Is Mark Thompson a good proxy for Gordon Brown? Should the BBC move to rescue struggling media companies as the government is saving struggling banks? Should the BBC recapitalise British culture by taking stakes in bust public service providers?
Call this a flight of fancy but consider the circumstances. 1 We’re at the beginning of a (presumably) longish recession that will certainly shred advertising revenues across the board. 2 We’re a couple of years into the net’s final demolition of various critical media business models (let’s start with small ads, packaged recorded music, paid-for newspapers, expensive console games and <insert your favourite here>). 3 We’re about to start losing public service provision all over the place: market failure looms.
So what if the BBC took on the task of refloating the entire sector? Not a strategic subset—the whole lot. What if Thompson decided to follow through on his recent statements about sharing and open the doors to provide unconditional access to its bank of content, code, infrastructure, talent, processes and standards to all-comers?
Here’s an example (fanciful too: just stay with me on this): C4 Radio (deceased). Could the BBC revive C4 Radio by opening its production and distribution infrastructure to the startup, leaving C4 only to come up with ideas and sell ads? C4 Radio could shrink back to a sliver of its more ambitious self and might quite possibly thrive, boosting the value of DAB in Britain and potentially rescuing a doomed multiplex.
And if all this sounds terribly radical and anti-competitive, just take out your cheque book and contemplate the fact that you now own a largish chunk of the bank that issued it. Gordon Brown was a loser a week ago but a few days and an outrageous market intervention later and he’s a bona fide superhero: a Roosevelt figure cloaked in glory. Mark Thompson’s principle legacy could be the translation of the BBC from a lofty, closed and hesitant creature of the inter-war establishment to an engaged, open and bold actor in the next wave of British media and culture.
And to bring this particular flight in to land, here’s another example: could the BBC’s grassroots developer network Backstage be beefed up to provide a real platform for media and tech startups? A blend of open source content and code with the hard web services needed to launch an online business (we used to call these things ‘incubators’). Could BBC Backstage become an agent for recovery in difficult times for UK Plc?