BBC insiders have voiced surprise at the timing of Tony Hall’s decision to step down as director general, but focus is already shifting to his successor’s enormous task of fighting the invasion of the U.S. streamers.
Three senior insiders told Deadline that they had expected Hall to remain in post until 2022, when the BBC celebrates its 100th anniversary. It’s a milestone Hall has often signposted in speeches and preparations are already underway to mark the occasion on television and radio.
But something changed, and at the turn of the year, Hall began signaling his plans to step down to his closest allies at the BBC. Hall will serve his six-month notice period, giving BBC chairman Sir David Clementi time to appoint his successor after seven years in the top job.
Hall has provided two reasons for his change of heart. Firstly, he has accepted a new job as chairman of The National Gallery. Secondly, Hall said it should be the job of his replacement to lead the BBC into two important junctures: a mid-term review of its operating agreement (known as its charter) in 2022, and the renewal of this agreement in 2027.
“We have to develop our ideas for both. And it must be right that the BBC has one person to lead it through both stages,” Hall said in an email to staff on Monday. Some took this as a coded way of saying it is time for fresh thinking as the BBC faces existential questions about its future funding model and a broadcasting ecosystem increasingly dominated by U.S streamers.
Hall is viewed internally as a safe pair of hands. A decent, principled, ethical man who captained the BBC into calmer seas after it had been slung against the rocks by the Jimmy Savile scandal in 2012. “He steadied the ship when it was f*cked, when the whole focus and morale of the BBC was in disarray,” as one insider put it.
Later in his tenure, Hall made big calls to commercialize the BBC’s production unit and merge it with BBC Worldwide to create BBC Studios. He was also the director general who shuttered BBC Three as a television channel, and launched radio, music and podcast app BBC Sounds.
Beyond this, however, he was not viewed internally as a visionary leader. “He often found it hard to make big decisions,” said someone who worked with him at the BBC. “I’d question whether he had the vision to ensure the BBC is in the right place to meet the needs of audiences of the future.”
Put another way, was Hall the right man to ensure the BBC can compete on a global level with rivals like Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and Disney? These American giants are not just fragmenting the BBC’s audience, but they are also chipping away at its talent base by snapping up creatives — like Phoebe Waller-Bridge who created Fleabag for BBC Three — on huge exclusive deals that the British broadcaster could never afford.
Furthermore, the government is also giving consideration to whether the BBC’s license fee funding is sustainable in a streaming landscape. Might a subscription model serve audiences better? That’s a question prime minister Boris Johnson openly pondered as part of last year’s general election campaign. It’s a question that could be central to the talks between the BBC and the government in 2022 and 2027.
These realities loom large in the minds of people when you ask who should succeed Hall. BBC director of content Charlotte Moore is viewed by insiders as the candidate to beat, but more than one source cast an eye in the direction of Jay Hunt, Apple’s TV boss in Europe. “She’s done the right level of job in the industry,” a source said of the former BBC One and Channel 4 boss. “Her experience at Apple will give her a unique frame of reference on the market.”
Former British culture secretary John Whittingdale told Deadline that there have been “huge changes” in the way people consume content since he negotiated the BBC’s existing charter in 2016. He added that it would serve Hall’s successor well to have experience from the “new world of broadcasting.”
Hall won’t be the man who leads the BBC into its next chapter, but he set the scene for his successor. “We must and can never stand still. We have to keep adapting, reforming and leading. Our values are timeless but the need for constant change is ever-present. The BBC has changed hugely in recent years — and that’s going to continue,” he told staff.
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