Damian TambiniThe BBC entered the global on-demand services competition this week as  Tony Hall made his first major speech after 6 months in the top job at the BBC.

Whilst the BBC suits were claiming evolution rather than revolution, his speech contained a lot that is radical. Like public service broadcasters around the world, the Corporation is attempting – from a comparatively strong position – to find a role in a new digital world, and this speech will likely be looked at in the future as one of the moments that were decisive in determining its success – or failure.

Hall sounded steady notes following a year of successive crises at the BBC, but this was in fact a rather ambitious speech.  He  mentioned pay-offs and Saville, but didn’t even mention the most expensive mess up of all – the failed £100m digital hub. This was perhaps because what he unveiled was a rather  ambitious programme of reforms, the centrepiece of which is a shake-up of BBC on-demand services with I-Player at the core. Some elements of this are:

  • an increase in the catch up period for BBC I-player from 7 days to 30 days;
  • a new international strategy for the BBC with global access to BBC educational programming;
  • a shift in BBC strategy to provide a more personalised BBC; (He said he wants to change the BBC’s relationship to its users, so they think of the Corporation as”Not the BBC, but my BBC”)
  • a new online BBC store, selling BBC content alongside the I-Player free content, some of which will be available outside the UK;
  • a new music service to rival Spotify.

There are of course crucial differences between a BBC announcement of this type and one made by, say, Apple. All of these services would be subject to a Public Value Test, and a Market Impact Assessment, to be carried out by the BBC Trust, a body that is independent of the BBC.

We can expect the debate about this new vision to be dominated by the competitors to the BBC, including Apple/ I-Tunes, the competitor catch up services, and a wide range of content providers who will feel that they will not have fair access to the market on this platform. And this will be new territory in some respects for the BBC’s regulator, the BBC Trust. Never before have they had to carry out a Public Value Test that will include services accessible from abroad as well as UK based services. You might ask: Value for which Public? The BBC’s international commercial services have traditionally been sources of income on top of the licence fee rather than users of the licence fee. Perhaps this is the long term outcome of the 2010 reforms which saw the World Service funded by the licence fee.

The other fascinating horizon issue here is that the BBC with these plans is making a decisive move in the current ‘great game’ being played out by major media companies for control of user data and experience. If the BBC, as Hall hinted, will require users to log in to use BBC services, the Corporation will become a major player in the storage, use and potentially trade of user data.   Given recent controversies we might ask what special responsibilities might apply to a public service organisation – independent both from commerce and from the state – as the holder of such a mine of the most sensitive user data.

This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

You can also find @CharlieBeckett’s take on Tony Hall’s speech on the Polis Director’s blog