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BBC To “Proactively Deploy AI” & Seek “Major Global Partnerships With Tech Players”

The BBC is not shying away from artificial intelligence or the U.S. tech giants, according to its Director General.

Delivering a Royal Television Society set-piece this morning in London, Davie made working with tech giants and harnessing the controversial tech central to his plan to “radically transform and renew” the 100-year-old institution, while also putting forward the case for a “progressive” license fee.

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“We will proactively deploy AI on our terms, always holding on to our published principles,” Davie said, laying down a marker. “Never compromising human creative control, supporting rights holders and sustaining our editorial standards, but proactively launching tools that help us build relevance.”

Davie, who has now been in post for three-and-a-half years, revealed that the BBC is working with “a number of major tech companies on BBC-specific pilots” and the “most promising” will be launched over the coming months.

“Our ambition is significant,” he added. “We want to increase fact-checking of sources, use translation and reformatting technology to take our best content across media and languages.”

Keen AI observers will note that Davie needs to tread carefully. Late last week, the BBC said it will stop using AI for Doctor Who promotion after receiving complaints from viewers, which somewhat jarred with his proclamations this morning.

No “walled garden”

As the BBC bids desperately to attract more outside investment amid declining license fee income and soaring inflation, Davie said the corporation “needs more global partnerships with some of the tech players.”

“Talk to the tech companies in the U.S. who are under pressure and they will say you need deep pockets,” he added. “We bring an enormous amount of testing, R&D and are innovative but I don’t think we can do it alone as a walled garden of research and development.”

He wasn’t completely rosey on the tech giants, however, criticizing “U.S. and Chinese tech companies who may not have the interests of a shared British culture and our democratic, tolerant society at their heart,” while raising concerns that “U.S. and Chinese algorithms” could be the “potential taste-makers of the future” in pre-trailed parts of the speech.

Davie pointed to pre-existing partnerships such as those struck by the BBC Studios Natural History Unit over the past few years, for which the “majority of the funding” comes from outside the UK.

He reiterated previous points about unleashing the power of commercial arm BBC Studios, citing on a number of occasions the Disney+ Doctor Who deal as an example of a high watermark and pointing to the target to double the Tom Fussell-led outfit’s revenues to £3.2B ($4.1B) by 2027/28, which is when the next charter period begins.

“Aggressive” international growth is incoming, Davie said, and a rebrand of online services along with more BBC departments being subsumed by BBC Studios will likely take place over the coming months.

“We are a small fish in the trillion-dollar-entity shark-infested waters otherwise known as the global media market,” he said. “We are small but we can grow enormously. Our revenue could be much bigger.”

“Reformed” license fee

Davie was realistic that the BBC requires much more than commercial revenue to survive. The 2027/28 charter could see the end of the license fee model after more than 100 years and Davie put forward the case for a “reformed” fee.

Starting next year, the BBC will “proactively research how to reform the licence fee post-2028 – looking at its scope, how it could be more progressive, and making sure its enforcement is fair and proportionate,” he said.

At the same time, it will open up its “biggest ever” consultation process with audiences, speaking with hundreds of thousands of people to see how they want the BBC to be funded.

Davie addressed the “elephant in the room – money” head on,” flagging the difficulties of “deploying capital to fund long-term growth” in the current media landscape and off the back of a 30% cut in real terms income between 2010 and 2020.

“This is particularly problematic as a strong balance sheet and the ability to deploy capital strategically is essential if we are to navigate digital transition,” he said. “To strip money from the BBC during this period has been particularly short-sighted.”

But in the Q&A section, he said the most “challenging period” of cuts and layoffs – which has seen more than 1,800 people lose their jobs over the past few years as the BBC has grappled to save hundreds of millions – is over for the time being. Following today’s speech, he will “hold sessions with each [BBC] division to look at what this means for everyone in more detail and what we need to prioritise as we set goals for the year ahead,” according to an all-staff memo revealed by Deadline two weeks ago.

Responding to a question over the hostility of Conservative politicians towards the BBC, he ended with a passionate plea to himself and staffers to realize the value of the corporation on a daily basis.

“I would be careful about ascribing all our financial problems to politicians,” he said. “We also have to make sure we justify the license fee to every household through usage. This room may be quite convinced by the public role of the BBC but being ‘valuable’ means you have to do your work to make sure that value is actually delivered in things called programs.”

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