As the BBC marks its 100th birthday, people across the country are taking the opportunity to reflect on the history of the broadcasting giant and its greatest accomplishments. Whether that be David Attenborough crawling amongst Galapagos Island tortoises, Strictly Come Dancing, or its more recent triumph covering the Queen’s funeral, Brits spanning four generations are indulging in nostalgia as the BBC looks back on a century of striving to “inform, educate and entertain”.
But while a hundred on the scoreboard is clearly an achievement to be celebrated, now is the time to be looking forward not back. Although BBC chair Richard Sharp has insisted that the corporation’s ‘best days are ahead’, the way we consume media, alongside drastic budget cuts, leaves the future of the BBC (at least as we know it) up in the air.
Since ex-culture secretary Nadine Dorries announced that the government was freezing the licence fee earlier this year, polls have suggested that the UK public supports the abolition of the levy altogether.
In an age of multi-channels and subscription streaming services, this is only to be expected despite its general popularity. But only 0.02% of the UK population is older than the BBC and it’s become not only a core part of British identity, but a cultural icon for broadcasters across the world. So what’s gone wrong?
The times they are a-changin'...
Media is evolving at an unprecedented speed. Compare TV and radio now to when the BBC was established in 1922 and it’s almost unrecognisable.
Growing up with a BBC that’s surrounded by a sea of other channels, radio stations and websites, it’s near impossible for millennials and Generation Z to hold it in the same affection as those who can count their familiar channel options on one hand.
Past Ofcom reviews of the BBC have concluded that it needs to attract a younger audience. And extensive (arguably excessive) promotion of BBC Sounds – totalling over 33 hours in 2018 alone – is a sign that the broadcaster is striving to do so. Yet despite the app’s audience growth, the number of 16–34-year-old listeners has dropped over the past year – an indication that more has to be done (and better PR needed) to win over younger generations.
And unlike newer broadcasting channels, the BBC must also strive to serve its legacy for older viewers and listeners. So despite the popularity of the likes of Netflix’s ‘Love is Blind’, we’re unlikely to see similar shows hitting the BBC channels anytime soon.
Putting a price on impartiality?
The world is currently witnessing first hand the power of state-governed media through Russia’s broadcasting of ‘transparently false allegations about Ukraine’. Trump’s popularisation of the term ‘fake news’ – albeit a propaganda tactic and occasionally comical – has reiterated how easy it is for misinformation to be spread. Often with horrifying results.
Unlike other news outlets, the BBC is not controlled by someone with their own agenda. Many of the UK population – myself included – will turn to the BBC as an accurate source of information after having read something in the media that didn’t sound quite right.
And while the corporation has come under fire with claims of breaching impartiality guidelines – Martine Croxall’s glee at Boris Johnson pulling out of the leadership race being one example – human nature makes it impossible for anyone to be completely unbiased. But Ofcom’s regulation of the BBC offers comfort knowing it’s as close to political and social neutrality as any outlet could be.
Is this worth £159 per year? I’d say so – but it’s not up to us. The future of the BBC lies in the hands of the trusty government… And now that Nadine Dorries – who seemed committed to reviewing the BBC’s funding – is out of cabinet, will this remain on new culture secretary Michelle Donelan’s agenda?
It would be a massive call to make but given the looming tax increase and crippling cost-of-living crisis, the government may see it as an opportunity to cut yearly household outgoings in an attempt to win over an increasingly frustrated nation.
Yet despite myriad competitors, many still hold the BBC in the highest esteem – proven by its radio stations reaching 33 million listeners per week, and two of its channels (BBC One and Two) being amongst the top five most viewed platforms.
As the nation cuts back on spending – with subscription channels being an easy target – does the BBC risk facing a new wave of resentment from people who have no choice but to pay? I’d hope not, because given the current political, economic and social climate, a trustworthy source is more vital than ever. And given the extensive services that the BBC provides, it’s good value for money - with that ‘value’ being far greater and impactful than many people might account for.
Last word: I’m also grateful for the fact I can never see the Beeb doing anything like ‘I’m a celebrity’ and causing us the national embarrassment we’re seeing over on ITV with Matt Hancock. Heaven help us with that one….
Jemima Pring is an account executive at Camargue