The BBC must look beyond the licence fee if it wants to hold viewers’ attention

Article written for The Times Red Box, published on 28 January 2020

When the next director-general of the BBC starts their duties in the summer, following the retirement of Lord Hall, they should look back to December to get a clear view of the problems that lie ahead. By this I don’t mean the result of the general election, but the live television viewing figures for Christmas Day.

In 2010, a combined live audience of nearly 80 million people watched the top ten most popular programmes, according to the overnight viewing numbers, whereas last Christmas that figure was around 20 million fewer. If it had not been for the runaway success of the Gavin & Stacey Christmas Special, that figure would have almost certainly been lower as the audiences of Strictly Come Dancing, Call the Midwife, Mrs Brown’s Boys and even Michael McIntyre’s Big Christmas Show were all down on the previous year.

The one consistent Christmas performer who is bucking this trend is Her Majesty, with the Queen’s address still attracting an audience of about 7 million viewers.

We know that viewing habits are changing, and more people catch up on programmes using on-demand platforms such as the BBC’s iPlayer, but these figures show that even on the one day of the year when we have traditionally gathered together to watch the nation’s favourites on TV, we are increasingly doing something else.

This is not just reflected at Christmas, or indeed in the audiences for live television. As Ofcom’s annual report on the BBC noted last October: “The BBC is reaching fewer people through each of its TV, radio and main online services.” This trend is even more acute among 18 to 34-year olds, who now watch more content on YouTube and Netflix each day than they do on all the traditional broadcast channels combined. For the under-18s, BBC services barely register in their top five most-watched online video-on-demand channels.

To these problems of audience engagement can be added increasing commercial pressures on the BBC. As Ofcom has noted, despite a small increase last year, “the BBC’s investment in first-run UK-originated content had declined by around a fifth since 2010”.

During the digital, culture, media and sport select committee’s inquiry last year into the BBC’s annual report and the decision to limit free TV licences to viewers aged over 75, we were told by the Corporation that the £500 million worth of concessions it had negotiated from the government to cover the costs of these licences had been almost completely wiped out by rising production costs; a consequence of the inflationary pressures in the market caused by companies such as Netflix and Amazon.

To try to increase its revenues, the BBC has sought to raise more money from its own productions made by BBC Studios, and whilst this strategy has seen some success, a recent report from the National Audit Office showed that it has been largely reliant on the income from long-running shows, rather than new creations.

Last year, for the first time in a decade, the number of people paying the licence fee declined, and the concern must not be — as in the old days of the detector vans — that viewers and listeners are trying to watch the BBC for free, but that they’ve just opted out altogether. It now faces fierce competition for the attention of its audiences from new providers; Netflix for drama as well as Sky for sport and YouTube for the young.

The real danger the BBC faces comes not from changes to the licence fee itself, but that — even left as it is — it will not be enough to raise the money the BBC needs to maintain the range and quality of the services on offer today. The response to this challenge, as we have seen with the recent announcement to cut the award-winning Victoria Derbyshire news programme, has typically been to place the greatest burden on shows that are popular with distinct and vocal audiences, rather that conduct a wider review of what licence fee payers themselves actually value.

The BBC also needs to consider how likely it is that people would, hypothetically, be willing to support a substantial increase in the licence fee, meaning that they would be asked to pay more in real terms for a service they are watching less of. Perhaps increased commercial revenues from BBC Studios or BritBox, its new joint venture with ITV that offers a video subscription service for older programmes, can help plug the gap. In the long run they would have to, but currently that still seems a long way off.

The real audiences that the BBC must re-engage with are not in Westminster but around the United Kingdom. If it cannot make the case for why the licence fee, or a similar funding device, remains good value in the digital age, then increasing numbers of people just won’t pay it.

For the BBC to remain not just relevant, but a central part of our national experience, it must hold the attention of viewers and listeners through creativity, distinctiveness and an ambition to cover important issues and ideas that would not otherwise get the attention they deserve.

Copyright 2019 Damian Collins. All rights reserved

Promoted by Russell Tillson for and on behalf of Damian Collins, both of Folkestone & Hythe Conservative Association both at 4 West Cliff Gardens, Folkestone, Kent CT20 1SP

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