On October 1, 2001, Gavyn Davies succeeded Sir Christopher Bland to the post of chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation. His election made history on several fronts. Davies was previously vice-chairman and is the only deputy to be promoted to the top title. He is also the first chairman to be selected by an independent panel under the open process of Nolan Rules. Ironically, it is also the first time the chairman and the director general (DG) support the same political party – both Davies and dg Greg Dyke have strong links to Labour, which puts the pubcaster in a politically sensitive position.
Looking ahead, it’s likely Davies’ five-year term will continue its crescendo. One of his first tasks as chairman was to manage the cost of covering events associated with September 11 (estimated at £1 million per week in the three weeks following the attacks). Over-extended news budgets are already causing the documentary community concern and if the war in Afghanistan persists, finding funds will become increasingly complicated.
Davies’ ultimate task – to ensure the bbc’s charter and license are renewed in 2006 – will be troublesome. Earlier this year, the pubcaster’s competitors expressed concern over the Beeb’s new digital channels, arguing unfair competition. It’s likely this argument will be heard again in 2006. Considering the quality and volume of factual and educational output from outlets such as Channel 4 and Channel 5, Davies’ logical rebuttal – that the BBC completes the market more than it competes with it – will be a challenge. Grumbles that programs such as The Blue Planet are the exception, or rather that the BBC is dumbing down, provide a preview of not-so-distant hurdles.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that shortly after it was announced that Davies would be chairman, he was widely quoted complaining that the BBC schedule had too many ‘semi-factual’ programs based on diy, gardening and cookery. In his estimation, they were cheapening the pubcaster’s reputation. Further, at the beginning of November, 129 jobs were cut from the BBC’s Factual and Learning division, most of them from the London-based doc unit largely responsible for producing docusoaps. Glenwyn Benson, joint director of Factual and Learning, explained the cuts resulted from a shift in focus to big-budget event programs, which are less staff intensive. With 2006 looming, it’s likely Davies will continue to ensure that BBC programmers haven’t lost sight of the role of a public broadcaster – to correct market failure, not to justify the license fee with audience share.
The fate of the BBC also lies with Dyke, who is closer to editorial decisions than the chairman. Together with Davies, Dyke will determine how to spend the additional £450 million promised to programming over the next two years. The duo is also responsible for ensuring the corporation’s independence from Ofcom, a regulatory body that threatens to usurp the BBC’s board of governors and is expected to be established in 2003.
Davies acknowledged these challenges in official comments following his appointment to chairman: ‘The BBC’s independence from political and commercial pressure is fundamental to its credibility. I am fully committed, as are the rest of the board and the director general, to ensuring that this independence remains unassailable.’ He added, ‘We must continue to make the case for our uniquely successful system of governance – the cornerstone of an independent BBC. To do this, we will need to be more directly accountable to the public than ever before. Achieving this will be one of the major themes of my chairmanship.’ KB
Discovery Networks International
Since joining the company in 1994, Rick Rodriguez has served Discovery Communications well. Besides being a founding member of Discovery Latin America, Rodriguez was instrumental in launching three other regional networks: Discovery Kids, Animal Planet and People+Arts.
In his new role as executive VP, International Content for Discovery Networks International, Rodriguez assumes an even greater presence at Discovery. He is the content go-between at Discovery International whose combined networks commissioned, coproduced and acquired 2,000 hours of original programming in the past year and reach 425 million viewers in 155 countries and territories worldwide.
Rodriguez also sees that Discovery’s regional units are communicating and rallying common programming and production interests. Despite his vaulted title, this means Rodriguez is often found sifting through submissions from independent producers and reviewing the existing content on the U.S. networks to ensure that ‘everybody is playing by the same rules’.
But those rules are fluid, says Rodriguez, and independence – not homogeneity – is encouraged. ‘We want the services around the world to feel tailored to their individual markets, and obviously you can’t do that if you’re imposing content on them. We also recognize that there is programming, content and subject matter that transcends national boundaries.’
But, how does one know when programming content has global appeal? ‘If we knew that 100% of the time,’ he says jokingly, ‘we’d be very rich. What we’re focusing on now is the need to be relevant. We want to make sure people come to us because they will get the answers they’re looking for and the information they need.’
Rodriguez says the key to remaining relevant is to ensure that local stories are heard. In 1998, Rodriguez and Discovery launched DNI Producers Workshops for independents in Latin America. The response was so positive, they brought the concept to Germany and the U.K., and will be launching it in Asia next year. ‘In Latin America, my biggest challenge was to try to tell local stories. It’s not wise to rely on the existing documentary community in the U.K. or in the U.S. to tell stories from these more remote places. We’ve got to find local talent and do everything possible to foster it.’
As a result of the ever-changing times, Rodriguez says the need for faster turnaround of documentaries will be even greater. ‘Our typical model has been that we commission a documentary – it might take nine months to be delivered. We expect a long shelf-life for that documentary. But in this new world, we have to figure out a way that we can turn documentaries around consistently within 30 days. We have to figure out a way to do them with sufficient economy that we can get the value out of them within, say, a month of exposure.’
In 2002, Rodriguez says Discovery’s focus will be to nurture the company’s existing networks and brands, rather than trying to expand them geographically. ‘The focus is on deepening the relationships and the distribution of some of our newer services. We’re fortunate with Discovery that either via the distribution of the full-time service or broadcast blocks, we’re in some 400 million homes, but there’s plenty of room for growth for our newer services.’
As for Rodriguez himself, he’s looking at new technologies, particularly those involving audience interaction. ‘I’m interested in how storytelling will change as you introduce more audience participation and interactivity. There’s very interesting new approaches that we’ve got to keep close tabs on, because they have big implications for us.’ KV
AOL Time Warner
When the merger between internet giant America Online and multimedia enterprise Time Warner finally went through in January, Gerald Levin emerged as the chief executive of the new company, aol Time Warner. It was the culmination of a 30-year career that’s proved Levin to be a true visionary.
Levin started out as the vice president of programming for Time’s Home Box Office division in 1972. Even then, he had a knack for anticipating revolutionary change within the industry. In 1975, it was his decision to distribute hbo by satellite, paving the way for the creation of national cable brands. Levin’s interest in technology began to develop at this stage, and he tested out a news-on-demand teletext service in the early ’80s. At the time, the market was not ready to support such a service, but current interest in interactivity proves that Levin’s instincts were right, albeit prematurely triggered.
In the late ’80s, as vice chairman of Time, Levin again sensed the need for change, this time with regard to the structure of the company. He foresaw the advantage in marrying news and entertainment, and so orchestrated the 1990 union of Time and Warner Communications. In 1996, Levin (as CEO of Time Warner) further enhanced his media empire through the purchase of Turner Broadcasting System, which brought cable channels CNN, TNT and TBS into the fold, among others.
By the start of the new millennium, Levin had capitalized on each successive shift and movement within the industry, carefully building up a news-entertainment-cable company. Not surprisingly then, with the growing buzz about television and internet convergence, he soon sniffed out the best possible partnership to take advantage of this latest development. aol – the world’s largest Internet service provider – fit the bill, and AOL Time Warner was born.
As CEO, Levin oversees all of the company’s businesses and divisions. In a statement earlier this year, he said, ‘aol Time Warner’s scale, scope and reach will enable us to capitalize on the digital revolution that is shaping global media, entertainment and communications on behalf of consumers worldwide… Above all, it gives us the resources and expertise to strengthen and expand the unique journalistic heritage that is at the core of our company.’ By its sheer enormity, aol Time Warner has become a leader among media companies struggling to achieve true convergence.
Levin’s latest company is of such a size that it can extend its reach beyond North American borders. In October, aol Time Warner struck a deal with the People’s Republic of China to broadcast CETV – AOL Time Warner’s 24-hour Mandarin information and entertainment channel – to cable subscribers in southern China. It is the first time a foreign TV organization has been allowed cable carriage in mainland China. In return, AOL Time Warner will carry CCTV-9 – China Central Television’s English-language news and info channel – on some of its cable systems.
By establishing a foothold in China, Levin is again looking to the future. He noted in an APEC Summit speech that the number of adult internet users in China has tripled since 1999, to 64 million from 22 million. Though aol Time Warner’s deal is for cable carriage, these figures are still relevant in Levin’s estimation. ‘The future of media is the internet – and that future is now,’ he said. Given his track record, we’re apt to believe him. SZ