The BBC can succeed despite “significant” competition from global streamers, chairman Richard Sharp said on Wednesday. It may be “challenged,” but “benefits from not being in the capitalist model,” he argued at the Edinburgh TV Festival.
And it will look to start to “weaponize impartiality” under incoming BBC News boss Deborah Turness, one of its key values that can become a key selling point, he said.
Asked about the BBC’s diversity push, Sharp said he was “absolutely committed” to it, highlighting he doesn’t see it as a “box tick,” because it has to be and “it is existential to the BBC,” which it “haven’t” gotten it right in the past.
In his first appearance at the Edinburgh fest 18 months after taking over his role, the former Goldman Sachs banker and former chair of the Royal Academy of Arts described his early work for the U.K. public broadcaster as learning and understanding.
Asked about the BBC’s competition with streaming giants, Sharp said streamers’ arrival have had a “significant” impact and demonstrate a U.K. strategic “failure,” but also an opportunity for the BBC, whose streaming platform BBC iPlayer is popular and competitive. “We were the big dog in a small pound,” but now the BBC has global competition, he said. “I think we can compete,” been though the difference in terms of financial resources is significant. Being nimble, executing well and being accountable is key here for the BBC and its executives, Sharp said. “We have every opportunity to succeed.” And he said not being a publicly traded company, such as Netflix, can be an advantage as it avoids certain pressures.
“Constructive self-criticism” is one key value the BBC should focus on, including on such topics as the cost per viewer, the chair suggested. He lauded the public broadcaster’s decision to push women’s soccer with much success as a key example of creative risktaking that succeeded.
Sharp on Wednesday said he was “confident” he could handle any potential issues of government interference. “I will deal with it,” he said. “I will communicate with the government and am pretty confident they will listen.” The chair also shared that outgoing U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson told him that Sharp’s mission was “making BBC great.”
“We are reviewing all alternatives and haven’t reached a conclusion,” Sharp said on Wednesday when asked if the license fee U.K. taxpayers pay should remain the key way to fund the BBC in addition to its BBC Studios commercial arm. “We have a commercial angle” and can grow that hybrid model.
“I am opinionated,” but he has had to change some of his opinions, Sharp shared. He said the BBC seemed to him “bloated” and “self-important” at first, but once he took on his role, he found it had started to take out layers of costs and was often “batting above” its weight.
“BBC has in some ways been too defensive,” he also argued. “I think we must go on the offensive.” He added: “It does annoy me that some politicians view it through a very narrow window.” Sharp also noted that British people seem to trust the BBC more than some media.
Asked about impartiality, the BBC chair said the broadcaster has made mistakes from time to time and must acknowledge those cases and be constructive about them. Asked about some critics’ feeling that Sharp and BBC director general Tim Davie are representing the conservative government’s vision for the broadcaster, he said “there is nothing wrong to be a commercial entity that caters to a certain audience,” but that creates an opportunity for the BBC with its commitment to impartiality. He said it can position itself as “the resource” for respected, reliable news, so impartiality is a key opportunity.
Britain is a global leader in a few industries, and entertainment is one of them, he also argued.
Asked about younger audiences’ lack of interest in linear media, Sharp said he expects younger people to be “media promiscuous.” And he said the BBC can “super-serve” people with an appetite for British content, sharing that he has been surprised by the success of streamer BritBox in international markets.
“The streaming wars are now in the second or third stage,” Sharp said.
Sharp was interviewed by British actor and presenter David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl) who early on in the session joked: “We are both pretending here. I am an actor pretending to be an interviewer, and you are a banker pretending to be chair of the BBC.”
Sharp himself also joked early on about his appointment. “The other candidate was Charles Moore who was a novel choice who had been prosecuted for not paying his (BBC) license fee, so it was a low bar,” he quipped.
Asked about the two candidates for the U.K. prime minister and Conservative Party leaderhip jobs, Sharp said former chancellor Rishi Sunak used to work for him, so he knows him well, while he doesn’t really know foreign secretary, and favorite, Liz Truss.
The session took place at the same time as Judi Dench brought her star power to another session at the festival, a special episode of BBC show The Repair Shop, in which the star of screen and stage brought in “a precious pocketwatch, a gift she gave her late husband, Michael Williams, in 1972, but (that) now no longer works,” according to the producers. “Reminding her of times she had with Michael, she would like the watch to work and be heard again.”
Sharp, meanwhile, discussed the future of the BBC, a regular topic of debate in Britain. Among the issues attracting debate from politicians and beyond is the license fee of £159 ($188) per year that British taxpayers pay to help fund the public broadcaster. In late March, though, the BBC said that it would “need to find £285 million ($375 million) in annual savings by 2027/28, requiring a reduction in the content and services we provide to audiences,” as a result of a recent license fee settlement with the British government. Under that, the fee will be frozen at its current price for two years from ’22/’23 and then rise in line with inflation for the following four years.
“While we recognize the license fee is a privilege, this is a disappointing outcome at a time of high inflation and media super-inflation,” the BBC said in March. “However, we go into the coming year in a strong financial position and with savings and inflation mitigations in place to help us manage through the first year of the settlement.”
In its annual plan for fiscal year 2022/23, the BBC earlier this year set out five strategic priorities: strengthening impartiality, creating “distinctive, high-impact content,” transforming digital offers and capability, accelerating commercial and global growth, as well as “delivering reform of the BBC, getting closer to audiences across the U.K. and managing the impact of the first year of the new license fee settlement.”
Diversity and representation has been a big topic for the BBC. Earlier this year, for example, it set out a target of 25 percent of staff being “from lower socio-economic backgrounds” by 2027 to “ensure our workforce is more representative of the audiences we serve.” It highlighted that this makes the BBC “one of the first media organizations in the U.K. to set a target for socioeconomic diversity.”
The broadcaster also highlighted at the time that it has set itself “ambitious goals on and off air to improve its diversity, including increasing the proportion of women, those from an ethnic and minority background, and those with a disability who work for the BBC.”
In late July, the BBC said it was on track to spend £100 million ($121 million) on diverse and inclusive TV content by 2023/2024, a target it had set for itself in 2020 in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.
Political debate around the BBC also often centers on its commitment to impartiality, which critics from different political sides argue its coverage doesn’t always provide. For example, Sharp became BBC chairman in 2021 amid a series of critical debates on the broadcaster’s purpose, independence and direction. “I am considered to be a Brexiteer,” he acknowledged when grilled by a committee of the British parliament early that year, but said that “the breadth of the [BBC’s Brexit] coverage, I thought it was incredibly balanced in a highly toxic environment.” He did back then note though that topical debate show Question Time seemed to have more anti-Brexit voices. “There were certain occasions where the representation was unbalanced.”