5 reasons why the BBC's international news site shouldn't take advertising
The other day when I was writing about an auction on eBay for FTP access to a .gov site in the USA, I jokingly wondered how much FTP access to the BBC site might be worth. At some point before the end of this year, or at least early next year, we will probably find out, as the BBC will be taking a decision on whether it will accept advertising on the international versions of the BBC web site.
I start off straight away by saying that I used to work for the Licence Fee funded UK part of the BBC's online services, and specifically on some of the areas like the international facing homepage which will be affected by the advertising initiative if it goes ahead.
I also have a great deal of experience of using the BBC's content from abroad, whether online, on TV or on the radio. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I got a real frisson when for the first time the words that I have heard half-way through the second half of a football game on a Saturday so many times in the UK on Radio Five Live - "and now we welcome listeners from the World Service" – were actually addressed to me.
However, advertising on BBC services is something that seems fundamentally alien in nature to me, having grown up in the UK.
When I first went travelling around Europe earlier this year, on the occasions that I got to stay somewhere with cable or satellite TV, the initial joy of finding the BBC World news channel was available was almost immediately tempered by the fact that it wasn’t the "proper" BBC. This was chiefly because of the advertising, or at least the breaks in programming included to accommodate advertising in the places where it was required. Even after a year, that feeling hasn't diminished, and the other week watching the advertising slots on BBC World in Linz aggravated me, and seemed just as "wrong" as they did 12 months ago.
With that all in mind, here are the five reasons that I do not believe the BBC should have advertising on the international editions of the BBC’s website.
1) Not everyone viewing the site abroad is a non-Licence Fee payer
One of the arguments for introducing advertising for users of the online service outside of the UK is that these users do not pay the Licence Fee and therefore are getting the service "for nothing".
This is not always the case.
Under the current proposal, any UK resident who accesses the service from abroad whilst travelling, visiting somewhere on business, or living outside the UK for some portion of the year would be subject to advertisements on the BBC website. This will be regardless of whether they have already paid their Licence Fee for the service back in the UK, and, as I understand it, regardless of whether they have previously set their preference for the "UK edition" when they were using a UK originating IP address.
When I worked on the BBC's project to introduce a new international homepage at www.bbc.co.uk, some of the use cases that the BBC's Licence Fee funded central New Media department were most keen to see addressed concerned this very issue.
It was important that the casual user of the BBC site who was on holiday and was using it to check what the weather would be like when they get back to the UK (probably rainy) could do that easily. And also easily catch-up with The Archers. Or check the latest SPL scores. Or participate in their regular BBC community site like collective. Or any of the other myriad uses that they have for the bbc.co.uk site, which they expect to see without advertising.
In future, if these commercial proposals go ahead, those Licence Fee payers who are temporarily out of the country and want to check on what the news is back home will be treated like the non-Licence Fee paying user, subject to advertising on the BBC site that they have already paid over 130 pounds a year for.
2) The strength of the negative reaction on the BBC's own site
Back in April this year the BBC carried out a survey of users to see how they would feel about advertising on the site. They also opened a "Have Your Say" thread on the topic which can still be read, although comments can no longer be posted.
The BBC is an organisation that claims in their values that "Audiences are at the heart of everything we do". Here are some quotes from that audience on that "Have Your Say" message board:
"It is with great regret that I see you are contemplating the sacrifice of the BBC's worldwide reputation for accuracy, impartiality, and excellence on the altar of commercial profit."
"Adverts affect independence. How soon would it be before a story gets either changed or spiked when it potentially offends a big advertiser on the site?"
"When I read the headline I thought Ads on the BBC website, sure, whats the problem. Then I opened the sample picture showing what it could look like. I changed my mind in a second. It seemed odd and, well, cheap! I guess sometimes you don't realise what you have, until it's covered with ads."
"As a reader, I'd simply lose most (if not all) trust in the BBC's independence."
"Reporting from the BBC additionally promotes British use of English, British culture and British perspectives and is among a limited number of exports that brings the nation respect and maintains its international significance. The BBC should not be underestimated nor undermined."
"The last thing the earth needs is another for profit news service."
"This is about the last site that is serious about giving just news, why do you want to ruin it? Just because we are not in the UK?"
"The BBC is without doubt the envy of the world. It is considered un-biased, honest and fair - these are seen as "it's" values. Would if be possible for the BBC to incorporate advertising and still retain these values? Without diluting any of them? Would it be possible to ensure editorial integrity?"
"Ads make everything feel like its for sale, and news should be and feel impartial."
"The BBC does not carry advertisements on the World Service. I fail to see the difference between the International web site and the World Service, in that they both seek to reach an International audience."
Of course, a message board is self-selecting, and, some people would argue, subject to censorship and bias, but I did an unscientific round-up of the top rated 150 comments out of the 1,097 comments published. These had been recommended by at least 7 other users.
Of the 150 comments, 122 (81%) were against the BBC having advertising online. Breaking that down further, of the 66 comments that claimed to originate from outside of the UK, 90% of those, the very target audience for the proposed adverts, were against advertising.
3) Restrictions on the BBC World Service's ability to reference other online BBC material
The funding of the BBC is complex, but essentially the UK services are paid for by the Licence Fee, the World Service is paid for by the UK government's Foreign Office, and BBC Worldwide is charged with developing commercial profit-making opportunities for the BBC brand both in the UK and around the world.
There are very strict rules about how the service can cross-promote each other.
Under the current rules, it is OK for the BBC World Service to direct people to the BBC's website, because the World Service is funded by UK taxpayers, and the website is not a commercial operation.
However, if the online news service from the BBC outside of the UK becomes an advertising supported commercial operation, under the current rules the public funded content production arm of the BBC should not be able to routinely refer to the BBC’s website without at least pointing out that "other international news websites are also available".
The BBC already often gets itself into a branding pickle when trying to refer to other internal departments, and with BBC World this even leaks onto the screen, where announcers top and tail each bulletin with BBC brand-laden links like "This is the latest news from BBC World. From BBC News", which just sounds bizarre to anyone who doesn’t appreciate the cross-subsidy issue at play.
I find it difficult to see how placing advertisements next to journalistic content produced by either the Licence Fee or the Grant-in-Aid funded parts of the organisation can meet the BBC's current criteria for fair trade and cross-promotion.
4) Historical cross-subsidy of the service
However the BBC tries to square the circle about the ongoing cross-subsidy between the publicly funded journalistic output and BBC Worldwide's profit, one thing that should not be overlooked is that historically the technology and content that has put the BBC in this position has been publicly funded.
If the BBC wanted to move into the online news business today from scratch, there would be howls of protest from the commercial market, and no doubt that it would be subject to the new "Public Value Test" and a market impact study. At the time BBC News Online was launched, I don't think it was realised how serious a player in the market for online news the BBC would be. Indeed, whilst I was at the BBC I heard one senior executive say that with BBC News Online the BBC went from being "a broadcaster to a newspaper publisher" without anyone noticing.
However, supplying advertising supported news outside of the UK is surely a significant enough change for BBC Worldwide to have to face carrying out a market impact study now.
Two key factors have put the BBC's online news brand into a position where Accenture apparently report it could earn 105m GBP per year from advertising.
Firstly, there is over ten years of recognised online journalistic excellence, from the BBC’s first ever online coverage of a budget in the UK, through to today's BBC News site with all the blogs, pictures, video, and bells and whistles that come with it.
Secondly, the ability to deliver this kind of targeted advertising relies upon the development of the technical platform that allows the BBC to detect whether a user is viewing the site from within the UK or not.
Without a doubt a great deal of the time that people like me and technical staff in the publicly funded BBC News division spent on specifying and delivering the system that would provide the ability to deliver different content to geographically different audiences was funded by the Licence Fee under the stated goal that:
all the news and features, analysis and audio/video content we produce are available in both editions. What we've done is make it easier for you to access, depending on where you live.
Our international users have told us in audience research that they value the BBC's news and information services and want to be able to get to them quickly and simply.
This work was clearly not undertaken with the goal of providing a means to deliver advertising to those outside of the UK firewall.
If the BBC decides to introduce online advertising for those outside the UK, delivering an international edition of the news on the BBC site will have been a public funded Trojan Horse to exploit the BBC's journalistic integrity for international commercial gain.
5) Editorial Integrity
Which brings me to probably my most important point. All of the cross-subsidy issues are frankly financially technical ones that I suspect will only concern politicians, BIPA, TVlicensing.biz, and BBC staff. Much more damaging to the BBC is the knock-on effect that the move will inevitably have on the perception of the BBC's journalistic independence. This has already been demonstrated by the strength of feeling in some of the comments I quoted earlier.
The BBC is a premium brand, and I'm sure that BBC Worldwide would be careful about who advertised on the site, and would only accept advertising from other premium brands.
But will the international public trust reports on the site about climate change if a global airline is a major international advertising partner?
Or coverage of how safe it might be to travel within a particular country, if that country's tourist board has been advertising on the site?
At the moment all of the written online content from BBC News is still available to all users regardless of whether the user has selected the international or UK editions. Will this continue to be the case, or will the BBC start to play the game where for the convenience of the relationship with advertisers it ceases to be a global provider of news, and instead is careful to makes certain stories available unavailable within certain territories?
Will the Licence Fee funded current affairs team in the UK feel they would be able to investigate a story involving a major British business if their parent company is a regular contributor to BBC Worldwide's coffers?
This to me strikes at the heart of the proposal to allow advertising next to the BBC's journalism – how can the BBC claim to be an authoritative, impartial, global news organisation if it takes advertising from global corporations?
How can senior BBC News executives use the fact that the corporation's web output is banned from China as a badge of honour that they are providing news that upsets governments, if they are taking advertising money from the major global corporations that are happy to do business with China on the Chinese government's terms?
If the BBC has one unique selling point for their online news site, it is surely that out of all the top news brands in the whole of the global online economy, it is the one that doesn’t take advertising, and the one that can afford to take that principled position.
Finally, a sixth point that I think it is important to note, is that in the context of the current Licence Fee settlement, even the upper Accenture estimate of BBC Worldwide's potential income of 105m GBP annually from international online advertising in 2011 amounts to only around 2.5% of the public funded BBC's income in 2006.
On the other hand, 105m GBP advertising income would represent revenue significantly more than BBC Worldwide's current profit level of 89m GBP.
Placed in that context, with it needing little or no investment in content or infrastructure, putting some adverts on top of content that has been produced by either the Licence Fee supported or Foreign Office Grant-in-Aid funded bits of the BBC to double your profits seems like pretty easy and obvious business to me for BBC Worldwide.
However, as one contributor put it on the BBC's own Have Your Say debate on the subject:
Those who want to destroy this ad-free BBC for the sake of a couple of pounds a week are only looking at the price we pay, not the value we get.