Delivering Quality First

Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director, BBC Cymru Wales, IWA Broadcasting in Wales conference, 18 October 2011

I’m just six weeks into my new role as Director – and I understand it is customary at this stage in a new job to play for time and assure everyone you’re in listening mode. A nice straight bat is called for. This time round that approach won’t fly. Two weeks ago we announced to staff our proposals to deal with the challenge of a frozen licence fee, and we set out our editorial stall for the next five years. I’d like to share that thinking with you today.

I also want to spend a little time talking about the challenges presented by new digital development, and the wider role that I believe BBC Wales must play over the coming years.

It’s worth saying at the outset that one of the particular joys of taking on the role of the Director of BBC Wales is that there is no shortage of good advice. A particularly vociferous correspondent from Carmarthen wrote last week to urge me to ban all rugby coverage. He tells me with the conviction of a man that knows that ice hockey offers an improved spectacle. Another has invited me to relocate BBC Wales to Amlwch with the reassurance that the local restaurants offer a wide range of fine dining. Food for thought.

It’s fair to say that advice was a little more thin on the ground when it came to meeting the challenge of a frozen licence fee.

For new readers – and I suspect there are very few here – it’s worth reminding ourselves that the Government and the BBC agreed that the Licence Fee should remain at £145.50 until the end of the Charter in 2017. The agreement with the UK Government also meant the BBC would fund extra broadcasting-related activities including:

  • The BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring
  • A new partnership with S4C
  • Support for new local television service

To meet these new commitments and live within our means, the BBC set itself the challenge to deliver savings of 20% over the four year to 2016/17. Most of these savings cover the cost of the new commitments but the final 4% was so that the BBC would have money to reinvest in new priorities, including digital innovation. For BBC Wales, the challenge is to deliver a saving of 16% over the next five years. That’s £10.7m. This is in line with the savings faced by BBC Scotland and Northern Ireland.

So how did we approach this challenge?

First, with a very clear sense of mission and purpose because, to my mind, there has never been a time when the role of BBC Wales has been more important nor more precious. Our programmes and output reach millions of people across Wales each and every week. And they turn to us because they trust us. They know we care, they know we share their passions and interests, they know we’ll go that extra mile each and every day to help them make sense of the world around them.  And we have to honour that trust by safeguarding the output that matters most to our viewers and listeners.

But to do that, we cannot try to be all things to all people. We cannot pretend that we can do everything. The money just won’t stretch. We have to make choices if we’re serious about quality. And the challenge isn’t just about money either – we also have to keep our creative nerve. With less money, it might seem tempting to be more cautious, take fewer risks, fallback on the formulaic. But that would be precisely the wrong response. If we’re clear about our editorial goals, we have to pursue them relentlessly. More ambition not less. More risk not less. More challenge not less.

I believe we’ve addressed these challenges head-on with one of the most rigorous reviews of our output ever undertaken. It’s why I’m confident that BBC Wales will emerge from these challenges with its ambition and creativity intact. So let’s talk about editorial priorities first.

Over the last 18 months we‘ve conducted a root and branch review of BBC Wales services, led by workstreams from across BBC Wales and informed by the BBC’s wider Putting Quality First strategy. That work has been instrumental in shaping our final proposals.

Our priorities fall into five areas:

  • high quality, agenda-setting journalism that reflects every part of Wales
  • factual and knowledge-building output that gets under the skin of Welsh life
  • expert coverage of major events and sports that bring the nation together
  • developing Wales’ reputation as a world class centre of drama, and factual and music production.
  • supporting contemporary culture and music.

By setting these priorities, we’ve been able to protect carefully the content that matters most, and in some cases to increase or ringfence key areas of spend.

For example, under the plans we announced a fortnight ago:

  • we will maintain all current daily news output across all services, and apply a reduced efficiency target to this output
  • we will protect our current levels of investment in political coverage of Cardiff Bay and Westminster, and in our current affairs series Week In Week Out
  • we will invest almost £2m of new funds to launch a new HD version of BBC One Wales across Freeview, satellite and cable by the end of 2012
  • we will increase investment in our peaktime radio schedules, establishing a new investigations team to support our flagship news programmes – Good Morning Wales and Post Cyntaf.
  • we will increase the FM coverage of BBC Radio Wales, enabling a potential  200,000 extra listeners in south-east Wales to listen to the station on FM for the first time.
  • we will maintain investment in landmark tv drama and documentaries.

But how can we afford this at a time of more limited funding?

There are four principles or aims that have guided our work.

  1. to protect our investment in output by seeking higher  levels of spending reductions in overheads and support areas
  2. to focus budget reductions wherever possible at times in the radio and television schedules where fewer people watch or listen
  3. to protect and, where possible, strengthen the output that matters most
  4. to ensure that the changes help prepare BBC Wales for a fully digital, interactive future

Let me just say a few words about that first area – overheads – before we turn to the impact on output and programmes.

In order to maintain our strong performance in Wales, we have decided to protect content spend as far as is possible and to seek deeper savings from BBC overhead costs – both locally and centrally – and in our support departments. Overall we expect non-content spend to reduce by a quarter over the full period. As a result of targeting our savings like this, we expect to limit the level of content budget reductions to an average of 10% between 2013 and 2017. Roughly half of this will come from scope reductions – stopping doing things – and half from productivity improvements.

We currently estimate that we will have to close approximately 120 posts over the period. Jobs will be lost in areas from the top of the organisation down. And we will rigorously examine all management and administrative roles.

We have already announced that:

  • that we will reduce management layers in English language TV commissioning
  • the Broadcast Development, Strategy & Communications and BBC NOW marketing departments will merge
  • that Welsh language online and radio teams will merge (outside news and learning)

But what do the cuts mean on air? What differences will our audience see and hear

It’s worth saying at the outset that we have not tried to finalise a 5-year commissioning plan covering every minute of output. Many of our series and strands are reviewed and assessed as part of ‘business as usual’ in the content areas. That will continue unchanged. But I do want to share with you a number of key decisions that we propose to make in order to help meet the savings challenge.

Let’s look at news, politics and current affairs:

  • There will no scope cuts in our daily news services – and we will apply a lower efficiency target in this area given its very obvious importance to our audiences.
  • We will increase our specialist news coverage of Wales with the appointment of Economics and Culture Correspondents, and a new dedicated reporter for the South Wales Valleys.
  • We also want to encourage a wider range of perspectives and voices in our journalism. To support this, we will launch a new weekly flagship programme in 2012 on BBC One Wales focused on politics, culture and social issues. This will be produced by the independent sector and will replace the current Dragon’s Eye.
  • We will ringfence investment in the peaktime current affairs series Week In Week Out and, again, invite independent producers to contribute to the run.
  • We will increase our coverage of politics in our daily output, but will end the current Wednesday afternoon edition of am:pm broadcast on BBC Two Wales, and review our live afternoon coverage of the Spring Conferences.

In radio:

  • We will reduce the number of off-peak programmes broadcast on both Radio Wales and Radio Cymru over the five year period.
  • In addition, investment in long-form documentary and feature programming on Radio Wales and Radio Cymru will reduce by up to 25% over the period.
  • Our radio services will continue to showcase new Welsh music, invest in drama and comedy, and commission weekly arts programmes.
  • We will increase our investment in original investigative journalism on Radio Wales and Radio Cymru with the creation of a new investigations team to support flagship news programmes Post Cyntaf and Good Morning Wales.
  • This team will be partly funded through a reduction in the number of long-form current affairs programmes currently broadcast by the stations outside peak hours.
  • We will continue to offer dedicated weekly political programming on Radio Wales and Radio Cymru.
  • Our comprehensive coverage of major sporting and cultural events will be maintained including the National Eisteddfod and Royal Welsh Show and coverage of live domestic rugby.

In English TV:

  • We will maintain investment in landmark documentaries and drama, with the aim of broadcasting more content in peak on BBC One Wales.
  • We will launch BBC One Wales in HD in 2012 across all platforms. BBC Two Wales will be maintained in SD pending a further strategic review.
  • Reduce BBC 2 output.
  • We will focus our sports rights investment on those events that provide greatest value and impact for audiences (including live TV coverage of domestic and international rugby, and, where possible, coverage of international football.)
  • We will continue to seek productivity efficiencies within production areas (including in-house and independent)
  • We will work with BBC network teams and S4C to identify opportunities for co-commissions that maximise the impact of more limited investment funds.

So that is an overview of where are. Work to do, of course, but a clear sense of priorities and a focus on safeguarding the output that’s most valued by audiences. But let me also be candid. While I believe we can protect the output that matters most, I believe this savings plan takes us to the very edge of what’s possible.

By 2016, BBC Wales will have faced ten successive years of savings. We cannot kid ourselves that we can go on doing that without inflicting real damage to the scale and ambition of our national services.

But I also want to repeat what I said earlier.

I believe we’ve addressed the financial challenge head-on with one of the most rigorous reviews of our output ever undertaken. It’s why I’m confident we’ve made the right choices. But – and there are two buts I’d like to share with you this morning – I believe BBC Wales’ success in delivering its editorial mission will hinge on two additional challenges.

  • Our ability to prepare for a fully digital future,
  • and our ability to collaborate more effectively with the wider creative and media sector.

I want to talk about both briefly. First about the future.

I was lucky enough to spend the first five months of this year working on the strategic development of the BBC’s UK digital services. It was an eye-opener. Once you take a hard look at the audience – you come to a quick conclusion. There is a small but significant part of the audience already living in what you or I might describe as 2016 or 2020. They are already greedy media consumers – and their appetite for multi-tasking is prodigious.

The old BARB data may tell us they’re watching TV – but the nature of their media consumption is changing and their attention is more dispersed across multiple devices. The mobile web particularly – accessed via smartphones and tablets – is a large part of this media diet, fuelled in no small part by social networking. And we expect to see smartphone penetration grow – from 30% now to 50% by end 2012.

This poses significant challenges for the BBC and for BBC Wales. While we’re busy trying to sort out FM coverage for Radio Wales, the digital space is galloping ahead with new products, new devices, new platforms. They can seem marginal right now – but FM was marginal once. So too was digital TV  and High Definition.

So the investment dilemmas are everywhere. Let me give you just one example: the recent Gleision colliery disaster.

Millions turned to Wales Today and the BBC News Channel for coverage. After all, they are the traditional flagships. But just as many kept up to date via the BBC news website and mobile service. Which is the more important – the more valuable? The definitive packaged coverage or the 5-second update to your mobile exactly when you want it?

The digital environment is tough and complex for everyone but we cannot afford to avert our gaze. It’s just too important. Wales has to stake its claim on these new public spaces. Whereas today tablets and mobile delivery might seem optional to some, if we leave it too late, we’ll be locked out by global gatekeepers who’s idea of local rarely touches upon any civic aspiration. In these new digital spaces, just as in the old linear ones, access and prominence are both essential if we’re to protect the public value of what we offer.

Our starting point in Wales, of course, must be a broadband network – fixed and mobile – that provides us with the digital foundation on which so much else will rest.

For BBC Wales, there are additional challenges I think. We need to rethink our approach to media publishing.

As BBC Wales approaches its 50th anniversary in 2013, we need to provide audiences in Wales with permanent access to BBC Wales’ extraordinarily rich back-catalogue. Our archive is a national resource – a true national treasure – that should be enjoyed by everyone wherever they chose.

We need to redefine our ambitions for Welsh language digital services – and to focus much more on services that complement rather than replicate those available in English if we’re to achieve significant impact.

We should also explore new ways of enabling others to benefit from BBC’s investment in content and innovation – by allowing others to access our news resources, by helping to support emerging forms of local television, and by sharing our technical platforms and know-how to support a more digitally creative Wales.

And that brings me to my final point. Which is more an attitude than a policy.

I want BBC Wales to be a generous, proactive partner – and a champion of a true public space in Wales that goes well beyond the walls of Llandaf or the new Roath Lock studios, or the schedules of Radio Wales and Radio Cymru. I believe we’ve come a long way over recent years, but still have someway to travel.

I don’t believe BBC Wales should ever apologise for its scale or ambition – I think Wales is richer for both. But I do think we can reach out more – and recognise more readily the inter-dependencies that exist right across the media and cultural sectors in Wales. At a time when finances are tight right across the board, when institutions are struggling just to stand still, greater collaboration and partnership has to make sense.

When you take what BBC Wales stands for, what the other institutions and many other bodies in this room stand for, you realise that we have so much in common – what we believe in, what we’re trying to do, and of course the doors we are trying to open.

What can we bring to the table? The advantages of scale and funding, an extraordinary archive, a heritage of digital innovation as well as creativity going back decades.

In recent years, there have been a number of very visible partnerships between the BBC and other bodies – CADW’s work on Coal House, our partnership with the National Eisteddfod, our work with WNO and the National Theatre. Of course, partnerships can come in all shapes and sizes and I promise you that BBC Wales will be up for the discussion.

It’s also why I’m optimistic about the creative possibilities of a closer partnership between the BBC and S4C. In the end, of course, the governance arrangements will be for the BBC Trust and S4C Authority to agree. Closer to home, my priority is to work with colleagues to help reshape BBC Wales’ relationship with S4C. For sure, the relationship has not always easy. But it does matter. It matters to audiences, and I think it matters that the BBC plays a role in sustaining S4C’s creative success.

Despite the successes over recent years, there is still work to do to build a stronger and more trusting editorial partnership between the two broadcasters. I believe we should be exploring more programme ideas together. I think we need to have a more strategic discussion about how we jointly face the challenges now confronting the Welsh language in communities across Wales. I think we should collaborate more in the online, digital space – recognising that it is that much harder to make an impact in an environment of infinite choice. And I believe there is the opportunity to release millions of pounds of new investment back into Welsh programme-making by working together to eliminate the unnecessary technology and back-office duplication that exists today.

Too often in the past the relationship between BBC Wales and S4C has been characterised as a zero sum game: the notion that one body can only flourish at the other’s expense. It’s a mindset I still hear too often and it’s just plain nonsense. A strong S4C means a stronger independent sector, a stronger talent base, and greater creative competition. All these bring benefits to BBC Wales – and vice versa. It is in that spirit of mutual respect and reliance that we must recast the partnership.

So, that’s my pitch

  • A BBC Wales focused on its priorities
  • A BBC Wales fit for the future
  • And a BBC Wales ready to play a generous role at the heart of Welsh national life.

It’s challenging, for sure, but probably not as challenging as requiring all our teams to move to Amlwch. Thank you.

Rhodri Talfan Davies is Director of BBC Cymru Wales

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