As we welcome in the new year, 2016 will mark an end to much for the BBC. With a new deal being struck with the government, it is likely to be another turbulent year for an organisation creaking under its own weight. A Conservative government, now with its own majority, has never been the Corporation’s main friend. And as a network trying to make its own way in the modern world, the British Broadcasting Corporation requires a new trademark, a new stamp, a new brand for itself in the 21st century as it heads towards 2020. At the same time, across on the continent, Jon Ola Sand is shifting the world's biggest music event - the Eurovision Song Contest - with a new focus on entertainment; a recipe that could well suit the Beeb as it plots its future at home.
Eurovision's new recipe
The BBC is changing, its role is changing and its approach to entertainment could be about to change too.
Overcoming the scandals, the crises and the financial restraint is costing the BBC – in truth even its product may seem under threat. It must straddle the competition of on-demand drama by moving more of its services online and perhaps lose control over its sellable commercial assets in doing so. It has lost government funding to deliver grants for the arts and new talent on the ground. It is having to cope with defining its public service role that it is constantly twisting and turning and perhaps being beaten fair and square by Channel 4 in terms of looking like a true public service thought-provoking, educational broadcaster. And in truth its offer is looking increasingly dated, all whilst scrapping what should be quite successful new shows and catering for its haul of free license fee holders which swallows much of its funding.
But for all the challenges it faces, the BBC still rules a commanding roost for the consumption of radio, news, comedy and entertainment across the UK. And by the end of 2016, that may well be all the BBC has to offer as part of its terrestrial and ordinary deal: a slimmer, funnier and reliable state broadcaster with the sole aim of informing the public of the latest news and entertaining them.
No more teaching kids to code – outsource that elsewhere. No more particularly radical ideas – give more license fee funding to Channel 4 to distribute to small British production firms. Don’t buy in expensive dramas from abroad – leave that to Netflix. End the expensive hoarding of sport in which it cannot compete using taxpayer funds. Instead splash out on big national events; award ceremonies, Sports Personality of the Year, extend the BBC’s lead on Saturday night entertainment, drive British drama at home, hire the biggest names and keep them. The brand of the BBC as the home of television and radio – family television and music – the only station you put on in the car and the first station you turn on back at home. The changing face of a national broadcaster in a more austere nation.
Perhaps then all these challenges and realities reflects a BBC that is changing before our eyes. Indeed what may seem like a broadcaster losing its way, may instead be one indeed finding its role.
The BBC is losing its sporting prowess which it will replace with entertainment.
2016 marks the turning point for many of these changes; the first visible outing for a new BBC vision. Not necessarily just the words on Tony Hall’s lips – but the decisions and positions of an organisation which has now lost its sporting prowess and has been tapered and clipped, by government. Formula 1 and even the Olympics pretty much off-loaded and the uncompetitive bid to rid itself of its expensive and slow growing The Voice to ITV Studios. What then does the BBC do to fill this gap and to make its statement of intent?
Perhaps then it should consider hosting the biggest entertainment show in the world?
The BBC’s ill fated relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest has been full of both honour and glory as well as just pure, dire embarrassment. Having previously laid out my case for the BBC to recognise events like Eurovision as enterprising and entrepreneurial money-making opportunities for a smart and adventurous broadcaster, even I recognise that some five years on, this ground is perhaps now lost. Not half due to the strategy of Jon Ola Sand and the European Broadcasting Union to move Eurovision’s brand firmly into the entertainment arena – playing on headlines with the introduction of Australia, supporting and driving forward SVT’s modernisation of the format, a more Western focus and all with the help of a now globally famous winner like Conchita.
This drive by the contests’ owners is higher viewing figures in new markets, for sure, and they are ruthlessly executing their strategy together with Sweden’s SVT who are extending their domination at the heart of the contest. They have also quietly moved aside and moved on those who seem to exercise authority within their own right – ending with the sacking of the Executive Supervisor of the Junior edition of the contest – despite taking the show from strength to strength in what has been a staggering professionalisation of the show and producing phenomenal recent winners.
Those of us therefore arguing for the further ‘musiciasation’ of the show itself it seems are on a losing battle. And therefore eyeing an entrepreneurial focus on chart sales and generating income is now perhaps not the way our BBC is ever going to engage in the contest that is now on a different path itself. Its own austerity drive over, the spectacle and scale of the contest is only likely to again grow, particularly should Russia secure its likely second win in the next few years or Sweden equal Ireland’s 7th victory.
The alternative back in the UK of course was always seen as playing on exactly some of these cards being played by the EBU under Ola Sand. Entertainment. Fraser Nelson has long been a proponent of offloading the contest in the UK to a broadcaster like ITV that ‘gets’ entertainment. However in the last few years we have seen that in fact, perhaps the BBC does ‘get’ entertainment – pulling in millions more than ITV into Strictly and Bake Off. Family TV is where it is. It just misjudges that where Eurovision is concerned, entertainment has no need to be trashy or lazy.
Gone are the days of the internal selection.
For the BBC; to be in play with the EBU’s strategy and to have a chance of wrestling the contest from Scandinavia’s grip, it would mean them coming up with an entry that could, indeed, win the thing. So ditching its relatively unimpressive ratings driving strategy of old timers who could no longer sing was welcome and a lesson in combatting the broadcasters laziness to the contest itself. Now the BBC has hopefully also learned the ‘trashy’ lesson; it doesn’t work.
The horrific outing of ‘Electro Velvet’ in Vienna was enough to doubt the BBC in its entirety. But we, and its own producers, have hopefully seen the message from Molly in Copenhagen, and perhaps earlier from Jade in Moscow, that it can do better - when it tries.
But why would the Beeb want to host Eurovision? Firstly the BBC know how to put on a show. The hosting of the 60th anniversary event and putting it on BBC One, in prime time, was perhaps a display of its confidence in growing Eurovision as part of its core offering. The BBC will have fended off other European broadcasters for the rights to it – so it does show progress, having spurned 2005, and some of its dodgy decisions, including hiring Pete Waterman in 2010.
Secondly, the rights to the main show itself would become an instant money-raiser for the Corporation, which faces further budget savings. The BBC is still considered to be one of the last broadcasters to make a pure profit hosting the contest, and even with the growth of the contest itself into a week long event, it certainly could break even; with only venue costs being a real driver for a large broadcaster like the BBC and its technical expertise.
So if the BBC is in the game of cheap but strong performing entertainment television – what better way than hosting Eurovision itself in 2017 to fill the BBC’s growing profile gap, keep the punters happy and get a return on its output, the promise of higher figures and a glitzy outing for its most expensive hosts and stars.
Indeed, we will have to wait and see what the Beeb issue as their ticket to Stockholm. But if we are to ever have confidence, perhaps it may well be the year that the BBC needs the contest more than it ever has done that may shock it into seizing the moment. The Eurovision brand, its name and its game may just mean that the stars may align for the UK in Stockholm.
That’s if the BBC knows what it’s doing of course…