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BBC Cuts: An Online Strategy For PR3?

Allan Bisset

The BBC has confirmed that 360 staff in its online operation will lose their jobs as the budget is cut by 25%.  In addition, they pledge to meet with commercial rivals regularly, increase links to external sites and halve the number of top level domains they operate. On top of that, the BBC World Service is to close five language services and scale back its operations in Russia and China, which will result in the shedding of another 500 jobs.

These cuts have been in the pipeline since last year in order to meet savings required following the deal with the Treasury that froze the licence fee for the next six years.  In July last year the BBC Trust approved the cuts following a strategic review of BBC Online that included scrapping half the corporation's websites including those dedicated to BBC Radio 5 Live and 1Xtra, 5 Live Sports Extra, 6 Music and BBC Radio 7.  In all, the BBC will close half of its 400 top level domains with more than a third going by the end of the year.

BBC management maintain that the cuts are a reflection of a “more mature online market” and the BBC’s online strategy now is about doing “fewer things better”.   Or perhaps it’s a reflection of how difficult it can be to plan when income is subject to the vagaries of politically motivated spending decisions, as most in the public sector are now discovering.  The attitude in Whitehall seems to be that the BBC, being a publicly funded institution, has a role to play in bringing down the deficit.

Um, what about the private sector institutions (i.e. banks)  that were mainly responsible for the conditions that generated that deficit, some of which have not only got too big to fail, but may well have become too big to rescue next time round?  Don’t they have some part to play too or have they seemingly escaped any equivalent freeze?

Of course, it’s possible to be cynical about this and suggest that the cuts and closures are the result not of a grand strategic plan imposed by spending constraints, but are driven by poor ratings or page views.  That wouldn’t explain why popular websites like the BBC's antiques website or Indian Cooking Made Easy are being killed off regardless of the traffic they pulled in or why flagship sites for programmes like Panorama or The Politics Show have not been spared the axe.

True, just over half of the traffic landing on the BBC website goes to www.bbc.co.uk/news/, but that still means that the other non-news elements of BBC.co.uk attracted a massive number of unique visitors.  So it looks like  some sort of strategy after all, but one intended to benefit the BBC's competition as smaller publishing players  like the Mail Online (although to call it small is to do it a disservice – it had 47 million monthly unique users in September 2010)  step in to  fill the niche areas vacated by Auntie.

More competition in the online news sector will ultimately  mean more pressure on the BBC to deliver more and more for less and less of the TV licence payers' money and that may have implications  for the real reason behind the BBC's dominance and high page rank.  It’s not the number of domains or amount of disparate sites or the fact the BBC’s online presence grew organically that has delivered that authority.    Rather it’s the legacy of the quality of the BBC’s journalism.  The ongoing quality of its content.

Reputation is a valuable thing.  Even in narrow SEO terms, Google equates reputation with authority and no news organisation has a higher reputation or authority than the BBC.  It seems that shortly, there will be 860 fewer contributors to that standard of journalism and level of content and no amount of restructuring will compensate for that.  If the commercial rivals clasp these ex-BBC talents to their private sector bosom things will only get tougher for the BBC online.



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