Today is a good day for the thriving independent production sector of the UK. But way more important than that is the fact that today is a very good day for the BBC's millions of listeners, viewers and users. BBC Director General Tony Hall has announced one of the most progressive and positive plans in the corporation's history. Under the banner of "Compete or Compare," he wants to deliver the best-possible programmes and content to the BBC audience irrelevant of who makes them.
There'll be many who read this and think "Well surely that's already the case?". Well ... no. Right now the amount of radio and TV programmes and digital content made by "in-house" producers as opposed to external suppliers is strictly regulated and policed. In TV only half of the BBC's output is open to competition. In radio this is a meagre 30%. That means that the best ideas aren't always the ones that get commissioned and delivered to the audience. Clearly when it's the audience who are paying that can't be a good thing.
Tony Hall has recognised that this model is unsustainable, old fashioned and just wrong. In an increasingly fragmented media world none of us can rely on audience brand loyalty, we have to always do the very best we can. What's more, independent producers can now sell their ideas to a wider than ever range of potential outlets - from traditional TV networks to a plethora of digital platforms or even direct to audiences. If the BBC can't buy an indie's ideas even if they are good, then they will take them elsewhere -- which is exactly what they do.
As an independent producer myself I am a fervent supporter of the BBC. Apart from my Arsenal season ticket there is nothing of greater value than the BBC license fee. Furthermore I'm a huge supporter of the BBC's in-house production capacity. Dr Who, The Today Programme, iWonder and W1A are all made by people who have BBC staff numbers. But Sherlock, Have I Got News For You, Radio 1's Pete Tong's Essential Mix, The Voice and Radio 4's Gardener's Question Time and Kitchen Cabinet are not. Does the audience care or even know about this distinction? If we're doing our job then they don't and shouldn't.
The BBC of course brings incredible reputation, legacy, scale and gravitas to production. But indies offer other equally important qualities. Crucially because they can and do work for a range of clients and audiences of which the BBC is just one, albeit a very important one, they have a greater exposure to wider audiences and are more in touch with fresh thinking beyond the BBC.
Furthermore increasingly the finest production talent -- producers, writers, directors and presenters -- want to work for independent companies who can sell their ideas to the widest possible range of clients. This is very evident in drama and comedy in TV where indies have come to dominate the market. Would a young writer starting out today rather have his ideas submitted to just the BBC or to Netflix, NBC, HBO, YouTube, Coca-Cola and the BBC? So there's a strong argument to say that by ring-fencing BBC hours to be only produced by in-house producers the best ideas are being discriminated against. In radio and digital the independent sector is smaller but the principal of competition for the best ideas is just as valid. Outside of the BBC producers are much more likely to work across a range of media and bring an innovative approach to production lacking from those focussed purely on just radio or just the web.
Cleverly turning this on its head Tony Hall has also said he thinks the BBC should start to act like an indie itself and sell its ideas to other broadcasters. There'll be much debate as to whether a publicly subsidised corporation can compete fairly with purely commercial operations. But I say -- go for it! If the license fee can get better ideas on air or online elsewhere in the UK then that's all to the good.
The DG's plans will now need Trust approval and would involve changes to the BBC's Royal Charter. This will take several years. There'll be plenty of rows along the way, there are major vested interests at play. But we should all keep in mind the most important people in the debate: the audience. How can it possibly be wrong that for the money they pay they are served the best ideas on TV, Radio and Online? To get the best ideas we need neither in-house BBC nor independent producers to be guaranteed work but for fair and balanced competition to prevail. When that day comes the audience will be happy and "Tony will love it".