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Delays, downscaling of national fast broadband roll-out threaten BBC digitisation

UK parliamentary committee warns uncertainty over funding and regulation around national fast broadband roll-out plans threaten public broadcaster’s digitisation plans

On the heels of a National Audit Office (NAO) report casting doubt on the public broadcaster’s ability to achieve its stated aims, the UK Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned that despite its bullishness about moving to a fully digital future, the BBC currently lacks a plan for delivering its services in the digital future it envisages and must take care that no one is left behind.

The background to the PAC report is the digital transformation plan announced by the BBC in May 2022 offering a commitment to put digital first when creating content, and with a vision, said BBC director general Tim Davie, of moving decisively to a digital-first organisation that made a significant positive impact culturally, economically and socially. This would be, said Davie, one that would be a global leader driven by “the search for truth, impartiality, outstanding creativity and independence”.

To achieve its aims and ambitions, the BBC said it would be reallocating money towards content that works in the on-demand world, such as the very popular BBC iPlayer, making “tough choices” on traditional distribution, and investing more in online services. The BBC was planning for its digital services to be in at least the top three for market share in the UK in five years’ time.

Yet, in its assessment of the BBC’s ambitions and performance to date, announced in December 2022, the NAO investigated whether the organisation had the capability to deliver value to its users from its strategic technology review.

It examined whether the BBC strategy was evidence-based and supported by a practical, achievable delivery plan, and whether the BBC could demonstrate it had sufficient and appropriate resources to deliver that plan. The report also examined the BBC’s progress in implementing its digital plans so far and considered the challenges it faced.

The NAO said that overall, the BBC had a solid foundation to build on in delivering its digital-first ambitions. Its digital products were seen to be performing well against better-funded media organisations such as Netflix, and that in 2021-22, most of the BBC’s digital products achieved their targets.

However, the report found that the BBC’s digital leadership needed to evolve to deliver its strategy more effectively and accelerate its digital growth, and emphasised that it had less funding available to develop digital products than most other media organisations, many of which were digital-only.

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Such shortcomings were also highlighted by the PAC, which noted that not only does the BBC lack a plan for delivering its services in the digital future it envisages, but it is also being held back by regulatory and funding uncertainties, making it less competitive in a rapidly changing global marketplace.

In January 2023, the PAC questioned BBC senior management – Davie, along with BBC chief operating officer Leigh Tavaziva and chief product officer Storm Fagan – regarding the corporation’s capability in achieving its digital ambitions, with MPs expressing particular concern over any pushback on previously stated guarantees in how it could manage a vast increase in acquiring personal data on UK licence fee payers.

In the report, the PAC said that due to licence fee changes and inflation – the BBC now estimates it will have a nearly £400m a year funding gap by 2027 – it was not convinced that the BBC currently knows the detail of the resources needed to achieve its digital plans or whether the £500m it intends to invest annually by 2025 will be sufficient to also allow it to plan for an internet-only future. The PAC stressed that the BBC will need to move more quickly on this and in parallel develop its data security policies to ensure they are fit for purpose as the BBC collects more user data.

To achieve its goals, the PAC said the BBC must work with government and other stakeholders, including on the roll-out of broadband across the UK. IT added that the broadcaster must also overcome the challenges it faces to recruit and retain the skilled staff it needs to develop its offer so that it is secure and competitive in a global online world. It currently has a 23% turnover rate among staff in its digital section.

“The BBC has a careful and difficult balance to strike here – it has committed to an internet-only future by the 2030s but knows it is essential that there are ways for people, especially children and others who cannot or do not easily access the internet, to access its services,” said PAC chair Meg Hillier. “Licence fee payers must be able to keep our options open.

“The BBC is being held back in a yesteryear of TV and radio by uncertainty over funding and regulation, and by the DCMS Department’s constant delays and down-scaling of national fast broadband roll-out plans. The BBC fulfils an essential public service function – it must have the planning, resources and wider infrastructure support to do so.”

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