This has been a time for getting back to the basics within BBC News. The corporation is sensibly rationalising its operations to make sure it can keep its core services going during the public health emergency. Hence Newsnight losing its own studio, being delayed by 15 minutes each night and having to make a hot-seat changeover on the main newsroom set. On radio, meanwhile, the same news summary is read across the networks – eradicating the tailored services preferred by channel controllers. A number of individually branded programmes have disappeared, from The Andrew Neil Show and Victoria Derbyshire’s daily programme to the 91-year-old Week In Westminster on Radio 4.
Viewers don’t seem to mind. BBC television news audiences have been peaking at very high levels during the coronavirus crisis, with sometimes more than 8 million watching the 6pm bulletin – which is close to double the normal average. Newsnight has also improved its ratings, despite straitened circumstances, and exceeded one million viewers on 30 March.
The overwhelming factor behind this, of course, is the shocking and all-encompassing nature of the emergency. But the BBC is taking heart from the way that it has re-established itself as the unchallenged national broadcaster. There is some hope in New Broadcasting House that the government is recognising its continuing reliance on public service broadcasting, with less of the foolish talk that most of our needs could be met by Netflix. The announcement of an unparalleled array of education programming, hailed by the cabinet minister Oliver Dowden, confirms that. Yet the government’s review of decriminalising the payment of the TV licence fee has continued, and it is possible that the corporation could provide excellent coverage of the crisis and then immediately suffer a further hit on its finances.
For now, though, there are some intriguing insights into programme production which challenge the orthodoxies of the recent past. Question Time, moved from late night to the peak schedule, has been revitalised by not having an audience, and instead allows a group of expert and responsible people to discuss serious issues. The panellists don’t need to look for cheap applause lines, and they no longer have to face a baying crowd of people seeking their own minute of fame. Much of what producers thought about excitement and interaction has turned out to be misplaced, and there are echoes of the last general election campaign when the best debates were the ones in which the broadcasters kept the audience firmly under control.
It has also been instructive to watch how effective other simple formats can be. Coronavirus: Your Essential Update, also shown in prime time and broadcast from Salford, amounts to not much more than the presenter Rachel Burden putting viewers’ questions to health experts. But it is a valuable piece of public service.
That is the case across much of the corporation’s output, and here some ironies appear. There had been indications that the BBC was seeking formally to reduce 5 Live’s regulatory commitment to news; but the station has been terrific as a news channel during the crisis, no longer itching to get away from hard news in favour of more sport and softer chat. Similarly in local radio, BBC stations have shone because they have rediscovered their seriousness of purpose. It proves just how misguided some television scheduling decisions had been, such as reducing the duration of BBC One’s News at Ten at the height of the debate about Brexit and shunting aside The Andrew Marr Show in favour of a repeat of Match of the Day.
The BBC’s success in recent weeks has come through doing what it should always have done: being the nation’s authoritative and sober source of news, and putting public information and education ahead of ratings. The question is whether this can endure beyond the health emergency if – as we can only hope – things get back to normal. The schedules must still have their mix of drama and sport and other entertainment, of course, but it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the BBC’s news services will be any less needed. We will be grappling with the economic consequences of coronavirus for years if not decades to come, along with potentially profound changes to our society and the lessons for public health. If that is not prime territory for a public service broadcaster across all its platforms, it’s impossible to know what is. The BBC may have found that its future depends on harnessing the qualities that represent the best of its past.