BBC executives describe deep cuts, new investments

1.jpgWASHINGTON — Faced with a 16% budget cut, BBC executives decided to focus resources on top priorities – peak viewing hours and the “best journalism in the world.”

That was the word today from top managers at the BBC, speaking at a CCLP communication forum at the USC Washington DC Center.

The budget cuts were the result of across-the-board reductions by the UK government, and 16% was comparable to the cuts at museums and other cultural institutions. But the BBC was also determined to invest in new programming.

“It’s all very well cutting,” said Caroline Thomson, the BBC’s Chief Operating Officer, “but we do need to grow.”

2.jpg“Why we exist is to produce the best quality content,” said Thomson, “related to public purpose. News is at the top.”

“The best journalism in the world,” added John Tate, Director of Policy and Strategy, Chairman of BBC Studios and Post Production, describing the network’s mission in reporting.

Other priorities, according to Thomson, are drama, talent development, children’s programs, and “events that bring the nation together – and not just royal weddings.”

As an example, Thomson cited a huge audience attracted to the BBC when the network preempted one of its most popular programs for live coverage of newly selected Prime Minister Cameron’s first ceremonial appearance.

To meet budget targets and still invest in its core mission, Thomson said, the BBC actually cut the budget by 20%, so they could have 4% left to invest in new programming.

4.jpg Public broadcasters in the US, including many attending today’s forum, under severe budget pressure themselves, were interested in how the BBC managed such a major reduction in its service.

Thomson said they decided to save “peak time broadcasting” – what in the US would be called prime time – and cut back “off peak.” Among the cuts, she noted, was the complete elimination of one overnight program service.

What was not cut was news coverage. As part of the new budget, the BBC will have journalists on the ground in 95 countries – down four countries from the present, but still far more than other broadcasters.

“Journalism ethics is absolutely in the spotlight,” said Thomson, because of the phone hacking scandals at British newspapers. And that is to the BBC’s advantage, because the network’s ethics – and its thick book of ethics guidelines – have not been criticized as their print competitors have been.

5.jpg Tate also described the new budget as “a massive investment in UK [local] content,” a total of 1.5 billion UK pounds, especially in drama.

He argued that every pound invested in BBC drama turned over and resulted in two pounds of economic activity in the UK economy.

Today’s forum is part of a CCLP initiative in public broadcasting and public service media, and was presented in association with Free Press and builds on the summer forum held here in Washington.