The digital challenge for broadcasters

Here in the UK, the BBC is consistently under pressure from the government and a combative press, before they have to do the regular worrying about being a legacy media operator grappling with the future. It’s something you see many public broadcasters face, including those in Europe and things like the ABC in Australia.

The current Conservative government are not really a fan of any popular, free and independent media so generally use their levers to make their lives much tougher. At the moment Channel 4 is likely to go through a bruising privatisation process, and the BBC has had its income free frozen (handy during a period when there’s spiralling inflation) whilst still having a large amount of restrictions placed on it.

The BBC’s short-term task is to find around £285m in savings, some of the results of which it announced last week. As the saying goes “never let a crisis go to waste”. Instead, it’s using the need to make big changes as cover to re-orient the corporation into being ‘digital-first’. It’s actually going to find £500m of savings and then re-direct £300m towards digital things like more iPlayer programming, money into product development and more online news.

It also used the announcement to talk about some to-happen-in-three-years network changes. The headlines are that BBC Four, the CBBC Channel and Radio 4 Extra will move off broadcast platforms and be on-line only.

These are not small endeavours, last month 17m people watched BBC Four, 4m saw CBBC and nearly 2million listen to BBC Radio 4 Extra each week.

BBC Four and 4 Extra are channels mostly made up of archive material, so having that exist on iPlayer and BBC Sounds probably makes sense. CBBC’s audience is digitally native, used to streaming, so moving the content off linear makes sense there too. They all seem sensible decisions.

In reality the channel brands of BBC Four and Radio 4 Extra will decline to very little. There won’t be much cost savings from taking them off-air, as the digital transmission fees will be the same with or without the channels. There will be some savings from losing any people that work on the channel management and scheduling. There’s also unlikely to be any new content dug out. These channels will pretty much disappear, or will just be a homepage on iPlayer and BBC Sounds driven by some judicious tagging by the metadata team.

CBBC is slightly different. As a children’s channel, they make a lot of new content from all genres and are seen as core public service propositions. CBBC’s issue will be the same one that faced BBC Three when it was taken off linear television – they lost huge awareness as its audience didn’t have iPlayer at the centre of their lives. They just missed stuff that they would have liked.

Giving up free-to-air linear TV, no matter what the audience size is, takes away a key promotional channel. BBC Three is the prime example, after being removed, it was added back on five years later! It re-started in Feb 2022 and last month reached 7.7m viewers.

There was no mention in the BBC’s announcements about marketing budgets. Of course, non-programme spend is something a public broadcaster doesn’t want to mention as it seems a waste.

In the modern media world, for all operators, awareness and discovery is the key challenge. Organisations have to use everything at their disposal to activate owned, earned and paid media to generate trial.

Traditional media companies are used to generating awareness because they have free-to-air broadcast megaphones or produce products like newspapers or magazines in a relatively constrained market. In a digital-first world much of this goes away. Consumers will not stumble into the content of your app.

In the streaming landscape Netflix, Disney and Amazon’s Prime Video dominate. Netflix invented the market, spent more money on content than anyone thought sensible and launched in every country in the world. It also had a laissez-fair attitude to password sharing – it needed everyone on its platform. Its 222million subscriptions work out at about 600m users. Its scale allows it to super-charge global content discussion. They can put the right content in front of a lot of people giving it the ability to kick-start word of mouth discussion. “Have you seen Squid Game” is much easier to take from a question to a watch, when you can have it on half a billion people’s TV home screen.

Disney+ has much of this, but it also has brands like Star Wars, Marvel and the core Disney output too. Globally it’s also a successful marketer with broadcast channels, themes parks and stores. It can make a splash when it needs to.

Over at Prime Video it hasn’t quite got the pizzaz or hits of the other two, but it sells its streaming as a benefit to 200m Prime subscribers. It can also put things in front of the 3 billion visits a month the Amazon website gets.

National media operations around the world of course don’t have the scale of these behemoths, but their challenge is to find routes to market to grab the attention of consumers.

In radio, many broadcasters are putting all the effort into their apps – BBC Sounds, Global Player, LiSTNR, iHeartradio and there are loads of others too. My worry is that much of their great content is locked away in these apps. If your app can’t reach ubiquity, is there a natural ceiling to the audience that will bop around in your playground? If all the effort is put into a single digital product to the detriment of other places, are you just transitioning from a broadcaster to a niche-caster?

Of course apps are important. Having a direct route to consumers with great data can be a boon for any business. I just think its dangerous for media companies to put all their eggs in one basket, particularly when the number of apps that become ubiquitous is super-small.

I’d love to see media companies have dual strategies. One for super-serving your consumers (the app) and one for aggressively growing reach and awareness. Something that uses a mix of content, marketing and platforms to reach and satisfy new audiences. I think this needs to be a different product to the app.

I’m not convinced that “look at this great content, it’s only in our app, download it” is the best marketing funnel, particularly for sub-scale operators. Fine if your Netflix, but I’m not sure it still works if your lower down the food chain.

Of course, for many broadcasters this is what they currently have with their free-to-air linear operation. Their broadcast radio or TV stations are used to promote their new digital platforms. The danger, as the BBC has shown, is that they think they’re replacing one for the other. I think the reality is that the job the linear channels are doing – free marketing and more – is what needs to be replaced with a new concept/product, rather than just hoping the audience will find and use a walled-garden app.


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How will broadcasters stop becoming niche-casters?