BBC Boss Lays Out Plans to Embrace A.I. Without Relying On US and Chinese Tech Giants

The 101-year-old broadcaster has been in talks with companies including Amazon "to train general purpose 'foundational' models."

im Davie, Director-General of the BBC
The BBC’s director general Tim Davie. Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

The BBC is cautiously utilizing artificial intelligence (A.I.) and aggressively shifting its focus from broadcasting to streaming, according to Tim Davie, director general (equivalent to a U.S. CEO) of the U.K. broadcaster. In order to do this, the company will have to rely on partnerships with tech companies. But Davie is adamant the 101-year-old broadcast network should not depend too much on Big Tech. 

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“We can choose not to rely solely on 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,” Davie said in a speech today (Mar. 26) to the Royal Television Society. “This will require us to create unique algorithms to serve our values, for good.”

The BBC is said to have been in talks with companies including Amazon “to train general purpose ‘foundational’ models,” according to the Financial Times. The media company is also working to develop its own generative A.I. model. 

Davie, who took the top job in 2020, outlined some of the BBC’s goals for the coming years in three objectives, “Pursue truth with no agenda, back British storytelling, and bring people together.” 

The broadcast company was criticized recently for using A.I. in a promotional ad for the series Doctor Who, and responded to the backlash saying it had no plans to use the technology to promote the show in the future. Davie clarified today that BBC would incorporate A.I. “on our terms,” he said. “We are now working with a number of major tech companies on BBC-specific pilots which we will be deploying the most promising ones in coming months.”

In the latter part of his speech, Davie addressed the BBC’s financial state, which its newly hired chair Samir Shah described as “tough” when he joined the broadcaster earlier this month. Taxpayers in the U.K. fund most of the BBC’s operation through a license fee, and the rest is supplemented through the income of BBC Studios and BBC Studioworks. The license fee is a flat fee for every household and currently costs £159 ($200) per year.

Last summer, the BBC posted a record revenue of $7.2 billion for the 2022-2023 financial period, but that income was offset by a $151.54 million deficit due to increased operating costs. The unsteady ad market also affected earnings for the broadcaster. 

Davie said that one of the ways the company plans to turn this around is by channeling its content spend towards streaming “and away from broadcast-only output.” According to him, that effort will also be put toward growing its international business through its direct-to-consumer sector, which includes bbc.com and the video subscription service BritBox.

He also mentioned how to target younger viewers. “We will deliver more value for younger audiences by focusing all our commissioning, marketing and social media activity on BBC iPlayer rather than through BBC Three’s linear channel,” Davie said. 

Davie touted the network’s partnership with Disney on Doctor Who as an example of how it’s using third-party funding to deliver more value. But rather than pointing out more media partnerships, he centered on the tech industry. “We will need to work more strategically with the best tech companies to co-create solutions and form business partnerships that save money, inject capital and create better products,” he said. 

BBC Boss Lays Out Plans to Embrace A.I. Without Relying On US and Chinese Tech Giants