to its respected status as a granddaddy of great programming today, the brand has consistently used its uniquely independent position to the best advantage.
Internationally, the BBC brand is famous for its impartial news coverage, its entertainment programs and its website. That reputation holds true domestically, as well, but in addition the BBC is renowned for its public service.
Any exploration of the BBC must begin with its somewhat unique business model. The Beeb (as it is affectionately referred to by the Brits) is, by Royal Charter, a broadcast media network in the public service. However, unlike public networks in some other countries, it is completely independent of government intervention. This leaves it free to concentrate on quality programming that it believes is in the national interest.
In the UK, the BBC runs two public television stations, a 24-hour cable news station, five national radio stations (simply named Radio 1, Radio 2, etc.) and a website, all funded by licenses sold to a domestic audience. On the commercial side, BBC Worldwide (the BBC subsidiary) offers radio in over 40 languages, and television and Internet for an international audience.
BBC radio first launched in the 1920s as a commercial station but was granted its first Royal Charter (and began collecting licensing fees) in 1927. To avoid competing with newspapers, it broadcast news only after 7:00 pm.
By 1932, it was broadcast throughout Europe in French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and of course, English, through its Empire Service (later renamed the less imperialistically sounding “BBC World”). By the end of the 1930s, 98% of the British population could follow events by tuning into the BBC radio.
In 1939, regularly scheduled radio programming was replaced with Home Service for the duration of the war. Home Service was hailed as a first rate news source both at home and abroad, proving especially valuable to many who followed in occupied countries and contentious to the Germans who scrambled the service at any opportunity.
Among the most popular news programs was understandably the nightly War Report, which drew16 million listeners and, for the French, Ici Londres, which broadcast messages to the French Resistance. In addition to outstanding news coverage, lighter war year programs like It’s That Man Again and Sincerely Yours built the BBC’s entertainment reputation as well.
Following up on the brand’s success during World War II, the UK also turned to the BBC for happier occasions. In 1953, for example, 20 million viewers watched Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on the BBC, and in 1969, they watched the first moon landing. Royal weddings, Olympic events, war and conflict: the BBC promises a thoughtful, well-researched rendering of all.
Television of course dominated in the post-war years. The BBC continued its mission to develop programs that were important to national interests but these programs frequently appealed to international audiences as well. Domestic television highlights have included That Was the Week That Was, Songs of Praise, Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Dr. Who, Top of the Pops, The Two Ronnies, Yes Minister, Blackadder, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, Postman Pat, Absolutely Fabulous, Wallace and Gromit and Gormenghast.
BBC programs were also successfully exported, bringing an internationally recognized reputation to the British for their sense of humor and attention to serious, unbiased reportage.
The BBC continued to expand its radio programming as well, and by the 1990s, it operated five domestic radio stations offering a variety of formats, in addition to international broadcasts.
In the 1990s, the BBC successfully brought its brand online, uniting all of the elements for which it is famous into an enormous, but easily navigable site (www.bbc.co.uk). The web, too, serves up news in a Babel of languages, as well as offering all of the services that consumers have come to expect online: quizzes, emailed news bulletins, and interactive features like Talking Point, where visitors can post their thoughts on current news stories.
And it’s on the web where international visitors can begin to get a taste of the BBC’s commitment to public service and enrichment in the UK. One of the Beeb’s goals, domestically, is to be the place where its audience turns to first for events of national significance.
Another facet of its public service mission is the BBC’s long-standing commitment to education. This goes beyond Teletubbies and other educational children’s programming to include distance learning in conjunction with the Open University and adult literacy programs.
However, the BBC’s future is not assured. Much like any other broadcast network, the brand faces increasing competition from the barrage of media resources available through recent technological advances such as the Internet, cable and satellite dishes.
A more unique crisis, however, centers on debate around how the business can balance its public and private commitments. Much of the mission – and consequently the branding – has been built around the BBC’s public service. However, critics suggest that the BBC should become more commercial, to dispel the whinging about license fees, if for no other reason.
Thus far, the BBC has stemmed the crisis by splitting the business into public (domestic) and private (international) ventures. And while the public vs. private debate is about business strategy, rather than brand, it is sure to have some effect on the brand in years to come.