Tony Hall’s successor as director-general will be the BBC’s 17th and, perhaps, one of the most important ever appointed to run a corporation nearing a centenary celebration in 2022 with its founding tenets under siege.
Many past director-generals have faced a painful funding squeeze, transformative shifts in technology, a fragmenting audience, and a dysfunctional relationship with a government that questions its reason for being. But few have faced all four at once.
“The next three years will be the most extraordinary period for the BBC to navigate, there’s no doubt about that,” said Claire Enders, founder of Enders Analysis, a media research firm. One BBC executive described it as the corporation’s reckoning with 30 years of social and political change.
Although the BBC is the world’s best funded and most influential public broadcaster, along with its success has come a perennial sense of crisis, whether over staffing, money or relevance.
Lord Hall’s tenure will be remembered as one of relative stability in times of stress, steadying the ship after shocking revelations about the late Jimmy Savile, a BBC star who for decades used his celebrity to prey on vulnerable children.
During his seven years he set a new tone at the top, jettisoning controversial figures such as the outspoken Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson while slowly attempting to close the BBC’s yawning gender pay gap. Even with these controversies, senior colleagues say the top levels of the BBC were a relatively “happy ship” compared with the past.
The Hall era also framed the big choices that will face his successor. In negotiations with David Cameron’s government, he helped secure an 11 year extension to the Royal Charter to 2027 that preserves the licence fee for twice as long as originally expected.
But he did so by giving ground on subsidies for the over-75s, leaving the BBC in the painfully awkward position of collecting £154.50 licence fees from millions of pensioners to save its own programming budget.
One former BBC executive called it “the devil’s bargain” and Lord Hall’s “number one mistake” at the top. The question of how it is resolved will be the first test of the next director-general’s mettle, and the prelude to a midterm review of the licence fee, which will set the BBC’s budget from 2022.
The blond elephant in the room is Boris Johnson, a prime minister who has more openly questioned the BBC’s licence fee than any of his predecessors. With a thumping majority in the House of Commons, he now potentially has the clout to act on his word.
Mr Hall’s team are unsure how revolutionary Mr Johnson’s administration will turn out in practice, and whether their effort will be principally directed at influencing the BBC’s news output. But Mr Hall’s early departure makes clear they want to take no chances.
If Lord Hall waited until the 2022 centenary, the government would have been able to appoint a new chair on the BBC board in 2021 — thereby increasing its sway in picking the next director-general. “It is all about the chair,” said one person familiar with the decision-making.
Within the corporation, some see the challenge of handling disgruntled politicians to pale in comparison with the task of maintaining the BBC’s bond with its audience in an era of social media and deep-pocketed, global streaming services such as Netflix, Disney and Spotify.
Fewer than half of British 16- to 24-year-olds tuned in to watch BBC programmes on an average week last year — a record low — prompting the UK’s media watchdog Ofcom to warn that the public service mandate “may not be sustainable”.
Patrick Barwise, professor of management and marketing at the London Business School, said the BBC will have to invest more to keep up. “But the BBC has one massive problem — it is greatly underfunded,” Mr Barwise added, pointing out that the so-called streaming wars have been driving up production prices for films and TV series.
Given these problems, Roger Mosey, a former editorial director of the BBC, said Lord Hall’s successor would need to be someone with a grip on the digital business and an understanding of the global media alliances the BBC will have to enter.
“I’d be much less bothered about having a director-general who is an “editor-in-chief” than someone who is a truly pioneering media figure,” he said.
“Working out what the BBC’s relationship is with Amazon, Apple and Disney will be a big job for whoever takes over. You need someone who has an understanding of that, not just somebody who can advise you what the lead should be on the 6pm news.”
The shortlist of internal candidates to fit that billing is not deep — especially when considering the job also comes with a political brief that would not feel alien to a cabinet minister or senior civil servant.
One leading contender is Tim Davie, a former Procter & Gamble executive who runs BBC Studios, the corporation’s commercial arm and production hub. Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s well regarded director of content, is another in the frame, but it remains unclear whether she will apply. James Purnell, a former Labour cabinet minister turned BBC executive, has told friends he is out of the running.
Turning to an outsider may again be appealing for the BBC board. Speculation has included the two Carolyn’s in the upper reaches of British business: Carolyn McCall, the former chief executive of easyJet who now runs ITV; and Carolyn Fairbairn, the former BBC executive who now serves as director-general of the CBI, the business lobby group.
Other potential outsiders include Jane Turton, the chief executive of the independent production company all3media; Lionel Barber, the former editor of the Financial Times; Jay Hunt, the former BBC One controller now working with Apple; and Alex Mahon, the chief executive of Channel 4.
Although there is no shortage of challenges facing the BBC, Simon Pitts, the chief executive of Scottish broadcaster STV, said Lord Hall’s successor would inherit a unique set of advantages and “the only genuinely global media brand” in Britain. “Most media bosses would love to be in that position.”
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