The man who takes care of business at the BBC tells Chris Curtis how a mixture of new technology and a change of mindset could help the whole industry save and survive.
The TV industry doesn’t often talk about business,” says Bal Samra. He’s right - or at least, he used to be. With top execs lining up to pronounce this recession the worst in broadcasting history, at the moment the industry is talking about little else.
This suits Samra who, as BBC director of business affairs and BBC Vision director of operations, sets the agenda for how the corporation deals commercially with talent, indies and other external organisations.
Being the business face of a publicly funded corporation is not the contradiction it might seem. The BBC’s myriad efficiency targets include saving £1bn at BBC Vision over the next five years, so although it is not facing advertising Armageddon, like ITV and Channel 4, it too is in cost-cutting mode.
The BBC’s response to the double whammy of PSB overhaul and the recession is to try to help support the whole sector. Among Samra’s responsibilities is making the BBC partnership proposals a reality, working towards a new, rather radical industry business model that he describes as “win/win”.
Samra believes the old, adversarial system of broadcasters and indies trying to outgun each other needs to be replaced, at least in part, by collaborative efforts to “grow the whole cake”.
There has been a mixed reaction to the BBC’s partnership proposals. ITV has embraced the Project Canvas IPTV initiative and could save more than £7m a year from the regional news partnership, which looks likely to go ahead. Channel 4 has been less welcoming: chief executive Andy Duncan claims the BBC’s proposals are worth only “tens of millions”, compared with a BBC estimate of £120m.
Samra, however, is “energised by this sharing agenda” and determined that the BBC can convince the rest of the industry to play ball.
“Rival broadcasters have a common interest in working together. Why? Because it will help them overcome common challenges. I believe you can do that and still deliver the benefits of creative competition.”
With indies, too, Samra believes there is evidence that the new model works. “Whether it was agreeing the terms of trade or creating the WoCC [Window of Creative Competition], it’s about creating the right conditions for the win/win, and within that there’s competition.”
Having played a pivotal role establishing both terms of trade and the WoCC, Samra has a history of turning abstract ideas into reality. He worked at Ford, Unilever and GEC before joining the BBC, and his language reflects this, combining business jargon with the sometimes baffling Vision-speak of the BBC.
Talk of “ecologies”, “business lenses” and the BBC being “porous” litters the interview, and I regularly have to admit I don’t understand his point - which is ironic, as one of his key messages is that better sharing of ideas and communication can help the industry as a whole to thrive.
The Digital Media Initiative (DMI) is a key part of this. Its two core components are using new technology to save production costs and creating standard digitised content that can be more readily used for different purposes. The plan is to share both parts with the industry at large.
Samra gives an example: “When I was in current affairs, which was a long time ago, a day’s filming was eight hours. You might actually get five hours in the can, but only use two minutes on screen. How much of that ends on the cutting room floor? It could be reversioned and you could explore all kinds of ways of monetising it.”
If this still seems a bit abstract, the figures involved might make the industry take note. The BBC is planning to cut TV production costs by about 20% over the next few years and it estimates that production efficiencies from the DMI could reduce costs by 2.5% per hour, or £100m by 2015. The wider industry, it says, could save £40m per year through sharing the initiative.
The price of talent
Another area where the BBC may save the industry money, albeit unwittingly, is talent costs. Samra shies away from bold proclamations, but the message is clear.
“The market conditions for on-air talent are clearly changing - and that means the BBC should be able to secure deals for the best talent for less than we have done in the past. Talent fees are not excluded from the economic pressures we face across the organisation. That will have to be reflected in ongoing negotiations.”
No more golden-handcuff deals then? Samra may not like the term (he prepares “exclusive contracts”), but he defends the practice. “Considering we do 380,000 contracts a year, the number of exclusive ones is miniscule. But in some genres, exclusive deals are important - in journalism, it protects the BBC’s impartiality.”
But does the BBC really need exclusive deals with controversial chat show hosts? Samra doesn’t take the bait. “There are areas where the BBC’s relationship with talent and the programmes they produce is important. We wouldn’t want Clarkson fronting a motoring show on another channel, for example. But given the market conditions, and our desire to drive value, in some cases we might want to allow ourselves and the talent more flexibility.”
If spending on talent looks set to change, spending on acquisitions doesn’t. C4 boss Andy Duncan last week urged the BBC to stop driving up prices by bidding for acquisitions. It remains a prickly subject, but the efficiency-obsessed Samra deals with it efficiently.
“Acquisitions used in the right ways represent good value. Audiences enjoy them. But are we in the game of competing for acquisitions? Let’s have some facts.”
Samra fires off some statistics: of the nine most recent acquisitions the BBC has attempted, he says, seven were sealed without a competitive process. In one case it outbid a rival and in another it walked away. The net effect, Samra says, is that the BBC can acquire shows without inflating prices. He also points out that US drama and comedy will account for just 1.5% of the BBC’s output in 2009/10, and that the money saved by airing acquired rather than commissioned shows can in turn be pumped into originations for other parts of the schedule.
Even when handling this direct attack on the BBC, Samra is surprisingly jovial - especially for a former England amateur boxer whose job is now to squeeze down costs and drive value for money.
He is clearly driven by work but unwinds by spending weekends in Sussex with his family. A former chairman of the BBC Football Club, his playing is now confined to midweek five-a-side with the likes of Peter Salmon - these days, he is more likely to be kicking around big ideas than footballs.
“Sometimes people look at me and think, oh God, he’s got these blue-sky ideas, but hopefully my track record shows you can turn the blue skies into reality.”
Career BBC director of business affairs and BBC Vision director of operations since January 2007. Joined the BBC’s management board in January 2007. Since joining the BBC in 1991, his roles have included business and finance manager for the launch of Radio 5 Live and Head of finance, continuous news. Before the BBC he held commercial roles at GEC, Ford and Unilever.
Education Diploma in Business Studies from Thurrock Management Centre, Essex; Advanced Management Programme at Wharton Business School, USA.
Family Married with two young sons.
Hobbies Football, tennis, working through the Dangerous Book for Boys, gardening.
Watches/listens David Attenborough’s Life series, period dramas, Grand Designs, Jonathan Ross on Radio 2, The Thick of It, This Week, live football.
Career high Launch of Radio 5 Live.
BBC partnership proposals
Open the BBC iPlayer technology to other PSBs
Develop an IPTV industry standard (Project Canvas)
Pool regional news resources
Share technology to produce and edit digital content
Possible newspaper syndication partnership to share BBC content
Play a broader role in media literacy, the promotion of broadband and digital radio