Customers or Shareholders? – Sir Michael Lyons talks about the BBC

There’s alot of talk going on at the moment about the future of the TV licence fee that funds the BBC (where I work – so yes, it pays my wages).  There was a debate about freezing it in the House of Commons today.  BBC Director General Mark Thompson was recently interviewed about it in The Observer, too.

More interesting, to me though, is the speech that the chairman of the BBC Trust (the BBC’s regulator) gave last night where he likened the public to shareholders (who want influence) in the BBC rather than customers (who just choose whether or not to buy something).  You can read the full text of his speech here.

The good news, in my opinion, is that seems to see our audience members the same way as I do – funders who should be allowed to voice their opinions – very directly – to the BBC about what we should and shouldn’t be doing and making.  This isn’t to say they should CONTROL what we do – but they should certainly have a strong voice and an ability to communicate with us.

What I’d have liked to have heard though, is how this could happen.  I felt the commitments he made were all good – but could have gone further.  The proposals all felt like they came out of a very linear world; where the audience can’t inform (again – not control) what’s going on.  We’re now in a world where audiences can and do expect to have a level of control with their media – and this is a growing expectation.  I’d love to see a world where the BBC pioneers a new way of maintaining its editorial quality and impact – and where it still surprises and delights its audiences – but where we give them a much stronger voice (using the direct channels digital media allows us) in what we do.

I posted a rough proposal for how I imagined this could happen a few months ago.  I wonder if Sir Michael’s read it.  I doubt it but would love to know what he thinks.

2 responses to “Customers or Shareholders? – Sir Michael Lyons talks about the BBC

  1. I notice one area Sir Michael isn’t keen to give shareholders much say is the level of the licence fee, which he implies should continue to be set as infrequently as possible via a private deal with the government of the day. Is he protecting licence fee payers’ interests there, or the BBC’s?

  2. I read Sir Michael’s speech and I think his shareholder metaphor is a good one – certainly it fits the relationship the BBC has with its public better than the customer model.

    However, the metaphor does break down at the level of deliverables. Shareholders are interested in one thing: profit. Ordinary corporations are bound by their charters to do everything they can to deliver this.

    The BBC, on the other hand, is duty-bound to inform, educate and entertain the public. A noble aim and one that I stand behind body and soul. However, it’s quite hard to measure, and that’s an important difference.

    For most corporations, there’s no dispute over whether the company is succeeding. The evidence is in the shareholders’ bank accounts.

    For a corporation like the BBC, one constituency can claim that their investment (in the form of the license fee) is generating great returns in information, education and entertainment, while another constituency can claim that they’re not getting enough of either. And both can be correct.

    In fact, it’s possible to be an investor (license-fee payer) and not get any returns at all, because you don’t watch the BBC.

    Or, if you don’t watch live television, it’s also possible to legally get all the benefits of the BBC through radio, online and the iPlayer, without investing in it. Bit of a loophole, but there you go.

    The BBC is a classic public good, in the economist’s sense of the word.

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