"New icons achieve scale so fast [...] linking us together and enabling us to do the work of creation and production ourselves" Flickr/Freestocks Some rights reserved
The BBC was created in a very different era. Back then, broadcasting was itself a democratising concept: the idea that everyone in the country might have access to information, education and entertainment opened up whole new horizons for our society. Paternalistic though it undoubtedly was, it was the kind of paternalism we needed. Power was so concentrated in the hands of a few that the BBC represented a major, almost revolutionary concession. It rightly became a global icon of what was then a new way of thinking.
Now though, times have changed. In every sector, and across the world, we are seeing a new era of democratisation, a new story of society, even a new kind of power. And we have new icons to match. Airbnb is perhaps the best example: founded only in 2008, it has over a million rooms in 192 countries. Hilton, by contrast, has taken nearly a century to broach half a million in around 80 countries. Such new icons achieve scale so fast by operating as platforms not broadcasters, linking us together and enabling us to do the work of creation and production ourselves, not doing it for us and projecting out at us. If that creates a window for disruption in hospitality (of all things), you can be sure the same is true of the media.
For the BBC, that window of disruption could be a window of opportunity. We could be about to experience a new golden age of the organisation. It won’t be easy, as a huge and unwieldy beast has grown up around structures of commissioning, editing, and governance (and the rest) that will soon become obsolete and could easily take the whole organisation with them. But the core idea of a public organisation committed to sustaining our culture remains as powerful now as it was at the very beginning.
The challenge, though, is this: the BBC and its staff can no longer think and operate as a broadcasting corporation, holding their cultural task close to their chests, with us as audiences on the outside and on receive. Instead, those inside the organisation need to open their arms, actively seeking to share their task with us, seeing the whole nation - not just the direct employees, or even the production companies they commission - as participants in creating and sustaining our culture.
What would that look like in practice? Let’s take as an illustrative example the recent decision to make BBC Three solely an online proposition. Looking from outside, what essentially happened was that the brains inside the organisation made a decision about what was right without asking us, submitted it for approval to another shadowy organisation that we don’t really understand, which ran a painfully boring consultation which we all ultimately believed was an inauthentic rubber-stamping exercise, and then the decision was carried out.
But what if the BBC had held the question at the heart of this work with us, instead of deciding the answer for us and without us? That question might have been something like this:
“How can the BBC best harness and sustain youth cultures in Britain? Is the existing service, including BBC Three as a television channel, the best way to do it?”
This is so different, because here the question is not a binary approval or rejection on what was evidently a done deal, but an open and generative shared inquiry. They could have published the data on viewing figures and media consumption habits among young people. They could have set up open innovation processes through platforms like OpenIDEO, held hack weekends and deliberative assemblies, hosted and facilitated live discussions on and offline. They could have integrated this whole process into programming in creative ways.
Treated like this, it could have been the biggest opportunity of the last decade to inspire and harness the creativity of a generation. The final decision might well have been to move BBC Three online. But not only would the BBC have done so with a mandate, with buy-in and support, I’m willing to bet some great new ideas would have surfaced along the way too.
This is just one example. ￼You could apply this shift in orientation to the big urgent questions, holding them with the audience and facilitating the debate, not just raising the defensive wall. Should Tyson Fury be on the SPOTY shortlist? The debates happen anyway; host them and the BBC will be able to play a constructive role, not just appear as the blocker.
You could apply this logic incrementally to individual services, further fuelling the constant innovation that already characterises the best parts of the BBC. How could Radio 4 harness its audience to become an even richer conversation than it already is?
This last point is an important one: in many parts of the 800-pound gorilla that the BBC has become, this is already the orientation. The idea of shifting from a broadcasting corporation, indulging in the futile task of holding British culture tight, to an arms-open movement, inspiring all of us to participate, is both on the one hand huge and distant, and on the other already under way and clearly achievable.
There are big barriers: the current governance structure leaves little space and arguably contributes directly to situations like BBC Three; the mass media hovers over the BBC like a dark cloud, threatening every attempt at innovation. There is uncertainty inherent in this shift because no directly analogous organisation has yet made it in full.
But staring at these barriers is pointless. There is no need to launch some enormous programme. What the BBC needs to do to head in this direction is simply to start. Bring together the people across the organisation who are already on it, celebrate them, and support them to lead the change. Take the nascent ill-defined Ideas Service, and give it the sort of space to become something different that the Open University gave its wholly-owned FutureLearn platform. Take a strategic challenge, the next BBC Three, and experiment with the new tools of genuine participation at a scale that does not threaten the whole. Don’t theorise, just start.
Before Airbnb arrived, the first real upstart in the hospitality sector was Couchsurfing. This was the first disruptor in the sector, but it didn’t really register with the big guys because it was really only an early adopter thing. Hilton didn’t even notice it. Youtube, Huffington Post, and all the others are to the BBC what Couchsurfing was to Hilton. But I would bet anything you like that the Airbnb is coming. The BBC can choose to create it and become it. Or it can ignore this and risk becoming obsolete.
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