Media in Flux: The BBC and Google


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For many Londoners, the geography of the city is defined by the London Underground tube map. This iconic design is a simplified diagram that streamlines London's sprawling messiness to such an extent that even long-term residents (such as myself) often have only a hazy grasp of the city's real above ground layout.

It's good to see the longevity of a British icon such as Harry Beck's map. The BBC, the U.K.'s public service radio and TV broadcaster, is of a similar vintage and holds a cherished place in the hearts of many Brits-its nickname is "Auntie." The BBC does not carry advertising and is still funded by a license fee of about $226, which must be paid by every U.K. household that watches or records programs as they're being shown on TV (or live online).

Alongside this domestic revenue, BBC Worldwide-the commercial arm that exploits the revenue-generating potential of popular exports-returned a record of about $350 million back to the corporation in 2014-2015, according to its recently published Annual Review. This amount is set to grow significantly.

The BBC has enthusiastically embraced the potential of multiplatform content delivery, with websites and apps dedicated to news and sports, as well as a huge cross-platform presence for major events, such as the London Olympics. Its iPlayer catch-up TV service accounts for 62% of the country's online TV viewing, according to recent figures from the U.K.'s Intellectual Property Office.

Despite this popularity, the BBC's model has come under increasing attack, particularly from the traditional news media. Speaking on TV, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne called the BBC's website "imperial" and voiced concerns about the BBC's potential to crowd out the online operations of traditional newspapers.

The government has made it clear that it expects the BBC's funding model to change over time. In addition to its ratings-busting hit shows, the BBC is home to specialist and minority-interest content that may not fit easily into an advertising or subscription-driven model. And in the meantime, an impressive group of celebrity supporters-including J.K. Rowling, Judi Dench, David Attenborough, and Daniel Craig-wrote an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, calling the BBC "a very precious organization," and stating that "a diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain."

According to the government's own figures, Britain's creative economy accounts for one in 12 U.K. jobs, and the creative industries are worth about $119 billion per year to the U.K. economy. Undoubtedly, the BBC plays a role in this complex and fertile ecosystem. At the same time, one can understand why traditional news and broadcast media chafe against its prominence.

Despite its very different functions and business model, Google faces opposition in Europe. In April, the European Commission (EC) wrote a Statement of Objections, alleging that Google had abused its dominant position in search by favoring its own comparison shopping product. The EC also formally opened a separate antitrust investigation into Google's conduct regarding its Android OS.

In the U.K., Osborne has, this year, introduced a "diverted profits tax"-popularly known as the "Google Tax"-which aims to clamp down on multinational companies that divert profits away from the U.K. in order to avoid taxes. In 2014, Spain introduced legislation-also dubbed the "Google Tax"-which attempted to protect Spanish print media by imposing fees on online content aggregators. In response, Google News closed in Spain.

Google has also launched a charm offensive, announcing a digital news initiative that aims to "encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem ... through ongoing collaboration and dialogue between the tech and news sectors." It is backed by a fund of about $164,587,500. Partners in the initiative include the U.K.'s The Guardian, Germany's  Die Zeit, and Spain's EL PAÍS.

Back in 1922, Beck came up with a radical way of simplifying connections, which has remained essentially unchanged for more than 90 years. Google, too, has radically altered the way in which we navigate our world; however, for both Google and the BBC, the only constant is change.   


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