AudioUK warns of unfair competition over BBC’s commercial podcast plan

Industry body pushes for open commissions amid the network’s internal review

AudioUK, the trade association for audio production companies, has warned that the BBC’s mooted plans to move its public service speech audio into its commercial subsidiary, BBC Studios, may lead to unfair competition between independent producers against the public broadcaster in the audio production market. 

As a publicly-funded broadcaster, much of the BBC’s audio production department is currently prohibited from selling content to commercial platforms such as Spotify or Amazon. This move would free up the BBC’s internal production teams to undertake commercial work for other podcast platforms, in direct competition with independent producers. 

Chloe Straw, Managing Director of AudioUK, said: “It would represent huge market bias for the BBC to be in a position where they were able to compete against the independent production sector in other markets, while a big proportion of its own shows remained excluded from the chance to be made by creative companies offering new ideas, stories, talent and perspectives.”

To mitigate the potential impact of this, AudioUK is calling for the BBC to open commissions for all non-news audio content to external producers, allowing them to compete for BBC contracts. Currently, the BBC is only required by the Charter and Agreement to commission 60% of its relevant radio programmes through competitive tender by 31st December 2022.

​​A BBC Spokesperson said: “We previously announced that we will review BBC speech audio production to ensure we continue to serve our audiences, retain the best talent and increase value for licence fee payers. No decisions have been taken.”

In May this year, BBC director-general Tim Davie announced the network’s plans to “move decisively to a digital-first BBC”. As part of this, the organisation is currently conducting a review into its radio and podcast production (or ‘speech productions') operations to determine whether they should be moved over to its commercial arm.

“Based on the rapid growth of the global podcast and audio market, we will now review our speech production areas to consider a commercial model that can tap into the global market for podcasts, strengthen our output, and ensure we keep the best people at the BBC,” Davie said.

In 2014, the BBC’s decision to move television productions into BBC Studios caused similar concern but former director general Tony Hall responded by allowing for free creative competition for external producers to create content for the BBC. Later in 2017, the Government required that 100% of the BBC’s non-news programming should be open for creative competition by 2027.

BBC Sounds, the audio streaming and download service from the BBC, has also come under criticism in the past due to concern from commercial broadcasters over unfair competition. 

However, a review on the market position of BBC Sounds by Ofcom released in November last year determined that there is no imminent threat from the BBC on the UK independent audio sector and found that the UK podcast sector is able to generate enough commercial and advertising revenue despite the presence of BBC Sounds podcasts.

Ofcom also said that it will continue to monitor the BBC for any further changes that may affect competition in the future.