Davies

But while the public services provided by the Beeb during the height of lockdown such as fitness classes, should have emboldened public support for the broadcaster, much of the recent focus from viewers and creators has shifted towards saving Channel 4 from privatisation. 

One such TV personality who has admitted defeat is the It’s A Sin showrunner Russell T. Davies, who will return for his second stint at the helm of the BBC’s iconic Doctor Who later this year. In 2021, Davies admitted that he had “given up fighting for the BBC” and accused the Tory government of being “morally and profoundly opposed to the BBC.”

“I’ll be 60 soon, I had the best of it, well done, bye bye,” he jokingly told presenter Gaby Roslin on her podcast.

But Davies is right – the BBC is changing and it’s hard to envision a future in which it has the same prevalence as it historically has had. Of course, the BBC will still have global brand recognition and prestige, but the gap between it and the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Disney is only going to widen in one direction.

What’s being done

But in spite of the difficulties facing the organisation, Davie is at least remaining an optimistic figure.

Announcing the measures which will see BBC Four and CBBC go online, along with 1,000 staff cuts in the coming years and the merging of national and international news networks, Davie described an overall shift in approach to something more modern.

“This is our moment to build a digital-first BBC. Something genuinely new, a Reithian organisation for the digital age, a positive force for the UK and the world. Independent, impartial, constantly innovating and serving all,” he said. “A fresh, new, global digital media organisation which has never been seen before. 

“Driven by the desire to make life and society better for our licence fee payers and customers in every corner of the UK and beyond. They want us to keep the BBC relevant and fight for something that in 2022 is more important than ever. To do that we need to evolve faster and embrace the huge shifts in the market around us.”

Tim Davie

And while he initially opposed the move away from the licence fee as the BBC’s form of funding, the exec this week said that he is “open minded” about new forms of funding.

Speaking to politicians at a House of Lords Committee session, Davie said he is “open minded” about the future of the annual charge, adding that the focus is not on the “funding mechanic” but ensuring the corporation’s content is “available to all” and retains its “values”.

The BBC is already taking a more international approach, expanding its streaming efforts internationally. Also this week, the broadcaster struck a deal with Canal+ in Poland to launch BBC Player in the country via its commercial arm BBC Studios. 

With the new digital first BBC, we should expect to see more deals like this emerge across Europe and beyond. This is partly due to the BBC having more commercial flexibility internationally, but also as it has greater manoeuvrability to partner with local operators and target markets with large expat audiences.

So while there are echoes of 2016 in the news of the BBC’s shift of linear networks to online, the BBC is undergoing a much more radical transformation as a result of multiple external and internal factors. 

The BBC, like the Royal family, is an institution known around the world and celebrated for its contributions to British and international society. However, like the Royal family as we approach the platinum jubilee, change is inevitable. There’s a good chance that by the time the BBC’s charter runs out in 2027 we will have a new monarch, and as the faces on our bank notes change it is inevitable that the face of the BBC will also be radically different from what we have known for the past century.

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