Media's New Year resolutions: be brave and collaborate to thrive
Media LeadersThe UK's national media organisations, whether funded by advertising or licence fee, can flourish alongside the international media giants. But they must resolve to innovate more and find better ways to reach audiences.
In 1984 The Times sent a message to Samuel Beckett, the Irish Nobel Prize-winning writer, asking for his New Year resolutions and hopes for the year ahead.
Succinct to the last Beckett replied by telegram: “Resolutions: Zero. Hopes: Zero.”
Beckett was hardly an optimist either in his life or his work, but in the year ahead there are some resolutions the media can make and hopes that are a long way from zero, although the glass may only be half full.
Big Apple? More like scary Apple
The threats are obvious. Right on cue to celebrate the New Year, Apple became the first $3tn company in history. The enormous scale of its capital value and power can be judged by the fact that during a pandemic it has added $1tn – one thousand billion dollars – in a single year.
Shares and market capitalisations can go down as well as up, but there is no question that such market power enables the company to do what it wants and become even more of a player in the international media than it is already.
Apple’s services division is now one of the company’s fastest growing divisions. For services read video.
The UK’s tiny little media organisations such as ITV, or even NewsCorp, can only look at $3tn – more than the combined value of all the FTSE 100 companies – and tremble.
Should Apple choose, it could snap up any UK media company and many of the largest international operators with the flick of a pen. In 2022 it really might.
Next month Netflix is expected to announce that its global total of subscribers has grown to a mighty 220 million – a remarkable achievement – and an equally noticeable threat to the national public service broadcasters of Europe with its commissioning firepower.
Sceptics will note that the rate of growth for the house of Squid Game and The Queen’s Gambit is running at half that of 2020 with “only” around 800,000 subs added in the UK in 2021.
As Disney+ continues to storm away, is Netflix approaching a plateau, albeit it a very high one?
Ad revenue recovery set to continue
The good news for Britain’s national media organisations, whether funded by advertising or licence fee, is there is a growing appreciation that they can continue to flourish alongside the international media giants.
The trick is to represent resolutely the voices, interests and passions of the UK population and argue the case that their roles are vital in maintaining national dialogues and identities.
American entertainment giants are an increasingly important part of the mix but absolutely no substitute for the output of properly funded public service broadcasters.
This is increasingly well understood, apart perhaps by the Murdoch press and politicians such as Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries who apparently believes the BBC is merely a poor man’s Netflix. Dorries notoriously also thinks Channel 4 is paid for by public funds.
The UK media more than recovered its capital value in 2021 from pre-Covid days. It also saw a remarkable recovery in advertising revenues, particularly in television, and can now storm ahead this year.
The only proviso is that the country is not forced by the Covid 19 pandemic to impose another full lockdown.
Unfortunately viruses mutate continuously – a fact not always fully understood by the likes of The Sun and the Daily Mail, although the Mail has just reported that another “variant of concern” has popped up in Marseille via Cameroon.
Mandate for public service broadcasting remains strong
At the moment, and it seems almost sad to have to say so, the greatest threat to the British media, one of the country’s truly competitive international industries, comes from the British Government. There are threats to privatise Channel 4 – hopefully receding, threats to Ofcom because the Government doesn’t like its independent rulings, and threats to reduce the BBC licence fee in real terms.
There is no more certain way to hobble the BBC in its battle against the like of Netflix than by limiting its ability to compete in the high-end drama market.
Sir Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s press chief and former senior BBC news executive, has thrown in his deeply unhelpful tuppence worth by suggesting that perhaps the BBC could charge extra for premium programmes.
He must have known this is the introduction of subscription by the back door and the start of undermining the BBC as a national broadcaster paid for by all and available to all.
There would then be two classes of BBC viewers and how precisely could you decide what attract an extra charge and what would not. And what would the additional cost be of charging for individual programmes alongside universal services?
It is such a bad idea it will probably be seized on by Dorries as camouflage for cuts imposed on the BBC.
New Year resolutions must include the wider media industry coming to the defence of the BBC as many did in exposing the folly that privatisation of Channel 4 would represent.
Labour peer Lord Bragg has already spoken out, as has BBC director-general Tim Davie, but much more will be required from those outside the BBC to prevent the deliberate impoverishment of an essential British institution.
Innovate and collaborate to survive
This year the media must up its game in exposing the fake news and conspiracy theories that threaten democracies everywhere, usually spread by the billionaires if not trillionaires of Califormia.
Twitter has taken a decent step forward by permanently suspending US Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene for repeated breeches of its Covid misinformation rules.
Yet NewsGuard, which monitors such things, has found that close to 100 US websites are still spreading misinformation about the 2020 presidential election and the aftermath at the Capitol last January.
More investigative reporting, despite its expense, would also help.
Another resolution has to be about putting more effort into innovation, finding new and better ways to reach audiences and help fund the media.
Substack of the US is an interesting example of innovation by, for instance, providing the infrastructure which allows subscription newsletters to flourish.
Above all, the public service broadcasters of Europe much accelerate their collaborative ventures, not just to cut costs but fund glossy features in the battle against Netflix. The production credits for Around The World in Eighty Days included many of Europe’s leading broadcasters.
For now forget Beckett and go for lots of resolutions, a dash of optimism and lashings of hope. Despite everything it really can be a very good and prosperous New Year for the British Media.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for Mediatel News on Wednesdays.
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