Issue 202,  published April 2, 2019

Unpacking the BBC’s Annual Plan

In the midst of the Google-BBC kerfuffle last week — in which the BBC pulled their shows from parts of the Google podcast ecosystem citing competition issues, catch up here — the corporation also released its annual plan, which sets out “intentions and future priorities for the year.”

The plan has three intended audiences: firstly, it’s a document for the BBC’s regulator, Ofcom, which conducts an annual review of the BBC that in part looks at how well it has delivered on the promises in the plan; secondly, it shows the rest of the broadcast industry and its observers what we can expect in the next 12 months; and finally, the plan is for any ordinary British citizens who pay the license fee and would like to check what it’s going to be spent on.

The full 54-page document can be read here, or you can take in the key points via various news write ups (among the headlining topics: impartiality, rising costs, changing consumption patterns and the threat of streaming). Another major topic is how the BBC perceives its competition, which is something we thread back to the Google hubbub. “It seems only a few short years ago that the BBC and ITV were thought of as the titans of British media,” the report says early on. “But all of us in the UK’s traditional media solar system are getting smaller and smaller in the Apple, Amazon and Netflix universe.”

The report is a generally fascinating read, but for our specific purposes, let’s ask the question: what does the plan specifically tell us about the BBC’s audio strategy in the next year?

Unsurprisingly, BBC Sounds is a core component of the BBC’s audio plans as laid out here, with “growing BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds” being mentioned straight away as one of the four main priorities for the next year. (For the unfamiliar, BBC iPlayer is the BBC’s video on-demand and TV catch up platform, accessible online, via apps and via smart TVs). BBC Sounds is also going to be vital for “the future of radio,” we’re told, and there are some figures included for usage of the app: around 1.8 million downloads, with “an average of more than a million listeners a week.” (Worth noting: there’s no explanation here of how much time these listeners spend in Sounds, or how a “listener” is defined).

The plan also sets out plans for new original shows for Sounds, with more podcasts linked directly to BBC TV that build on existing examples like the companion shows for the soap opera Eastenders, the celebrity reality show Strictly Come Dancing, and the just-launched audio catch up for the popular drama Line of Duty. I’m intrigued to see, as well, that the plan promises that the BBC will be “clear and transparent” with the rest of the industry around its plans for podcasts and radio.

According to the plan, it looks like the vast majority of the BBC’s radio divisions and national radio stations will be putting out their own podcasts in the coming year. This may prove internationally controversial at the corporation, since I’ve already heard whispers of discontent from some quarters about the new pressure on radio teams to churn out podcasts and the diverting of budgets to BBC Sounds.

I was also interested to see a mention of the BBC’s podcast strategy involving some ramp-up of local and regional audio, with BBC Radio Scotland slated to launch “a range of podcasts” aimed at a younger audience. (Props to producer Jennifer Tracey, who I spoke to last year, for proving early on that podcasts made north of the border could work very well indeed.) Locally produced podcasts are also on the cards from Wales and Northern Ireland, which is great news for those of us who would like to see the UK’s audio industry become a bit less focused on London. There’s also a suggestion that the regional language services (the BBC has radio and TV stations broadcasting in Welsh and Gaelic, just fyi) will be doing some podcasts too. Genuinely can’t wait for that, as I live near the Welsh border and Welsh-language talk radio is my jam.

As I noted in an Insider last week, the plan also includes the broad suggestion that BBC Sounds could be opened up to non-BBC audio, perhaps to include content from independent, competing, and commercial radio outlets. In my view, this is the biggest and likely most long-lasting change in the plan, so it’s slightly frustrating that it only merits a few sentences and no proper explanation. If the BBC were to start sharing its flagship audio platform — and there’s also confirmation in the plan that the old iPlayer Radio app will be shut down in the next year, leaving Sounds on web or device as the main digital home for BBC audio — with other providers, that would be a total sea change for the UK audio space. I assume that negotiations with other major outlets are still ongoing, and look forward to seeing the results soon.

If the BBC is really going to continue to push this “us vs. everyone else” line as a core framework of its strategy going forward, then I think from their perspective it’s essential that BBC Sounds not only carries a selection of non-BBC audio, but is as comprehensive a podcatcher as possible. After all, if what they’re really asking UK podcast listeners to do is use the BBC’s app instead of a commercial alternative, it makes sense that it has to offer a comparative or even superior service. I am also interested to see how the regulator feels about this approach, since the BBC does have obligations not to disrupt the open market where possible. But then, I don’t think that making BBC podcasts exclusive to Sounds is ever going to be enough to get a committed Apple Podcasts or Overcast user to switch — they need to be able to listen to all their shows and feel like the functionality of the app is equivalent or better. And I think that’s a really high bar that the BBC is setting for itself.