AudioUK warns of unfair competition over planned BBC restructure

Creatives should be allowed to compete for more of BBC’s audio output, trade body says

Trade association AudioUK has renewed its criticism of the BBC’s confirmed plans to move a significant part of its speech audio production to its commercial subsidiary BBC Studios by April 2024, stating that it would lead to unfair competition and calling for all speech audio to be open for independent producers.

The plans, which were first suggested in May last year, will give BBC Studios the ability to undertake commercial audio production work for other platforms such as Spotify and Amazon, which AudioUK argues would lead to more direct and unfair competition with independent audio producers. As a publicly-funded broadcaster, the BBC's in-house teams are restricted from working for third-party commercial clients, while BBC Studios is not. The broadcaster's commercial arm currently specialises in TV production, while the new plans would give it a new foothold in the audio sector. 

A BBC spokesperson confirmed to PodPod that while in-house teams within the BBC itself (as opposed to BBC Studios) will still be barred from commercial work, the new plans would allow audio productions under BBC Studios to grow internationally, as well as in the UK.

“BBC Radio will continue to commission the best, most creative ideas from a wide range of suppliers, and as part of this plan, we are committed to opening up 100% of all new speech programming for network radio for competition," a BBC spokesperson told PodPod. "Given the areas identified to move, BBC’s in-house production team and BBC Studios will generally operate side-by-side as audio suppliers and not in competition with each other.”

However, Chloe Straw, managing director of AudioUK, has said that this move should be accompanied by the BBC allowing external producers to compete for commissions on 100% of the broadcasting corporation's existing non-news output, including content for BBC Sounds, in addition to new programming.

The BBC is currently only required to open up 60% of its ‘eligible hours’ on radio commissions to external producers per year, compared to the corporation’s TV broadcasting, which operates on a fully open commissioning process.

“While we respect the BBC’s right to explore other opportunities, this does nevertheless have competition implications as it involves moving a production arm built with public funding into the wider commercial market to compete with creative SMEs, a market largely built over the last 20 years by the hard work and creativity of those SMEs,” said Straw. “This aspect is not covered by Ofcom’s approval requirements and so has not been effectively scrutinised.” 

“We are disappointed that the BBC has not taken our concerns on board and we will continue to push for a review of the wider market implications of these plans with the relevant governmental and regulatory authorities.”

In May 2022, BBC director-general Tim Davie announced the network’s plans to “move decisively to a digital-first BBC”. As part of this, the organisation conducted a review into its radio and podcast production (or ‘speech productions') operations to determine whether they should be moved over to its commercial arm. The goal, Davie said, is 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.”

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.