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BBC is interested in reach, not in revenue, says Francesca Unsworth

LiveMint logoLiveMint 21-07-2017 Harveen Ahluwalia

New Delhi: The BBC World Service is on an expansion spree in India. By October, the UK’s public broadcaster plans to launch digital and video content in four Indian languages—Telugu, Marathi, Punjabi and Gujarati—a move that follows a funding boost of £285 million (over the next four years) by the UK government.

Francesca Unsworth, director of BBC World Service, was in Delhi recently, visiting the bureau which is set to become the broadcaster’s largest outside the UK. The plan behind the expansion, she said, is to reach half a billion people globally by 2022—the year BBC turns hundred.

In an interview, Unsworth talks about the future of digital content, expectations from the Indian market and why everyone in the digital news business should be worried right now. Edited excerpts:

How big are you globally?

Globally, we operate in 29 languages and we are about to expand into 11 new languages, four of which are Indian. We are planning an October launch for our new services—Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Telugu, in addition to the already existing Hindi, Tamil and English. The new services will include videos, digital content and television news bulletins. We are looking for partners to carry our TV news bulletins. For instance, our Tamil news bulletins are carried by Thanthi TV (a Chennai-based Tamil news channel).

Currently, we reach 378 million people globally and 28 million in India across platforms (radio, television and digital). The aim is to reach half a billion people by 2022—the year BBC turns hundred.

Which medium is driving growth for you?

Growth is everywhere. Our audiences went up by 12% last year and the biggest area of growth was television. Clearly, television is still an incredible platform in spite of the increased focus on digital. We believe that television is very important for brand recognition, while digital connects us directly to our viewers. As for radio, audiences are growing largely in North America and Europe, partly because people can listen to us on the Internet. All we need is Internet penetration for that, which in a way is again digital. 

It’s an “and” world and not a “or” world. People are going to use devices and still watch TV.

What potential do you see in India?

India is a very important market for us. The world is moving east and India is a powerhouse. With the new services, India is going to be our largest bureau outside the UK.

Globally, we are expecting to add 80 million audiences, with this expansion. Our success in India will depend on how successful we are with our partnerships here. For instance, our Tamil bulletins on Thanthi TV reach eight million people. We are looking to replicate that kind of success through our other partnerships. We are interested in reach and audiences, not in revenue. We do anticipate that the Indian market will help us substantially increase our audiences.

How much are you planning to invest in India?

We received a boost from the UK government last year. We will be given £285 million over a period of four years, which will be an addition to our annual budget (licence fee) of £255 million.

We can’t break down our investment by country, but we will be investing tens of millions in India. We currently have 90 employees in India and we will be hiring 160 more, taking the count to 250. Our main office will be in Delhi and we will have reporters working in other cities.

Are there any plans to launch a regional BBC TV channel in India?

No. We don’t have money for that because it is pretty expensive. Also, TV news is a very crowded market. We have decided to focus on digital and social media here.

With this expansion, we are transforming ourselves into digital operatives. We are getting away from the legacy broadcast mediums to something more modern. We are trying to develop the social space and come up with imaginative content which is attractive to audiences in the digital space.

How do you plan to combat fake news?

By holding true to our values, which are primarily about accuracy. We come out as one of the most trusted news brands globally, in fact. One can assume that if it is a BBC story, it is fact-checked. Of course, there is a scope for mistakes; we are human. But we don’t report rumours or things that haven’t been investigated. Fake news is a real problem because it is leading to a lack of trust among audiences. All platforms (TV, radio and digital) are affected by this issue.

Will you focus on advertising or subscription revenue (for digital)?

Subscription model would be quite difficult for us. We take public money, hence we can’t charge subscription fee. We are not a commercial organization. Our digital advertising revenue is very marginal, except for BBC English.

BBC English is commercially funded because advertisers are prepared to pay. Otherwise, advertising revenue for us is a medium to recover cost, not to sustain a channel. If our commercial revenue increases over the years, we may look at subscription models for BBC English, but that is way down the road.

Where is the future of digital, in advertising or behind a paywall?

The problem is that advertising is moving towards digital from the legacy mediums of news because audiences are in the former. India, however, still has a growing print market. The money that you get out of digital advertising is not enough to support quality news. I believe that people around the world will eventually have to pay for news. We are seeing some of the world’s most established media companies like The New York Times moving towards a subscription model and they are finding it quite successful. But these are very old successful brands.

We don’t know how much space there is for smaller firms in the subscription market. We are living in very worrying times as to how quality news is going to be funded in the future. We can still provide good quality news because we are publicly funded.

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