FEATURE 

Welcome to our world, BBC… perhaps

As the year began, Neil Fowler believed the nation’s licence-funded broadcaster, under pressure from the new government to justify its role, was making the same mistakes that the regional and local press made in the early 2000s. The current health crisis may have helped it find an escape route, but then again…

By Neil Fowler

Welcome to our world, BBC… perhaps
The BBC’s Manchester base at Salford Quays. Photograph: Sara Bielenkij on Unsplash

It's not quite a lifetime ago, though, as I write at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, it certainly seems like it. But it was back in November 2011 that I concluded my year at Nuffield College in Oxford after looking at the decline and future of the regional and local press in the UK with some gloomy predictions.

And, while the sector has changed in a number of ways, its fundamental issue of a spiralling decline in income has not been overcome.

The problems facing the sector (and to all others in the world of printed general news, too) had been pretty clear since the early 2000s as the burgeoning internet both gave a new and accessible source of news and began the steady decline in advertising yields.

That the whole industry, nationals included, then made the suicidal decision to give away its valuable content for free only gave the anticipated decline a massive downward shove – a judgement from which the industry in general, despite some major rethinks and some hefty investments in paid-for models, has not really recovered.

The regional sector reached a financial summit in about 2003. Margins were enormous after twenty years of continuous growth; there had been massive spends on technology and colour presses; staffing levels had increased dramatically; shareholders were happy; senior executives and analysts seemed to believe all was well and that the good life was here to stay. It might be fair to say there was a whiff of arrogance about the place.

Nearly fifteen years ago, print faced (and continues to face) the perfect storm.

Perfect storms

As 2020 arrived, I wondered if the BBC, as it struggled to deliver a coherent future strategy against a growing feeling that it had to change dramatically, might be ignoring some of the same broad questions the regional and local sector had so successfully scorned.

Nearly fifteen years ago, print faced (and continues to face) the perfect storm described above. The BBC in 2020 now has its own perfect storm – an antagonistic government; free licences for the over 75s; a vociferous loyal base complaining at cuts; a significant section of their funders (young people) who pay but don’t use and who might not want to pay; and Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, YouTube and a few others. Not a storm easily endured.

Now, all this may change in the present maelstrom of contemporaneous life. Currently, mainstream broadcasters in general, and the BBC and its news services in particular, seem to be enjoying significantly increased viewing. There may be questions about the quality of journalism on show, but greater numbers are certainly watching.

And print, and its associated online commercial market, is suffering. Single copy sales are in freefall as readers stay at home; advertising is plunging; digital advertisers wish to go nowhere near Covid stories; both nationals and regionals are furloughing staff. It’s not good.

No-one can offer a realistic prediction of where this may all end up – but what is for sure is that the basic issues facing both traditional broadcasters, and specifically the BBC, and print will not be disappearing, whatever the outcome of the pandemic.

But, back to BC – Before Coronavirus. Print in the early 2000s had not a bad reader base still, but was propped up by jobs advertising. The BBC in the late 2010s had not a bad viewing / listening base still, but was propped up by the licence fee.

But what questions link them?

The basic issues facing both traditional broadcasters and print will not be disappearing, whatever the outcome of the pandemic.

Changing audiences

The first, and most important of these, is audience. Broadly, newspapers sales (along with, significantly, readership) across both national and regional sectors has been declining since the early 1970s. There have been notable exceptions, but the overall curve has moved just one way.

Traditional television viewing has shown a similar trajectory since the early 2000s with the rise of YouTube, Netflix and the many other on-demand services that have launched, so dampening the brand loyalty and recognition that the BBC and ITV (and Channel 4 latterly) enjoyed in a reasonably unfettered way from the late 1950s onwards for 40 plus years.

This was recognised in TV land, but was it taken seriously? In October 2001, Richard Deverell, then head of strategy at BBC News, told a gathering of newspaper editors: “We’d give anything to enjoy your relatively slow rates of [print] audience decline.” [Our research indicates] that 17 million people, a third of the entire UK population, watch at least one edition of the Nine o’clock news each week. However, only 200,000 people watch all five a week.”

Essentially newspaper readers and legacy television viewers have followed the same paths, albeit with a 20-year lag. Newspaper readers found different things to do; BBC viewers have done the same. And there is evidence that legacy television bosses might be trailing the same decision-making route as newspaper managements.

Every year, regional print readership would decline and ad rates (especially those for sits vac) would ascend. There wasn’t much debate about how to keep existing readers onside and to attract and retain new readers for the long term.

Is the BBC following a well-trod path here? It’s cutting costs for its core audience (does it not understand that diehards appreciate, for example, what is behind a cut-down version of Clive Anderson’s Loose Ends on Radio 4 at 11.30am on a Monday?) and that audience doesn’t like it.

It is piling money into its Sounds app in an attempt to attract a hard-to-find current-day young demographic while disenchanting its main flag-wavers. And once those key supporters have left the room, as newspapers know to their cost, they are desperately difficult to entice back.

Now, newspaper managements will argue their titles have never been seen by more readers than now because of digital uptake, but it is unarguable that advertising yields have plummeted, online reading spans are shorter and cost pressures have intensified.

For ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, the issues are the same as for newspapers. Viewers are going to other suppliers; advertisers are getting less for their money; a desperate search is on for a solution.

But for the BBC, the problem is different because of its funding mechanism. Justifying the licence in a changed world to the population at large – especially the groups who live outside London, or who are young and don’t use much, if any, of its services – remains a significant task.

Essentially newspaper readers and legacy television viewers have followed the same paths, albeit with a 20-year lag.

Other similarities

But is it not just audience where there are similarities. Other areas where regional print went wrong are relevant.

  • The regional and local newspaper sector did not research the future. During the golden years of high profits between 1989 and 2005, it could have looked ahead but failed to do so. Did the BBC do the same when viewing was high and the growth of new digital devices was in its infancy?
  • Regional press did not understand its customer base sufficiently. It looked at how its customers interacted with the newspaper products themselves but did not look at how their lifestyles were changing until it was too late. Surely the same for the BBC?
  • Regional and local groups failed to experiment as the shifting marketplace became apparent. Different business models could have been tried. They weren’t. Could the BBC not have put forward ideas such as BritBox when Netflix was new, rather than now, when it is arguably years too late.
  • Senior executives in the regions were viewed by their staffs, both senior and junior, as being too focused on the bottom line. They did not believe it would end. They did not see that the internet would merely conclude what had been happening for decades. Again, is this not the same for BBC senior executives over the years? ‘We’re wonderful; everyone loves us; it’s only 150 quid or so; why can’t it go on?’

And there were individual broadcasting signs that the BBC perhaps pushed to one side, but were all coming together, slowly.

The launch of satellite broadcasting in 1983; the merger of Sky and BSB in 1990; the decline in mass viewing from the heady days of Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials (Little and Large were dumped by the BBC in 1991, allegedly, for attracting only eight million viewers to their last series – today eight million is deemed a major success); the steady movement of sports, one by one, to other channels; the growth of social media.

All these gradually played a part in moving the BBC away from being the pinnacle of the nation’s cultural pyramid. Individually not over important, together a toxic recipe for disaster.

And is it continuing? Is there too much naval gazing? Does the BBC see life too much through London eyes and does this just amplify the belief that core audiences have been ignored by out-of-touch executives?

Once those key supporters have left the room, as newspapers know to their cost, they are desperately difficult to entice back.

Unstoppable forces

However, no-one on any side of the regional print debate has been able to say with any certainty what could have been done differently to prevent the advertising model changing so radically with the internet. Local newspapers may well be a victim of an unstoppable alliance of a changed socio-economic environment and advanced technology.

And in general terms, is this the same for the BBC? Could it have reinvented itself as a Sky or a Netflix – or is it so wedded to the licence-fee model that change on a radical scale was never going to be possible? Or full stop, the BBC may also be a potential victim of an alternative unstoppable alliance.

It is in a crisis that has been long in the making, and not just one that appeared when Boris Johnson won his landslide in December. The causes for concern have been visible in clear sight but have been roundly ignored. Sounds very similar to the regional and local press to me. Welcome to our world.

Local newspapers may well be a victim of an unstoppable alliance of a changed socio-economic environment and advanced technology.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.