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Audiences realise that they need to pay for quality news: Alistair McEwan

The BBC has seen a massive increase in viewership this year.

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NEW DELHI: 2020 has been an interesting year for news organisations, their journey marked by various peaks and troughs. It was no different for the global news outlet BBC, too. From gaining the highest spike in audience numbers on both TV and digital format to struggling with lower ad revenues, the firm managed to clock in a rather productive year. In a recent chat with Indiantelevision.com founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief Anil Wanvari, at the recently concluded Pubnation (print & digital), BBC Global News SVP - commercial development for Asia & ANZ Alistair McEwan talked in details about the same. Edited excerpts follow: 

On how BBC tackled the Covid2019 lockdown

Our experience was, probably, not dissimilar to many publishers around the world, where we have been on a roller coaster. I think there is a sweet irony in the fact that we’ve never seen bigger audiences coming to our platforms, whether that’s television or digital. And that has pretty much sustained through the year. We saw about a 180 million unique visitors coming to BBC.com in March and we have just beaten the figure in November with the US elections. 

But whilst the audience flocked to BBC in millions, advertisers who were deeply impacted by the lockdown remained cautious. So, in ordinary times, you would hope to be able to monetise that effectively but of course, at the moment, that has not been the case. 

On how they managed to deliver to the audiences 

We have seen massive audio and digital growth this year. For us, TV production remained a challenge with lockdown norms and 
health hazards. Albeit, one good thing that this crisis promoted was the agility and the ability of the people to pivot into new processes. And that’s what we have exactly done at BBC. It has driven high levels of productivity. 

For example, on the news side, we’ve been creating a lot of Covid-related content. And it is not just reporting but also solutions-oriented stories and non-news reporting. That’s where we have seen, probably, the biggest growth levels coming across all the verticals. So, from a consumer consumption perspective, we have grown immensely. 

Read more on BBC News 

On Indian audiences

Indian audiences have stayed very true and loyal to us, certainly through the early stages of Covid. We saw significant growth on both television and BBC.com. We saw a 5X growth in our audience. We have 18 to 20 million unique audiences on our digital side and through our television channels. We have over 300 journalists across the BBC World Service Group, including our Delhi bureau. We prioritise our investment into India as a market – we now publish in eight different languages in India in addition to our English language output. 

On virality and its rules

My personal line on virality is that it's almost completely unpredictable anywhere in the world. There are so many different levellers that are variables to it but there are certain sort of formats that you can use to try to encourage it; for example, ensuring the format fits the devices, the context is right, and you are having a singular message across the products. With respect to BBC, we are globally producing world-class output that becomes highly emotive and highly shared. 

It is much more difficult to achieve that kind of virality effect with branded content, which is why we always sort of try to pin our branded content style right back to what we do in the editorial. 

On offerings to the advertisers

For advertisers, we bundle and package our offerings across TV, radio and digital media. All of these have a fundamentally important part in the way you bring a holistic solution to an advertiser. And, of course, audiences exist independently in all of those different areas. So for us on the commercial side, it's really all about where the target audience is, discovering those audience insights and then being able to deliver to those custom targets across group assets and really utilising all of the data insights. 

The media industry, so far, has not been able to drive empirical measurement of the content it produces; how the audience feels about it and how it impacts society. We are using a variety of neuroscience technology, eye-tracking, and facial decoding to be able to track emotional engagement. That's actually allowed us to measure all the different suites of platforms that we have there. 

On taking news industry behind the paywall

The industry has reached a tipping point and it has been a while back that we have consumer acceptance towards paying for quality news content. Take the New York Times, for instance. They have been the benchmark international news organisation in this space. They started way back in 2008 and the initial commentary was that they would struggle to survive post this move. But today, they are earning 64 per cent of their revenues from paid subscriptions. So that boat has sailed. Audiences have been conditioned to understand and accept the need to pay for quality news. We have to fund it. You can be the Guardian and ask people to fund it out of goodwill and love for the brand or whether you are requiring people to pay through a paywall; you need to figure out a sustainable way to go ahead. In India, it will take some time to evolve. 

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