The BBG’s 2012-2016 Strategic Plan has a goal of increasing its weekly audience size by 50 million. Even in times of austerity, that goal can still be met. Here’s how and where…
The BBG 2012-2016 Strategic Plan set an aspirational goal of increasing the weekly global audience size by 50 million.
An increase of that size, a little more than 5% each year, would be no small feat in flush economic times. An atmosphere of budget cuts and austerity will make it that much harder.
Regardless, it still can be done.
When the BBG set the goal, the weekly audience was 165 million. That number jumped by 22 million in 2011, fueled largely by audience increases in Indonesia, Egypt, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — enough to offset some audience losses in some other countries.
It’s worth noting that unexpected audience losses are always a possibility as political environments change, consumers get more options, or countries such as Iran take unprecedented measures to jam BBG broadcasts.
But at the same time, the strategic review that led to the 2012-2016 Strategic Plan pointed to a slew of opportunities that, if acted upon, could add millions to the BBG’s global reach.
Most of those opportunities make themselves known by rethinking the following four concepts:
* The Types of Content and Target Audiences
* The Definition of a Language Service
* How the BBG Entities Interact
Within the BBG, little triggers more spirited arguments than the topic of distribution.
In some cases, content creators believe the product is sufficiently competitive and only a lack of distribution is preventing a larger audience. In some countries, such as in China, Iran, North Korea, and other closed societies this may be true.
But more truthful is the following: Nothing solves a distribution problem faster than great content.
If the content is must-see, must-hear, or must-read, it will find a way to the intended audience.
Putting aside the content piece, there’s also plenty to discuss regarding distribution technologies.
The continued use of shortwave causes significant hand-wringing. The fact is, shortwave use has dropped precipitously worldwide and is really only useful today in a handful of countries, among them Nigeria and Afghanistan. Yet even with the overall decline, the BBG still reaches more than 30 million people each week via shortwave – but that audience is located in very specific areas of the world.
Elsewhere, shortwave audiences are fractions of fractions, begging the questions about return on investment. On one hand shortwave serves as a distribution method of last resort (i.e. China). On the other hand, a sun-setting of shortwave would create millions of dollars in savings to be re-deployed to better support the mission.
Overall, the data trends are clear: Consumers are moving away from shortwave and even medium wave (AM) to FM, Television, Satellite Television, and Mobile.
BBG broadcasters must meet the consumers on their preferred platforms. Thus aggressive moves toward more FM, Television, and Mobile will pay off in the form of larger audiences.
The Types of Content and Target Audiences
BBG broadcasters can increase overall audience substantially by deploying a future-based content strategy that takes into account rapidly changing consumption habits, as well as more nuanced audience targeting.
As a media market becomes more sophisticated and crowded, appointment viewing and listening declines. This means the audience is much less likely to find a long-form program that airs once a week on a local affiliate.
Better options for crowded markets include short-form “reach and frequency” plays — where short pieces air multiple times throughout the day and week.
In markets with strong internet penetration, short-form can be augmented with a depth-on-demand strategy whereby the audience is directed to the internet for additional information on a given story.
When it comes to target audiences, splintering markets create trouble for full-service broadcasters. Creating new products and even new brands must be considered to reach under-served populations such as women and youth.
For example, in the vast majority of BBG target markets, including Central and South America, as well as the Middle East, the median age of the population is under 30 years of age. In Africa, the median age will range from 20 to 22 — for the next 40 years.
Developing and consistently delivering content for younger demographics is a must for BBG broadcasters, and larger audiences will result.
The Definition of a Language Service
Generally, BBG language services are created and structured the way they’ve been structured since the beginning, and that’s in a very formalized, bureaucratic manner – think directors, associate directors, FTEs, etc. Rethinking the definition of what a language service is would benefit the BBG and allow for potentially large increases in audience service and size.
For example, in hot spot Nigeria, the Voice of America broadcasts in Hausa, but not in the other major languages such as Ibo or Yoruba. By creating translation-based “micro-services,” which consist of just 2-4 employees and stringers offering a short menu of content options, VOA could increase its service to Nigeria by adding those languages under the umbrella of the current Hausa service. Estimates suggest that this move alone could increase BBG overall audience by 7-9 million.
Additionally, these micro-services could be employed as an exit strategy when the BBG determines that it is time to cease broadcasts to a country – as happened this year with Croatia. Instead of simply flipping the “off” switch, a micro-service strategy could allow for a smoother draw-down.
While Congress ultimately determines what languages the BBG broadcasts in, an excellent case can be made for mission-appropriate increases in the number of language services — using much simpler and more affordable structures.
How the BBG Entities Interact
Until very recently, the BBG’s five broadcasters, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, and Radio and TV Martí, were so fiercely independent of one another that virtually no content was shared between them.
That is to say, a breaking story covered on the ground by an Alhurra reporter in Egypt was not shared with or aired by Voice of America in other parts of the world. Similarly, a Radio Free Asia enterprise journalism piece was not translated and used by any other language service anywhere within the BBG.
In short, the BBG broadcasters never truly unlocked the reporting and content creation power of the larger organization. That’s changing.
The Strategic Plan has called for the creation of a “global newsroom” to identify opportunities for greater collaboration, translation, and sharing of the best content across the BBG. Further, a newsroom team of this type could help fuel the content needs of micro-services as described above.
More highly produced content, specifically targeted and made available to more language services, will lead to more competitive products that better serve audiences worldwide.
- Paul Marszalek
Office of Strategy and Development