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2012/06/16 / Horace

What Makes BBC World Service and World News a Success and What China Should Learn?


This is my academic year thesis, originally entitled as the follows:

On the Success, Challenges and Countermeasures Of the National Image Promotion By the British Broadcasting Cooperation

The British Broadcasting Cooperation is one of the biggest and trusted broadcasters in the world (“World’s Largest”). Apart from serving its domestic audience, the BBC also shoulders the responsibility to deliver news and information from London to the whole world. As a symbol of UK’s soft power, the BBC has been described by the Guardian as the “powerhouse” (Preston) of UK’s national image promotion. This thesis mainly discusses traits of BBC’s international broadcasting mode, the challenges the BBC is facing in national image promotion and measures the BBC has taken to counter such challenges. It will end with a discussion on what China, which is now active in promoting itself, can learn from the success of the BBC. It is important to note that although the BBC’s international broadcasting service mainly consists of BBC World Service radio, BBC World News TV and the BBC’s website, the BBC’s global reach involves both its world and domestic service and both its non-profit and commercial arms.

The BBC started its international broadcasting as early as in 1932 (“80 Years”). First called “BBC Empire Service” and with only programs in English, the BBC’s external service mainly targeted British colonies overseas. In 1938, the BBC launched its first foreign language service of BBC Arabic. As the Second World War progressed, the BBC launched many more language services and transmitted propaganda via short-wave radio. The BBC’s international radio service was called “BBC Overseas Service,” “External Services of the BBC” sequently and finally settled down to the name of “BBC World Service” in 1988.

The BBC World Service played a major role in the Second World War and the Cold War by transmitting propaganda and providing alternative news and information to hostile countries. In the 1991 coup, former Soviet President Gorbachev, who was detained by hardline conservatives, tuned to BBC Russian for news and endorsed it by saying “the BBC sounded the best.” (“Gorbachev listens”)

In 1991, the BBC launched its international news channel (Porter). BBC World News has become one of the world’s most important international news channels. In 1994, the BBC launched its website, which, according to Alexa, has now become one of the 50 most frequently visited websites in the world (“ Site Info”).

It is not surprise that the BBC could make such a success. The BBC is the only public-funded broadcaster within the country. A combination of its domestic service and its external service means the BBC’s foreign audience and viewers can also enjoy the same high-quality programs that UK citizens can enjoy. The combination also means that fewer staff need to be hired because programs used within the UK can also be used outside, hence the BBC functions could more efficiently.

The BBC not only combines internal and external services but also radio and TV services, hence BBC staff are more “multimedia” than its international competitors. TV and radio footages can be shared among BBC staff, saving both time and money, and also amid the global decline of radio, journalists can shift more attention to TV and the Internet. A sharp contrast is Radio France International (RFI). With its audience dropping, the RFI has to merge with France24, France’s government-funded international TV news channel, which led to an ugly industrial operation, severely disrupting the scheduled broadcasting of the whole day (Sennit).

However, despite its prominence, the BBC is facing enormous challenges, not only from its international challengers but also within the UK itself.

The end of the Cold War greatly changed international broadcasting landscape. As authoritarian regimes in the Eastern Europe collapsed and China became more open to the world, a huge portion of people in need of international broadcasting, that is, those living in repressive environment desiring for alternative news and information in their own languages, have declined sharply in number. The BBC has cut its language services from over 70 to the current 27. Moreover, although the interconnection among countries still indicates a need for international news, people are getting bored with the old-fashioned and hackneyed Anglo-Saxon value and views.

Another external challenge the BBC is facing is a sprout of competitors. With the development of satellite transmission, the Internet and social network, information has been much cheaper to produce and spread. Some countries, especially those newly-emerging economies which have been lacking a say in the global politics arena, have been desperate in having an outlet to provide their own perspectives. Since 1995, international news has no longer been dominated by BBC World News and CNN International. Doha-based Al Jazeera Network, Paris-based France24, Tehran-based Press TV, Moscow-based Russia Today and Beijing’s CCTV-News have all posed huge threats on BBC’s international viewership and audience share. Al Jazeera, which was born to challenge the Western view on the Arab World and international affairs, has been endorsed by US State Secretary Hilary Clinton by saying, “Al-Jazeera has been the leader in that it is literally changing people’s minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective. In fact viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news.” (“Clinton: Al Jazeera”) Russia Today has covered 85 million people and has become a very popular foreign channel in American main cities (“Russia Today Most Popular”).

The BBC is not only facing challenges from the outside, but also a troubled UK itself. The United Kingdom is no longer the sole superpower with vast colonies, an overwhelming military power and a dominant economic output. On the contrary, it has become an ordinary developed Western European country which is now facing a double-dip recession (“UK economy”). The weak economy and state power first mean the UK has less power in influencing the world agenda. It is natural that people tune in channels of countries which are more important to them, and hence a less important UK means a less important BBC. The weak economy also means that the BBC will have difficulties in its funding. The UK government has required the BBC to freeze its license fee until 2016 (“TV license fee”). It means that the BBC may think twice before spending money on producing high-quality but expensive programs, which might be shared with its international services as well. Also, BBC World Service has experienced painful cuts in the funding from the UK Foreign Office as the coalition government conducted a comprehensive spending austerity (“Foreign Office ‘massive U-Turn’”). Only after the Arab Spring did the situation look up a little.

The world has changed dramatically, and the old international broadcasting giant is facing a difficult time with its home country’s global influence declining and its financial support decreasing. To rescue itself, the BBC has taken measures in two aspects, first making money and decreasing unnecessary or inefficient expenses, and second, trying to tailor its programming to profitable markets.

The BBC seems to have realized that it is no longer useful to preserve so many of its short-wave radio services. In January, 2011, the BBC further cut five language services and 7 short-wave radio services including BBC’s Mandarin radio service (“BBC World Service cut five”). It is a wise action, because short-wave radio can only transmit limited amount of information without multi-media contents and short-wave radio is quite expensive due to those relay stations required to achieve long-distance transimssion. Meanwhile, short-wave radio is no longer “useful” in many parts of the world. An increasing global literacy in English suggests that educated people can directly view the BBC’s English website and programs, and it is virtually the BBC’s most important goal to influence the educated since only these people are likely to influence politics and have more of a say. While its audience can switch to the Internet or TV or BBC World Service English, some language services have lived beyond their usefulness and should be cancelled.

Obviously, the BBC is working on its website and constructing its multi-media capability. The BBC’s prominence in online reporting can be seen clearly seen through its “live page.” Every time an international or UK breaking news happens, the BBC would immediately start a live page in which all news sources form a information stream to keep people updated about the event. Website visitors can watch BBC’s live news video, a live update feed of all major news organizations, comments from BBC journalists and experts, and a selection of e-mails and tweets from BBC audience and viewers. People not only can read, watch and listen but can also join a global discussion and debate using telephone, e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. The BBC has also been expanding on social network sites. Its Facebook page has over 1.9 million followers and draws heated discussion online all the time (“BBC World News”).

Although the BBC is a broadcaster mainly living on the license fee, it does have a commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. BBC Worldwide claims itself to be “a fast-growing media and entertainment company” with a mission to “maximise profits on behalf of the BBC by creating, acquiring, developing and exploiting media content and media brands around the world.” (“BBC Worldwide”) BBC Worldwide was founded in 1995 and since then it has been playing an important part in the BBC especially after the Cameron-Clegg administration took power. With a frozen license fee and the new fiscal burden of BBC World Service, BBC Worldwide is one of the most important revenue sources. The existence of BBC Worldwide is a one-stone-two-bird action. It not only alleviates the BBC’s fiscal difficulty but also promotes BBC’s documentaries, dramas, English learning materials and else to the rest of the world, further promoting UK’s national image and a UK perspective on the world. Taking China as an example, although BBC World News is not available in most Chinese families and the BBC’s Chinese website is banned in China, thanks to BBC Worldwide, many BBC’s documentaries, dramas and English learning materials (mainly about news) are still available both in stores and online. With BBC Worldwide’s products, BBC can still have an influence on Chinese audience despite all kinds of obstacles.

BBC Worldwide is not the only one-stone-two-bird measure. The BBC has recently shifted its attention to Asia, a continent with many newly-emerging markets including China, Japan and South Korea. The BBC launched a serial reports called “Power of Asia” to discuss the rise of Asian economy (“Power of Asia.”). In June 2012, BBC World News launched a weekday 4-hour live news program “Newsday” which is live both from London and Singapore (“BBC ‘Newsday’ launches tonight”). Such a program specially tailored for Asia is something that will please everyone. Given the rising Asian economy and an increasing number of people who can understand English, the BBC can draw more viewership and earn more money through its commercial BBC World News channel. Also due to the importance of Asia, it is attractive for the BBC’s global audience to know what is going on in Asia while knowing the world’s biggest stories at the same time. Finally, for the UK, an Asian-oriented program will help with UK”s national image building and deliver a UK perspective on international affairs.

Although the UK is diminishing globally, the UK is still one of the world’s major powers and the UK is also holding some events attracting global media spotlight, including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and London Olympic Games. Some events, although not good, have also hit global headlines, like the UK Riot.

On positive events like the Olympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the BBC spares no effort in making special shows and giving a 360-degree coverage. Taking the Olympic Games as an example, the BBC launched a series of special programs. On BBC World News, it launched World Olympic Dreams (“World Olympic Dreams.”) with a series of news reports covering athletes from different countries preparing for the Olympic Games. On BBC World Service, it launched a serial documentary called “Great Expectations.” The program all the way through from March, 2010 until April, 2012, talking about how the UK prepares the upcoming Olympics and what kind of influence the event has on different social groups (“Great Expectations”).

More impressively, professionalism can also be seen in the BBC’s coverage on negative events. Shortly after the UK Riot broke out, a live page with videos, twitter feedbacks, analysis and latest updates were soon available online, delivering the first and the best hand of information. The BBC gave profound analysis on the root of the riot, not only citing domestic newspapers but also invited guests to share their own opinions. The BBC even interviewed a social worker who called rioters “the ignored underclass” who was not taken into consideration during policy making (Castella and McClathey).

The BBC’s stance on its own country is honest and frank, and its honesty and frankness are consistent and unwavering. It is wise for the BBC to do so, since it is impossible to censor anything in this information age. A deliberate media blackout or bias would only hurt the BBC’s own credibility. On the contrary, a comprehensive analysis and 360-degree coverage could make the BBC the most important source in looking at this event, thus improving its viewership loyalty and its credibility.

Although BBC World Service and BBC World News are international broadcasting channels, its audience/viewers inevitably put great emphasize on the BBC’s coverage on the UK’s domestic affairs. Its UK coverage is one of the elements that would distinguish the BBC from other international counterparts. High-quality and professional domestic reporting could also give people the impression that the BBC’s international news is also reliable. People have to be honest about themselves before they could be honest about others, and an international broadcaster should first be faithful and impartial in covering its own nation.

I want to note that national image promotion or soft power construction does not mean saying only good things or filtering the bad. It means reporting good news as well as bad news. A real effective national image promotion is to portray the country as it is to. Only a human-interest perspective, which requires 100% faithfulness and 0% censorship, can satisfy people and make people believe what a media organization reports is true.

The BBC is struggling to keep its fiscal balance in its international arms, cutting unnecessary expenses and raising profits, and it is seeking to strike a balance between its world news and UK news, its national image building and presenting a real UK. Nevertheless, it is still the most influential international broadcaster in the world.

China has shown its ambition in soft power construction. State TV’s international arm, CCTV-News has not only taken on a new look in its branding, but also launched its Africa and USA versions of programs. However, CCTV and all other national promotion agencies like China Radio International and China Daily are lagging far behind. In the final part of this essay, I will talk about what China’s national image promotion agencies should do, taking CCTV-News as an example.

CCTV-News should and must remove its censorship and try to depict a real China to the world. CCTV-News has failed to follow a series of domestic events which have international influence and attention. Liu Xiaobo, Wukan Uprising and Chen Guangcheng’s escape are just a few of the long list of events in which CCTV kept silent. Censorship and silence are extremely detrimental to CCTV-News. As mentioned before, it is natural for people to tune in a country’s international broadcaster if there is something important going on in the country. CCTV’s silence on those controversial events has made it lose many chances to grab viewership. A channel without many viewers, of course, is of little value.

As I have said, no one will believe his portrait of the world if he is not honest about himself. The task of CCTV-News is to bring a Chinese perspective to the world, however, with few believing in its coverage, such a Chinese perspective won’t be believed by anyone.

Censorship would only make CCTV-News look like a fool. It is always so embarrassing when other media organizations are analyzing China while Chinese own media organizations are silent. Think about what an embarrassment it is, when the Foreign Ministry denies the existence of “black jail”, Al Jazeera English exposed one right in the capital of Beijing (“China’s ‘black jails’”).

CCTV-News should present a real China. Propaganda is no longer allowed in modern media operation. CCTV-News should portray China as it is. It is no use merely introducing how beautiful China is or how fast it is developing. CCTV-News needs to talk about “the ignored underclass” just as the BBC does.

Also, CCTV-News should try to be fiscally efficient. The current expansion of CCTV-News is largely because of China’s rising fiscal revenue and state power. However, no country could be on such a fast track of development forever. So far, CCTV-News does not have a commercial promotion organization like BBC Worldwide.

Apart from censorship and profitability, CCTV-News is also lagging behind on the Internet. While BBC World News has a Facebook page of nearly 2 million “Likes”, the official page of CCTV-News has only around 3,000 “Likes.” (“CCTVcom”) BBC World News posts a wide range of topics, program forecasts and discussions on its Facebook pages, while CCTV-News only posts dry links. Also, the ID for CCTV-News “cctvcom” is so hard to find and remember. It is not a problem caused by time or money, it is a problem caused by attitude and mindset. Russia Today, a station founded in 2005, now has accumulated more than 500,000 “Likes” on its Facebook page (“RT”). Russia Today has also become one of the most popular media organizations on YouTube, with more than 700 million clicks on its global channel (“Russia Today”) and another nearly 400 million clicks on its US channel (“RT America”).

Internet and social network have become a main source of people getting news and information. More and more people are turning away from their television to their computers. Also, the Arab Spring has clearly demonstrated how fast and widely information can spread on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. However, CCTV-News has lagged extremely far-behind on it. Its inability to promote itself on these new platforms determines its inability to promote itself to its international audience.

The BBC, with its combination of radio, TV and the Internet and the combination of domestic and international news, has been one of the most respected international news organizations in the world. Although faced with financial difficulty and UK’s state power decline, the BBC is seeking a way out by improving its fiscal efficiency, expanding its viewership and upholding its principle of professionalism. To become a real competitor that could match the BBC’s prominence, CCTV-News and any other national image promoters in China should portray a real China first, seek a way to make profits and then follow the trend of the Internet. Bearing so many tasks to go, Chinese national image promoters have a way, much longer than expected, to go.

Works Cited

“ Site info – Alexa.” Alexa Internet, Inc. n.d. Web. 3. Jun. 2012.

“BBC ‘Newsday’ launches tonight.” TV Newsroom. 12 Jun. 2012. Web. 7 Jun. 2012.

“BBC: World’s largest broadcaster & Most trusted media brand.” Login Media Publishing. 13 Aug. 2009. Web. 29. May 2012.

“BBC World Service: 80 years of international broadcasting.” British Broadcasting Cooperation. n.d. Web. 1. Jun. 2012.

“BBC World Service to cut five language services.” British Broadcasting Cooperation. 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 7 Jun. 2012.

“BBC Worldwide.” BBC Worldwide Ltd. n.d. Web. 7 Jun. 2012.

“BBC World News.” Facebook. n.d. Web. 17 Jun. 2012.

Castella, Tom de, and McClatchey, Caroline. “UK riots: What turns people into looters?” British Broadcasting Cooperation. 9 Aug. 2011. Web. 8 Jun. 2012.

“Clinton: Al-Jazeera is ‘Real News’; U.S. Outlets Not Very Informative.” National Journal Group Inc. 4 Mar. 2011. Web. 3 Jun. 2012.

“CCTVcom.” Facebook. n.d. 10 Jun. 2012.

“Foreign Office ‘massive U-turn’ gaffe on BBC World Service.” Channel 4. 22 Jun. 2011. Web. 8 Jun. 2012.

“Gorbachev listens while being held captive.” British Broadcasting Cooperation. n.d. 24 Jan. 2007. Web. 1. May 2012.

“Great Expectations.” British Broadcasting Cooperation. 6 Mar. 2010. Web. 7 Jun. 2012.

Porter, Richard. “BBC World News: still going strong after two decades.” Emap Ltd. 24 Mar. 2011. Web. 1. Jun. 2012.

“Power of Asia.” British Broadcasting Company. n.d. Web. 7 Jun. 2012.

Preston, Peter. “How to save the BBC World Service – the UK’s soft powerhouse.” Guardian News and Media Limited. 17 Apr. 2011. Web. 31. May 2012.

“RT.” Facebook. n.d. 10 Jun.2012.

“RT America.” Youtube. n.d. 10 Jun. 2012.

“Russia Today.” Youtube. n.d. 10 Jun. 2012

“Russia Today Most Popular Foreign News Channel in Key U.S. Cities.” The Moscow Times. 6 Jun. 2012. Web. 7 Jun. 2012.

Sennit, Andy. “Anti-merger strike at Radio France International.” Radio Netherland Worldwide. 29 Nov. 2011. Web. 5 Jun. 2012.

“UK economy in double-dip recession.” British Broadcasting Cooperation. 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 7 Jun. 2012.

“World Olympic Dreams.” British Broadcasting Cooperation. n.d. Web. 7 Jun. 2012.


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