Mark Thompson MacTaggart Lecture

Posted on August 28, 2010


Nice to see Mark Thompson using the phrase “sick bastards” in the introduction to his MacTaggart lecture at this year’s Media Festival shindig up in Edinburgh. Fighting talk. Good stuff.

Aside from the nice shock opening guaranteed to command attention right from the start, here are some of the highlights now that I’ve clawed my way through the entire thing. Whilst some of his points were about the wider television industry, you’d be a fool not to read a BBC subtext into some of them.

First up, UK license fee payers travelling (or presumably ex-pats those living abroad) will be pleased to hear of Mr Thompson’s plan for the iPlayer

At the BBC, we want to rise to the challenge. Within a year we aim to launch an international commercial version of the iPlayer. Subject to trust approval, we also want to find a way of letting UK licence fee payers and servicemen and women use a version of the UK public service iPlayer wherever they are in the world.

Then there was a fairly strong indicator of the tone in which the licence fee will be defended when negotiations open up next year:

…do not believe anyone who claims that cutting the licence fee is a way of growing the creative economy or that the loss in programme investment which would follow a substantial reduction in the BBC’s funding could be magically made up from somewhere else. It just wouldn’t happen. A pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of UK creative economy. Once gone, it will be gone for ever.

There was some flattery for both audience and programme makers alike …

We have an audience who are not just critically astute but hungry for fresh ideas. We still have programme-makers and broadcast institutions with a very particular strain of public service broadcasting pulsing through their arteries.

… and the usual (not entirely unjustified) self-referencing from recent output to underline continued skill and relevance in television output:

In the eight decades that the BBC’s existed, I don’t believe we have ever made a better, more insightful, more educational programme about opera than the one we showed this spring Tony Pappano’s Opera Italia.

The inevitable invocation of BBC One as the nation’s favourite (I must remember that just because I don’t watch it, doesn’t mean everyone else doesn’t):

People go there when major events happen elections, state occasions, the biggest sporting moments because they are used to going there. In large measure, that’s because of the popular programmes, the soaps, popular dramas and entertainment programmes which, in their own way, also chronicle and celebrate our national life and culture.

He also provided a surprise alternative definition for the term ‘public service broadcasting’

It’s about services as well as individual programmes.

… and that it’s also about ‘public space’ :

the belief that there is room for a place which is neither part of government or the state nor purely governed by commercial transactions

Phew. Quite a relief to hear that. He went on to be quite complimentary about the new coalition government ..

The new coalition government has been explicit in supporting the independence of the BBC and the Charter which underpins that independence.

.. before sharing a possible scary vision of the future from another public service broadcaster:

In Italy, politicians are threatening to insist that the public broadcaster should disclose the amounts it pays to individual artists in the end-credits of the programmes in which the artists appear.

Why stop with the artists? Why not include the entire budget as a Excel spreadsheet on the closing slide? Goodness me. What a preposterous idea.

Mark Thompson Wordle

But usefully, Mark Thompson pointed towards the public as one of the four pillars of support underpinning the BBC, providing some interesting statistics:

Across the UK population, 71% of people say they’re glad the BBC exists. Among readers of the Daily Mail, it’s 74%. The Telegraph, 82%. The Times, 83%. The Sunday Times, 85%.

That thorny issue of funding was returned to again though, with Thompson underlining the measures which have already been implemented to reduce costs and make for ‘a more distinctive BBC’. Pensions got a special mention too:

I’m determined to end up with pension arrangements which meet the test of affordability in the long-term, but which are reasonable, fair and which will apply evenly across the organisation … I don’t see how anyone could look at this process, compare it with pension reform in other organisations public or private, and still claim that we’re not prepared to grasp serious change.

Other big promises from the man at the top included:

90% of expenditure on commissioning
Overheads need to reduce by a quarter
Reduce senior management numbers by a fifth
Senior management paybill will reduce by at least a quarter
Reducing top talent pay

It’s this last bit which interests me. Over the next few years could the BBC be seen as a breeding ground for ‘new’ or ‘cost-effective’ talent who break their teeth in public service before trotting off to the commercial opportunities?

Sometimes we will lose established on-air stars as a result. When we do, we will replace them with new talent.

Where technology is concerned Mr Thompson appears to be saying all the right things …

We stand firmly on the side of open standards, plurality and choice. We want to share our breakthroughs with the rest of the industry.

Even if the cut in web services still saddens me because of the potential implications on how the web seems to be viewed – fundamentally as a distribution platform:

We expect to cut its footprint on the web very substantially, to exit some editorial areas entirely, and to reduce the amount we spend on it by 25%.

And on the subject of Sky, Mr Thompson is following an interesting path. Sky has a massive marketing budget he tells us, but it needs to invest in British content:

Our system depends on the big commercial broadcasters backing British talent – not with occasional commissions which are then lavishly marketed, but with week in, week out investment across a wide range of programmes.

And one way Sky could do that effortlessly, it seems is via a modestly described ‘modest proposal’ from Thompson. If the likes of ITV, Channel 4 and Five were able to charge retransmission fees for their output going out over Sky satellite instead of paying an EPG charge, then a considerable amount of money could be reinvested by those broadcasters back into British independent production.

Novel idea, for sure. We’re all in this together after all. At least that’s how it seems come the final call to arms …

If we want a strong industry, if we want the resources and the collective will to go on producing the best television in the world, it’s time for us to agree what really matters and then to take a leaf out of the public’s book.

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Posted in: TV