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BBC Video Ruling Won’t Save Local Press, Will Throttle Auntie

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The rejection of the BBC’s proposal to add video bulletins to its local sites is another ruling from a regulator all too keen to keep Auntie in her box – but it’s not a rescue rope for the troubled local newspaper business.

On the one hand, the BBC is asked to better connect with its grassroots audiences – as the trust noted even today, users want “better local and regional services” – but, having shot for the same target with an eye on younger, digital audiences, the broadcaster has been told instead to make more and better TV and radioan ideological divide has opened between the corporation and its clamper-in-chief.

Whether it’s ordering the closure of education site BBC Jam with the loss of around 200 jobs or scaling back iPlayer series stacking, in the two years since its inception, the BBC Trust has gained a track record for restricting BBC innovation, mostly aiming to protect commercial media in a manner than makes the Beeb’s place in the pecking order plain – the broadcaster can only launch a substantive digital initiative if someone else hasn’t got there first.

Local publishers have undoubtedly dominated their domestic markets for many years – but, with younger audiences splintering either away or to the web, many have so far been unable to produce basic online text offerings with any real panache or profit. So why should they be expected to move in to video, the BBC‘s core territory but one alien to print hacks, with any greater success?

The trust struck against the BBC because its incursion in to print’s territory would have harmed native publishers at this precarious time. By the same argument, should ITV (LSE: ITV) – whose own regional TV news is crumbling – also feel threatened by newspaper websites’ emergence in to moving pictures? That the BBC is barred from continuing its core expertise, video, while local newspapers begin working out how to use a HD camera has a certain irony about it.

Note that this proposal was not for a new service but for an addition to a local service that has been publishing local text for about the last six years – should BBC Local, the former Where I Live, which competes more directly on newspapers’ key ground, now be disbanded altogether? There’s no mention of it.

Though Trinity Mirror (LSE: TNI) and others had lobbied hard against BBC Local, its curtailment far from assures local news media of their future. With some publishers only now truly reforming for the digital age, the economy is biting hard and, regardless of the BBC’s proposal, may yet kill off several titles all by itself. Trinity, Johnston, Newsquest, DMGT, INM and Illiffe have all announced either layoffs, restructures or pay freezes in the last few weeks. But, even if they can weather the gathering economic storm to emerge reformed and leaner for the online future, it’s unclear, when they return, whether they will find an audience of loyal local followers still hanging around or upwardly mobile web users who have long since left for fresh media pastures.

The BBC Trust and Ofcom could have looked at the local newspaper market through the prism of a likely market failure. They had an opportunity to respond to both the industry’s own structural deficiencies and the economic effects it is feeling, by encouraging the BBC to step in to a local media market that is slowly dissipating, using the public service to address and shore up a readership that’s fast changing…

They had the option of ordering each BBC Local site to syndicate their videos to online papers in their local market, for free – thereby absolving the publishers of multimedia investment costs, benefiting from the broadcaster’s core competency in audiovisual and making Auntie in to a production engine that enriches not just her viewers directly but also the commercial operators which the trust seeks to protect.

Instead, the local publishers are free of BBC expansionism but left to fend for themselves, still struggling regardless with the ongoing burden of both online investment and rapidly diminishing returns.

4 Responses to “BBC Video Ruling Won’t Save Local Press, Will Throttle Auntie”

  1. Providing quality information to local communities in order to improve public life is at the core of the BBC purpose. The Trusts's decision shows that they have lost touch with the founding principles of Reith. I wholeheartedly agree with this article, the kiss-n-tell gossip of the local online rag wasn't relevant to the BBC's proposal. They missed the point.

  2. Keith Geddes

    Well, how interesting. For a start, I, as a licence payer, isnt everyone… didnt know the BBC Trust has only been in existence for 2 years.. we.. WE pay for it I guess.. DO WE NEED yet another overblown body to tell others what to do?
    Trusts are usually heirachies that say THEY arent to blame, and tell the underlings off.. BUT HOW MUCH? This is more rediculous than planning to sell the studio resources off.. was THAT their idea too? WHAT is left of the BBC and what are we paying for?
    I bet many still dont know the BBCs trasmitter network was sold to a texan concern in 1997? They bragged about it, but.. WHERE did that money go? Shareholders? Whole things stinks and they carry on and we pay more.. apparently via Capita, do they still collect the licence money? WHY??
    I was a tv service engineer on the other end of the trade.. not being able to answer to my customers asking why does their sound go up and down.. IT STILL DOES and BBCNews.. someone cant get the balance or the mic switching right even now. WORLD CLASS..?? Or is it all digital now and is that why? So now its the TRUST and not THE BOARD is it…more and more expense.. and less production……………..

  3. James Goffin

    There seems to be a commentator consensus that regional newspaper publishers are miserly dinosaurs while the BBC is a thrusting innovator that is being unfairly shackled.
    It tends to sidestep the fact that the BBC has a fat guaranteed income stream that isn't being cannablised by moving from a paid content model to free to view, or being diminished by smaller per reader advertising rates online compared to print, or being decimated by the move of key classified income to advertiser-owned websites (particularly in property).
    Ad-supported content depends on a critical mass of users to be viable. The BBC – with massive free cross-media promotional power – can capture those users and prevent anyone else entering the market without needing to worry about how to pay for it in the interim. How much would it cost for a commercial outfit to buy the kind of free advertising doled out to the iPlayer?
    The proposed supply of video material to newspaper sites was of a selection of finished, branded packages; how generous to allow newspapers to give free advertising – and distributed bandwith – to the BBC and to become reliant on them for content. (And Nick Davies worries about churnalism and relying on single agency sources…)
    The Where I Live / Local sites have already been largely disbanded, removing cinema, events listings and other content that was already provided commercially. What is left is generally shallower and more feature-driven then most newspaper sites.
    The core reason the Trust gave for it's preliminary view was not, though, about the commercial impact.
    It said that audiences would not be well served by the development – it didn't reflect the demands of the existing audience and wouldn't be attractive to new, younger, audiences.
    It is £68m that could be better spent elsewhere to benefit the majority of licence fee payers, not indulge the fetishes of BBC management.

  4. Nick Thomas

    Spot on, Robert. This is a massive missed opportunity for the old media industry to benefit from the BBC's competence and experience. If they had lobbied for a partnership giving them access to BBC content they might finally have had some must-see local video on their sites – for free.

    A strange message is being sent here about how Ofcom and the BBC Trust view the BBC's role. Contrary to what today's ruling suggests, the BBC is not a TV or radio broadcaster, it's a multi-platform content creator and distributor, and a world-leading one at that. It could also provide platform opportunities to less well-funded content partners. But that's less likely now, and it's the end users, the audience, who will miss out.