Facing the customer – a BBC challenge

Whoever you think ‘won’ the party political leaders Question Time on BBC1 the real stars were the members of the audience with a series of clear,well-informed questions which at various stages made Cameron,Miliband and Clegg occasionally squirm but stick to the party line and keep schtum about the areas where they feel angels fear to tread – the detail on welfare cuts, deficit reduction, voting with smaller political parties, and so on.

Unlike Prime Ministers Questions, the politicians were on good behaviour because this was the voters posing the questions – real people questioning them in front of an estimated average audience of 4.3 million people…….out of  the reach of their minders, facing their customers, if you will.

Anyone in a position of power may have had some sympathy with the men under the spotlight…well maybe a bit anyway. Because anyone who has faced a group of angry customers or even viewed a focus group will recognise those cringeworthy moments when someone says the one thing that you didn’t want to hear about your service or product.

‘Facing the customer’ is something that, say, retail businesses do every day of their lives…ignore the customer,we are told, at your peril.

“The customer is always right in your face” a Liverpool retailer told me recently.

And yet how many media organisations actively listen to their customers and act on their feedback on a regular basis? With social media so prolific nowadays the channels are wide open for listeners to get involved but are they being listened to?

Indeed has the proliferation of communication channels actually meant that the viewer/listeners/web user mechanisms have created a smokescreen by which the level of noise may have increased but the quality of the message has suffered?

There are plenty of forums for discussion and rating but how many count and do the decision-makers really listen?Do they really want to hear?

See for  yourself

Older members of the parish may recall that in the late 80’s and early 90’s the BBC started an audience-facing initiative called “See for  Yourself”.

It was championed as a unique way in which licence-fee payers could question the senior programme-makers on tv & radio and challenge them about the quality of the programmes and the way in which public money was being spent.

The phone lines were opened as never before (or since) on tv and radio programmes for a week and senior BBC leaders were held to account on a wide range of burning issues – from editorial independence, to over-commercialisation, to the quality of drama and so on.

BBC’s 1 and 2 devoted a huge amount of airtime – as did Radios 1 -4 (no 5 Live then) and regional tv and local radio.

Not only could you ring or send letters to the decision-makers, and get answers, you could meet them in person.

I remember attending one meeting at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool where about 400 people questioned BBC decision-makers including former BBC network MD Sir Paul Fox, who memorably pooh-poohed  an idea from a young woman who tentatively suggested that the BBC should do a show for gay people, much to his chagrin.

His response provoked calls of ‘Shame!’ from a few audience members…and this was in the alleged dark days of the 80’s!

Anne Robinson, then a Radio 2 presenter, chaired the session and highlights were broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside the following day. There were many other similar sessions throughout the UK over the ensuing months and it wasn’t just in the big cities and broadcast centres.

At the time we were told that this would become a regular audience feedback mechanism and to expect another in a few years.

We’re still waiting – and that’s a huge shame.

I have no idea whether the BBC acted on any of the suggestions made during See For Yourself – perhaps naively, I find it hard to imagine that it was just a public relations exercise, albeit a good one.

But as a young reporter sent to report on the event I remember being surprised at the huge amount of goodwill towards the panelists, and by extension the BBC, even though their answers and opinions were often challenged by the feisty scouse audience.

We are told by media experts that post-Savile, and with different models of media consumption and payment, that that level of goodwill may be a thing of the past, but See For Yourself might still be an idea that is worth reviving.

There  are certainly plenty of people  who argue strongly against the licence fee on principal but once the new Government  is in place, and the charter renewal process is over, I can’t help but think that a modern-day equivalent of See For Yourself complete with social media interaction would be a hugely useful exercise for a public service broadcaster.

And depending on the outcome of the charter renewal, BBC bosses may feel they should have done this 12 months ago.

No doubt the anti-BBC lobbyists will have a field-day at the audience events but I believe that any publicly-funded organisation worth its salt should face the customer in as many feasible ways as possible instead of relying on focus groups, online surveys and “the usual channels” for feedback.

It might also be a decent exercise in PR.

If the See For Yourself model was adapted to 2015 audiences we’d certainly have a more accountable and maybe even a better BBC at a time when we’re told public faith in big institutions is at its lowest ebb.

That’s a BBC challenge that could create the right sort of noise.

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