Mumbai: On his first visit to the country, Chris Dobson, BBC Worldwide’s executive vice-president for global advertising, shares his views on paid content and says why BBC.com will not look at subscription models for its online news content. Edited excerpts.
Clear divide: BBC Worldwide’s Chris Dobson says the company has a very strong wall between news and advertiser-funded content and there is no doubt in the consumer’s mind about which is which. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
What is your view on subscriptions for news content online?
I know News Corp. is looking at a subscription model. If you have a unique business attitude and concept like The Wall Street Journal does, there is a future in subscription.
(Mint has an exclusive content partnership in India with The Wall Street Journal.)
It cuts down your ability to advertise, because it cuts down your audience to a hardcore group of people who will pay for that content. For general news, it’s going to be really tough because consumers are finding it (general news) somewhere else. We’re going to be a culprit in this, because I really don’t see us putting news behind the subscription wall. In the UK, we are obliged to make all news content available to everyone and that attitude is pretty much part of our DNA, even in the commercial space. We would rather monetize our advertising and create a big footprint for BBC.com.
Click here to watch a slideshow about publications that are attempting to go beyond advertising to monetize their content.
In the content genre, things are less clear-cut. We’re making some pretty good money from online downloads of our programmes on platforms such as iTunes. Our programming for Top Gear and Natural History Programming is also doing incredibly well. People view news as a right and entertainment as a choice. And it’s going to take a long time to change people’s mind about that. The Web has taught us that stuff’s free.
What are your views on paid content in the news space? Would BBC ever consider it?
Let’s be honest, newspaper business has been in paid content space for a long time. PR (public relations) firms have been placing stories, which are not touched or tweaked by the journalists. We should not be hypocritical about what’s paid and not paid content. BBC has a very strong wall between journalists’ content and advertiser-funded content and there is no doubt in our consumer’s mind about which is which. I don’t ever see that changing, it’s part of our USP. If you look at other news channels, online or on TV, they’re sponsorship fests, we’re never going to be there.
Look at Obama’s election. He used social networks and a lot of things that were obviously paid for and it worked very well for him. I think consumers are sharper and understand the difference between what’s paid for and not paid for. A lot of companies are making that mistake in the social networking space; they think it’s free advertising and cheat. They use PR to create blogs that aren’t by consumers and always get found out. What’s changed in marketing is that, we used to have a linear monologue with the audience. Now, you drop a brand message in there and as soon you let go, you lose control, and if you are not honest you will get found out.
What are your plans for India?
There’s great brand loyalty to the BBC... and there’s a great springboard in the market for us to think about how we bring our news and general content to India.
There are some misnomers and I’ve been as guilty as others in making assumptions. The first one is that India is massive in mobile and maybe mobile will transcend the way most of the population accesses the Internet. I didn’t realize that 3G contracts are dragging their feet. I also didn’t realize how strong television is here. Everyone’s crying about television dying in the UK and the US, but there’s a great opportunity in TV (here).
We want to create new channels for India… we need to be tapping into Indian expertise to help us programme those channels from the fantastic wealth of content we produce. We’re already talking to contacts that have experience in developing channel propositions in India. In our dotcom space we are launching a platform which will service content that is most relevant for the region.
Aren’t you a little late to this market?
There is tremendous opportunity in India in the next 20 years. I don’t think we’re late. Perhaps we should pioneer what we do in the mobile space for India.
India is in a unique advantageous position in the mobile space, because every other country has gone through various iterations before they got 3G and different types of devices. By the time India is ready, the type of (high-end) devices available will make experience of online and online content very rich. It maybe right out of the box for Indian consumers.
Will new media be your potential revenue driver here?
You have to be careful about the diversity of the audience in India. It’s all very well to talk about the iPhone and expensive things, but it’s a very small sub set of the addressable audience.
The question is what happens to the lower-end phones which will be used by the masses for a long time.
As a hypothetical example, there are a lot of lovers of the BBC World Service (in India) which is a short-wave radio proposition. And yet, now FM is driving how people listen to radio. Short-wave is becoming more difficult to get. Perhaps the World Service should be on low-end mobile phones.
Having said that, the issue with digital monetization versus traditional is not going away.