Tim Davie’s ‘Digital’ Challenge

Tony Hall’s recent departure from the BBC, and his replacement by Tim Davie, has allowed us all a moment of reflection on what happened during Hall’s tenure and the challenges Davie faces as he takes over.

Clearly Tony Hall has left a series of unfinished problems and a significant number of landmines for Tim Davie to defuse. Many of these are cultural and political, and other people are better positioned to comment.  However, there seemed to be a consensus in the press that Tony Hall had somehow ‘solved digital’ during his tenure.  Whenever the subject of digital strategy is raised everyone points to iPlayer, as though its mere existence showed that the BBC had solved its digital future.

This seems to be a mis-reading of the internal battles over how BBC content should be packaged and distributed for the UK, as well as missing the wider competitive context the BBC faces as the media world globalises. Far from being the answer to all the BBC’s digital problems, it can be argued that the iPlayer strategy under Tony Hall has actually caused many of them.  The result is that many of the landmines Tim Davie has been left to solve are ‘digital’ ones.

In this post we make the case that Tim Davie now has five major ‘digital’ challenges to address:

Rejuvenating Broadcast

The TV industry seems to have spent 10 years denigrating the one major function which allows it to compete against on-demand apps – its broadcast function. Rather than being an achilles heel, the ability to broadcast simultaneously to millions of people at a fixed cost, is a remarkable capability that many of the silicon valley giants would love to be able to emulate. It is still the dominant distribution function for BBC content (by hours consumed) but it has become the unfashionable relation compared to ‘digital’.

This is not to say that broadcast didn’t have big problems to solve, or that it didn’t need to reinvent its role in the face of an on-demand onslaught. However, that challenge appears to have been ducked by the BBC (and others to be fair) by focussing efforts, and profile onto its on-demand offering. The question of how a dominant national broadcaster balances its TV distribution options is still unresolved at the end of Tony Hall’s reign.

BBC broadcast needs a refocus on its content, brands and functionality.  There was a time when the BBC’s broadcast brands were clear and distinct.  In recent years the BBC’s broadcast brands have been starved of innovation and had their brands subsumed under the almighty ‘iPlayer’ brand.   Within iPlayer they are merely a label, not strong broadcast identities. Most importantly they need to be able to deliver innovation under their own banners.

An example of the problem was the introduction of the BBC’s green button function.  On major BBC broadcast shows, audiences in Freeview and Youview homes were offered a ‘start-over’ function if they missed the start of the show, via a green button that appeared on screen.  However, rather than supporting the broadcast brands and their relationship with its audience, the function was wrapped in a wholly unnecessary iPlayer logo.  If you pressed the button you were immediately moved into an iPlayer branded experience. It cemented the message that BBC broadcast brands aren’t innovative and only in iPlayer can sexy things happen.

The BBC’s broadcast channels need to be given the space and authority to redress this.  They need the space to drive innovation around the content and promotion required to capture audience share in a world of growing on-demand.  They need strong independent leaders for each channel with the authority to dictate brand and tech strategy.  Charlotte Moore’s move is perhaps an indication that Tim Davie gets this need.

Solve Youth

One thing that research has shown clearly is that iPlayer does not perform well in youth markets. One of the BBC broadcast brands that had retained a strong identity in its output and presentation, well into the on-demand era, better than any other was BBC3. It was a distinctive vehicle that let the BBC communicate with youth audiences (although its total audience often skewed much older). To remove it entirely from the broadcast line up was an act of cultural vandalism that is still shocking. (Merging BBC3 and Radio 1 would have been a groundbreaking move for youth audiences).  Its removal contributed to unsurprisingly dismal youth engagement figures announced recently.

But its removal happened at a time of increased IP connectivity in TV devices like set top boxes and smart screens, and an increased ability to deliver ‘broadcast’ linear to personal devices.  The BBC had an opportunity to maintain its position in the broadcast line up but shift its distribution from over-the-air to over IP streamed broadcast. 

BBC3 needs to be brought back into the broadcast line up – but as a fundamentally innovative, but fully IP channel.  A fully interactive IP BBC3 could be put at the centre of a project to define the role of a broadcast channel in a digital world. It should have its own separate and distinct presence in the on-demand world, tied to it core linear IP output but be highly experimental in its approach to content and distribution. It could be the first brand to link TV and radio output in an online world. 

Allow the Platforms To Compete

The TV platform market is about to face the most aggressive wave of competition from new global entrants like Amazon FireTV and Google’s AndroidTV.   The BBC is a key shareholder in three different TV platforms – Freeview, Youview and Freesat.  They have to compete against these new entrants.

The new entrants represent a juggernaut of competition charging into this market.  Platforms like Amazon (with their FireTV OS) and Google (with Android TV) are creating TV devices that link to their online accounts and services that are hugely compelling.  We have probably long missed the opportunity to have merged the three existing UK platforms into a single, powerful and competitive free-to-air TV platform. But there is still time to allow them to spread their offerings.   For the last decade the three UK based TV platforms have been forced to compete with their hands tied behind their back. 

It would be normal development plan for a TV platforms to have built their own online presence, create CRM systems and managed their users and customers.  However the BBC (with ITV and C4’s support) have prevented the platforms from doing this, preferring users to set up log-ins with their own individual apps.  All the shareholder broadcasters believing their own log-ins and accounts could and should be more important than the platform level ones.  They are profoundly wrong and, in a Kodak level misjudgement, they are contributing to a meltdown where there will be no UK managed TV platforms in play at the end of the decade.  The Freeview brand is slowly disappearing in Smart TVs, while the PSB apps negotiate prominent positions. We are meekly handing Freeview customers to Amazon and Google. Freesat and YouView have established a bit more strategic freedom but not enough.

The FTA platforms need to be able to build and manage their own customer bases. To achieve this, they could work together to build a joint free-to-air TV log-in, with a federated account system to allow a Freeview or Freesat user to log into the individual apps on each of the platforms via one, unified identity.  That identity could be the basis for a wider TV account (perhaps including Britbox) that could be the basis for other shared systems such as addressable advertising capability.


All-in or not?  With the arrival of Acorn TV with Britbox’s claim to be ‘streaming exclusive and original British TV’ Britbox has already lost its one significant point of difference. The failure of the BBC to back it unequivocally is further hampering its potential. Britbox’s launch has been solid but not stellar and to a large part this has been due to BBC ambivalence about it.   It is still not clear how Britbox fits into the wider BBC on-demand distribution strategy. This confusion has a domestic component – with the BBC’s own desire to put long term box-sets on iPlayer clashing with its Britbox component. It also has an international dimension – with the BBC’s Worldwide commitments clashing with Britbox’s international aspirations.  Without the BBC’s commitment to be ‘all-in’ in support of Britbox, its hard to see it become anything but a marginal player.


Since the early 2000’s the BBC have had the luxury of launching and building a VOD service that didn’t need to include ad-tech, or even to justify itself commercially (the scale of BBC financial and time commitment to iPlayer has never been published).  But after 15 years, it still represents less that 10% of BBC content consumption (by hours) and more people watch recorded BBC programming from a PVR than use iPlayer. 

The biggest on-demand delivering platform in the UK is Sky, with almost half the households using their set top box based on-demand service.  In this audience, BBC on-demand is delivered predominantly through Sky’s own on-demand software.  The BBC have consistently included these viewing figures in their iPlayer numbers, although they are merely BBC catch-up content played through Sky’s on-demand service.  (Very recently on the SkyQ, the BBC have added the web version of iPlayer to the mix).

Decipher clearly has ‘form’ in our concern about the impact of iPlayer and it has always conflicted with our long-held belief that you should never give the IT department a brand to play with.   From a propositional clarity perspective, iPlayer has never clarified its role. At best, it would help to clarify the BBC’s TV brand structure so that the iPlayer is brought back into the family of brands (as ITV did after the early foray with a unique ITV Player brand).

But beyond that, Decipher has long argued that the iPlayer team was too powerful and were distorting the way the BBC’s tech innovations were introduced to market. Every consumer facing tech innovation had to be plastered with the iPlayer logo, even if there was no iPlayer tech involved (eg BBC content in Sky OnDemand or the green button example above). 

We would like the BBC to shift the focus of future strategy away from iPlayer to create a more rounded understanding of how BBC audiences engage with their content.  The BBC should, by definition, be a broadcast centric organisation and iPlayer should be a complement and support tool to that vision.  Matthew Postgate’s departure as head ‘BBC techie’ is a chance to pause and review this question.


So five digital challenges which are, in many ways, interlinked. The challenges are also, similar to the cultural challenges that Tim Davie faces in that they speak of the BBC remembering its core function and values and building to them.  In digital and TV’s case these values are built outwards from BBC1, not from BBC iPlayer.

Sadly, we said all this before in 2013 when Tony Hall announced his digital strategy.  See: Tony Hall’s Vision For The BBC Re-Interpreted – Decipher Media Research