How can the BBC double its global reach in 10 years? By stopping “punching well below its weight” on digital and social media, according to a new report.
But it can be done, according to former Sony CEO Howard Stringer, whose 21-page report says the BBC should aim to reach 500 million people a week by 2022 – more than double its current audience.
The report, commissioned by James Harding, the BBC’s head of news and a former editor of The Times, says the corporation needs to do more to reach younger people around the world via social media and smartphones by publishing more interesting, distinctive content.
Stringer, already a member of the BBC’s Executive Board, is a leading candidate to be the new chair of the BBC Trust – the BBC’s ruling body – after the departure of Lord Patten due to health reasons.
This is how he thinks they can do it.
1. Make all content available on mobile first.
“Mobile-first” is to debates about the future of news what canned laughter is to sitcoms – it’s been around forever and it probably always will be.
Stringer says that by 2022, global mobile broadband subscriptions will have grown by 2.5 billion – including 1.5 billion in China and India, meaning the BBC potentially has a huge (but so far, undefined) role to play in providing news and entertainment to those countries’ emergent middle classes.
Stringer says: “Fundamentally, the BBC has to shift its focus from putting traditional broadcasting first to putting mobile first. By 2022, the BBC should be mobile first in every market outside the UK.”
2. The BBC should consider launching in countries such as Ethiopia and North Korea – although that might be a little tricky.
Only 40% of the BBC’s total news output is in English and Stringer points out the BBC has a unique place as a provider of news in countries with very little news coverage such as Afghanistan and Somalia, via the World Service.
He writes: “The BBC should consider the opportunities to open at least one new language service for an audience facing a severe deficit in free and impartial news – potentially Ethiopia (in Amharic), or, if a realistic route to market can be found, North Korea.”
He says the key non-English languages for the corporation are: Hindi, Bengali and Urdu; Spanish and Portuguese; Chinese and Indonesian.
3. The BBC should do more to teach the world to speak English.
While he stops short of suggesting the BBC should build schools, Stringer is adamant the BBC should play a bigger role in English language learning, a market worth $50 billion a year and set to grow by 25% by 2017.
Doing education is also a handy way of getting round China’s strict rules on what foreign news providers can and can’t say. However, the BBC would need to join the back of the growing queue of companies also trying to do this.
4. The BBC needs to stop doing boring news.
Stringer says the current BBC News digital approach – which is in large part based on the traditional hard news values of newspapers – needs to offer something different to these young, mobile readers. So the traditional 500-word write-up of a story that people could easily find elsewhere could be under threat,
“The young aspiring classes are more interested in softer, or ‘near news’ content which has social currency, such as entertainment, technology trends, health, and accessible business stories. The publishing cycle should be continuous and the writing of the stories should be punchy and concise, reflecting the way the audience reads stories on mobile,” says Stringer.
People shouldn’t forget, however, that a sizeable portion of the BBC’s traffic already comes from what might be called non-serious news: the most-watched video on the site right now is “Bear rescues cub with roadside lift”.
The story of a Sudanese man marrying a goat in 2006 became one of the BBC News site’s earliest viral stories and was one of its most popular articles that year.
5. And it needs to “crack” social media.
Stringer points out that digital news organisations far younger than the BBC – including BuzzFeed – have managed to build large audiences from creating the kind of content that people like to share with their friends.
The BBC is “the most tweeted news organisation globally”, the report says, but this doesn’t translate into traffic in the same it does for other sites.
Why? BBC journalists need to “cut through” the noise with distinctive headlines, while “the tone and storytelling must be relevant to the target audience, encouraging them to return.”
Stringer is at pains to say that “this is not about dumbing down”, but about making stuff people will enjoy, adding more character to its reports and artitcles.
6. Make friends and partner with other media organisations and technology providers.
The BBC, with its Byzantine structure and swathes of regulations, isn’t the easiest organisation to partner with. Decision-making can be very slow and its diverse technology stack doesn’t help – it took audio streaming startup Audioboo years to get the go-ahead for BBC radio journalists to officially use it.
But, that’s the kind of thing the BBC needs more of, says Stringer, who says it should explore partnerships with mobile apps that might pre-load BBC content, including chat apps such as WhatApp, and national and international TV broadcasters.
7. The BBC should be more commercial and stop apologising for it.
While it’s funded by the TV Licence Fee in the UK, internationally the Beeb runs an aggressive commercial business that makes profits of £156 million a year from selling TV rights to shows such as Top Gear, as well as magazines and other things.
But Stringer suggests the corporation may have been too cautious in its commerical activities, in an attempt to protect its reputation at home.
“Needs to embrace the local norms of the markets it is operating in; it needs to be happy to make money that can be invested in providing better quality services at home and abroad,” Stringer says.
In his conclusion, Stringer says the BBC’s cultural dominance is at stake.
For many years, it was dominant in a world of analogue broadcasting on radio and television. The biggest challenge the BBC faces is whether it has the capacity to evolve from being an analogue behemoth into a corporation agile enough to respond with speed and dexterity to the demands of the digital world.