BBC chief accuses Netflix of failing to take risks because its decisions are made by robots

Anita Singh
Charlotte Moore said the BBC stands out from Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services - which rely on algorithms over human intuition - PA

The BBC has heart where Netflix has only “the insatiable greed for data-gathering", the corporation’s head of television has said.

Charlotte Moore said the BBC stands out from Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services - which rely on algorithms over human intuition - as it cares about its audiences.

In the BBC's most damning critique yet of US media giants, Moore said: "So much of what’s driving the rapid change in our industry is about technology, not creativity. The television landscape is increasingly defined by what will deliver the biggest profits for companies, not the best programmes for audiences.

"I worry that the insatiable greed for data-gathering is actually serving the wrong master - that entire businesses are focused on what they can take from audiences, instead of what they can give back. The BBC is different."

Netflix commissions programmes based on data that shows what its audiences enjoy watching, and thus what is likely to be a hit. Cindy Holland, the company's head of original content, said in 2014: "We see everything our subscribers are watching. We can identify subscriber populations that gravitate around genre areas, such as horror, thriller and supernatural. That allows us to project a threshold audience size to see if it makes for a viable project for us."

Delivering the Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture, named after the veteran broadcaster who died last year, Moore said that approach does not allow for risk-taking.

Charlotte Moore said that approach does not allow for risk-taking Credit: Charlotte Steeples/BBC

"I don’t believe any amount of data can tell you what to commission next. Data simply won’t deliver you Car Share, A Very English Scandal, or Murder in Successville.

"When I’m faced with an idea, what’s going through my head as commissioner is not, 'Will it do the business?' but, 'What can this do for audiences right now? Will it matter or feel relevant? Will it tell them something they didn’t know? Will it offer a new perspective?'

"As the incentives of the biggest players become ever more commercial and cautious, ours need to become ever more creative and bold. As their focus becomes more global, ours must become more local. 

"As their decisions are de-risked by data, we need to risk more to tell the stories that matter most. Where they’re led by algorithm, we need to be led by pure creativity."

Moore cited Three Girls, the drama about a Rochdale grooming gang, and Blue Planet II, with its focus on environmental damage, as examples of series that would not have passed the Netflix test.

When BBC executive first saw Blue Planet II "we knew it might be hard for people to take on a Sunday night. It might be too strong a message. It might risk smaller viewing figures. Telling the true story of climate change and human impact on our oceans was not necessarily a comfortable place for the BBC to be.

"But that’s exactly why we needed to be there. Not shying away, but being bold enough to tell our audiences what they needed to know," Moore said.

"But I’ve learnt over the years that when you take risks, when you back a project you really believe in, more often than not audiences respond."

Moore said there was "no question" that the arrival of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google in the television market had driven up quality.

But she said their focus on ploughing billions into international hits means there are "fewer and fewer distinctively British stories. In a world of incredible, unprecedented choice, the irony is that British audiences may find it harder and harder to choose the stories that matter to them most.

"We have to understand that, increasingly, it’s decisions taken on the west coast that are defining our media landscape. We cannot allow them to reduce our creative firepower."