The stiff upper lip of BBC World News is becoming more flexible as they reposition themselves in a digital world in which politicians have Facebook accounts and news breaks on Twitter.
However, their stern visage is not morphing into the shiny-toothed grin of celebrity culture and unverified news flashes. Rather, it is relaxing into the knowing half-smile of the well-informed.
In Cape Town last week to pitch their new ‘Live the Story’ campaign to South African advertisers, BBC World News chose veteran journalist and presenter George Alagiah as the face of their more accessible market strategy.
As a Tamil born in Sri Lanka and growing up in Ghana from the age of six, as well as having worked for the BBC for 25 years, Alagiah was a smart choice for the South African pitch.
Over a high-class lunch at The Roundabout restaurant in The Glen, Camp’s Bay, Alagiah left the ad-speak out of his presentation, focussing rather on the story behind the news.
His personal experience of living and working in Africa, including being the BBC’s Johannesburg-based correspondent from 1994 to 1998, and the personalities he has met and worked with, aimed to position himself – and by extension the BBC – as a journalist who connects with people to tell the human story and deliver the insight and depth their competitors lack.
With a decades-old reputation for delivering reliable news to and from Africa, the BBC believe they have built themselves a niche based on trust.
Other news networks may break stories quicker than the BBC, but often have to change (or retract by other means) the story in subsequent broadcasts.
But the BBC, while a bit slower, wish to ensure they’ve got the story right before sending it out to the world.
‘Live the Story’ is essentially the same approach, with the addition of greater human interest. This involves both the presenter taking viewers into the moments of greatest impact and acting more as an eyewitness.
As BBC advertising vice president Sean O’Hara explained: describing the seconds of silence that follow a bomb exploding, or the moment birds fly off en masse before a hurricane hits in order to convey a sense of what it is like on the ground.
Given that the BBC does not run advertising on its UK sites as they are a publicly funded broadcaster, advertising revenue from their channels in the rest of the world make up a significant revenue stream.
BBC World News is the third largest news site in Africa and its online site has over five million unique page impressions per month in South Africa. This accounts for about 40 percent of its advertising revenue in the country, the other portion coming from its five channels broadcast via DSTV.
The trip to Cape Town to woo local advertising executives is money well spent for the BBC as South Africa is second only to Australia in terms of the amount of advertising revenue it garners.
Although they are, and will continue to be, late adopters of new journalism, the BBC believe they can maintain, and possibly better, their position, by using new methods after they’ve been tried and tested, along with sticking to what Alagiah described as the “old journalism values” of authenticity and trust. – West Cape News
Steve Kretzmann is editor and proprietor of West Cape News, a news agency based in Cape Town.