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Interview with Gilles Marchand, Director General of SRG SSR

07 February 2022
Interview with Gilles Marchand, Director General of SRG SSR
Gilles Marchand

Gilles Marchand, Director General of SRG SSR and member of the EBU Executive Board talks to Vanessa O’Connor, EBU Director of Member Relations & Communications.

SRG SSR has embarked on a significant digital transformation. Where are you on this journey?

Our digital transformation is one of four interconnected priorities that you could describe as together forming the four points of the cross on the Swiss flag. 

Legitimacy sits at the top of the cross and where we obviously need to direct significant amounts of energy. This is about promoting the distinctiveness of PSM, offering an alternative approach and perspective, offering something different and above all doing it differently.  Another dimension of the cross is the need to address the specific multi-culturalism of Switzerland. This is where we endeavor to balance coherence and cohesion across a diversity of cultures. Languages and mindsets. The third point of the cross is efficiency which has called on SRG SSR to cut 10-12% of our overall license fee budget since 2018, after the No Billag referendum. This effort has required significant persistence and connects to the fourth point of the cross – digital transformation – which is facilitated through efficiencies and careful budget allocation. 

Our digital transformation covers content, production and distribution, all of which we have been developing in our five regional Business units (SRF, RTS, RSI, RTR, and SWI) and sharing from one region to another. For example, the experience at RTS in reaching the 15-24 age group with the street and pop Tataki platform can inspire other regions. Or the SRF philosophy format on YouTube, which is also very inspiring. Now we need to go a step further and shape our digital transformation at the corporate level. To do this, we’re adding new skills at corporate level that will enable us to share experience more quickly across the regions and set a global digital vision. This includes the newly established position of a chief product officer to address how digital content can be offered within our portfolio at what pace, on which platforms and a chief data officer who will be responsible for defining and harmonizing our overall data strategy. Both will report to Bakel Walden, Director of Development and Offering at SRG SSR.

Play Suisse, SRG SSR’s VOD platform launched just over a year ago. What are the learnings to date?

Essentially, Play Suisse is the first manifestation in Switzerland of a national public service media (PSM) offer and helps the public to understand how the licence fee serves all regions. We launched the platform in November 2020 and have registered more than 450,000 logins that are well distributed across Switzerland. It’s a subscription-free service that aims to bring the best of Swiss fiction and documentary films to viewers nationwide, with subtitles in all official languages (German, French, Italian, and sometimes even in Romansch) – and the bonus of being able to stream an entire season once the first episode has aired in its native linguistic region. 

It’s Switzerland’s first truly national VOD platform that erases barriers to accessing content from other regions thanks to the huge progress in language translation specifically in the field of sub-titling. And we also work a lot with the EBU on these issues. The data we’re seeing tells us that in each of Switzerland’s four regions, approximately 25% of content the public watches comes from another region. For example, the crime series ‘Wilder’ from German-speaking Switzerland is currently the top pick in French-speaking Switzerland. SRG SSR is driving the emergence of a Swiss national culture in fiction through our significant investment of an extra CHF15 million per year. 

I’m convinced that the requirement to have a login is legitimate for us and for PSM. It’s what we do with the data that differentiates us from commercial media. For example, rather than make recommendations of content that simply mimics what a viewer selects, we want to take people to unexpected content and foster discovery. We also think that the ability to cut through linguistic barriers creates a unique opportunity to generate a forum for national discussion that contributes to the Swiss democratic model and help shape our content across linear and non-linear in the build-up to elections. We’re currently evaluating how to address this in 2023, which will also be a federal election year. It’s a rare example in today’s divisive digital space of how we may be able to create a community of ideas.

It’s now four years since the historic No Billag vote. How much ground has been covered since then and could there be a new national debate over the future of SRG SSR?

The four points of the strategic vision I described above are the consequence of the reforms we committed to in 2018 following the No Billag referendum*. This has been a difficult process as the many supporters of SRG SSR during the intense debate were resistant to the cuts that had to be made following lost advertising revenue (CHF150 million) and the pivot to digital to remain relevant to future audiences.  

Whereas the debate threw a strong spotlight on our role in Switzerland’s national identity, with 72 per cent of voters voting to keep the licence fee, we knew that it could be a reprieve and that pushing ahead with internal reform was an imperative. In February this year the Swiss will be asked to vote on CHF150 million of financial support for commercial media. Depending on the outcome, the wheels could be set in motion for a new initiative that once again challenges SRG SSR funding. So, much of my energies will continue to go into defending our raison d’être. Two of our key strengths are to leverage our distinctiveness and to continue to generate original content of all types that reflect the county and contribute to cohesion and mutual understanding. This is a much broader and more meaningful proposition than simply calculating marketshare, and touches the hearts of the public. 

What lessons have you learnt in leadership since the pandemic?

Whereas the global crisis generated by the pandemic has been unprecedented in scale, SRG SSR has faced a number of crises over the past years, with No Billag marking a critical, even existential moment, and placing staff under huge pressure before, during and after the referendum of March 2018. 

I believe the effort we put into defending our output overshadowed the need to consider and care for what was happening internally. One key learning for me as a leader is that you must invest as much time on internal issues as external. This means investing in understanding how we respect and defend our common values as much as how we demonstrate our legitimacy to the public. More recently, there has been more introspection on internal issues including gender inequality, harassment and building consensus across differing cultural mindsets. It’s a permanent process that was needed and must continue in order to operate in a climate of trust and transparency.

You were re-elected to the EBU’s Executive Board. Where do you think you can make your biggest contribution?

I was delighted to be re-elected to the Board and consider this an honour and a responsibility. Two particular features come to my mind. The first is that the need to find consensus and coherence in the multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment at SRG SSR is not unlike the EBU. The second is that the constant need to demonstrate legitimacy and guarantee relevance will continue to dominate our challenges and I am ready to share my experience for the benefit of other Members and a strong future for PSM.


* In the No Billag referendum of March 2018 Swiss citizens were asked to vote on abolishing the licence fee

Relevant links and documents