Sunday, February 23, 2014

Will BBC World Service raise 8 million quid with adverts?

BBC Global News wants to raise £8 million by putting adverts into various BBC World Service radio services, about 3.2% of the current BBC World Service budget. As from April 1st 2014, funding switches from the UK Foreign Office to the BBC Licence Fee payer in the UK. And that's where the quest for 8 million may be a false priority, especially when they have no experience in commercial radio. BBC World Service points to an experiment on the Berlin BBC World Service FM relay which carries short commercials in German a few times an hour. They haven't revealed what kind of revenue this is bringing in - but it can't be much. Latest accounts show that BBC Global News Ltd which runs radio, TV and online made a loss of £800,000 last year, with £21m of losses incurred by the UK operation being mostly offset by advertising and sponsorship revenues made overseas.

So can they scale this across the range of language services at the BBC? I see some of the UK newspapers are already questioning the strategy. And Richard Sambrook, who used to be the Director of BBC News even argues that rolling news networks like BBC World News (TV) have had their day. What hope then for WS radio, which over the years has also turned into a radio news machine?

I believe the chances of raising that kind of cash on speech radio services targeting older audiences are very slim indeed. Because advertisers in many countries are searching for their younger markets using video, not audio. Like the Icelandic Tourist Board, for instance.

If they mean putting more ads on The BBC World Service language websites, then increased revenue may indeed be possible. That's because there's always a clear distinction between banner ads and editorial. And of course there are the pre-rolls which now pop up on every video news item you want. Problem is, I keep seeing the same ads all the time. I note that Turkish airlines is advertising heavily with BBC World News, the TV channel. I wonder what's going to happen if things flare up again in Istanbul. BBC Global News, which runs BBC WS Radio, World News (TV) and online lost 800,000 pounds last year. 

But you can't skip the ads on the radio. Speaking on a recent edition of the BBC World Service programme "Over to You", Mark Bunting of BBC WS Strategy, said that ads would only appear in "non-news content". He defines that as programmes on arts, history, sports, business and technology. That's all the feature genres on the BBC World Service.

So far, I have looked to tech radio programmes like Click! on BBC WS as being free of commercial influence. Is that about to change in some subtle way? Will we see "native advertising", the new term for advertorials. The BBC World News channel has run into serious trouble with incidents in the past, like the Palm Oil documentaries they aired in 2011.

The BBC World Service radio is hoping it can emulate NPR's underwriting/advertising model. But the BBC doesn't benefit from the ads run on local NPR affiliates in the US. It is already charging these stations money to carry certain BBC news programmes.

When it comes to other parts of the world, the BBC World Service relies on local re-broadcasting partners to integrate the BBC programming into their schedule. If they start charging a subscription or wanting split revenue, I expect some stations to look for free alternatives - in Africa, watch the rise of China Radio International. In countries like Tanzania, the evening TV schedule on national networks is already peppered with Chinese soaps from CCTV translated into Swahili. In the end, the BBC is not going to be able to compete with free. And if they start to take money out of local markets, expect commercial networks to put pressure on their respective governments, or even regard the BBC as a competitor rather than a colleague.  

And when it comes to the production of features, I'm seeing a lot of other production companies like DigitalRevTV are starting to produce equally good tech programming in their own niche networks. They dig much deeper than the BBC ever does. And they're reaching hundreds of thousands per edition too.

Lessons Learned:

  1. I think the BBC needs to think about its global offering in a different, coherent way. With the recent changes to its Freesat TV service for the UK, the coverage area has been considerably reduced. So why not think of a real on-line subscription service to BBC 1, 2, 3 & 4? We want the quality programmes - not endless repeats of old stuff. 
  2. I'm convinced that the answer is to find a way to build a different World Service radio schedule in English that makes much better use of the resources inside BBC domestic networks. Then add programmes that BBC domestic radio doesn't do - those with a truly international perspective - and offer them back. Do this online as well as on the radio - it has to be a truly cross-media offering. They could build various thematic audio channels taking the best of BBC radio documentaries, drama, even classical music. In the end, this is soft power. What the UK is looking for is influence in foreign countries. 
  3. The BBC needs to find fresh ways of explaining what it's doing in the 27 languages other than English, especially those languages spoken by some communities within the UK. Note how RFE/RL produces weekly briefings from the regions they serve. 

So what do you think?

The area who used to see BBC TV programmes for free (with a suitable satellite dish) until Feb 2014

The new spot beam means BBC TV programmes no longer seen via satellite in Spain, Portugal, Southern France or Italy.

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