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27 May 2022

Why a “digital-first” BBC should worry us all

As it closes the CBBC and BBC Four channels, the broadcaster appears to be accepting a smaller role in public life.

By Scott Bryan

With the BBC celebrating its centenary this year, the world’s oldest and most respected public service broadcaster should be in a celebratory mood, but it doesn’t feel like it, especially to its staff. A matter of months after Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, announced that the cost of the licence fee was to be frozen for the next two years, before rising with inflation, Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general, has announced another round of cuts, on top of an existing £1 billion of savings. While previous cuts have focused on everything but programming, this time the resultant changes to the BBC’s output are stark. BBC News and BBC World News are to merge their output. BBC Four, CBBC and Radio 4 Extra are to move online to BBC iPlayer in a few years’ time. One thousand more jobs are to be cut, after years of existing rounds of redundancy. Even BBC Radio 4 Long Wave is to be phased out, raising questions about the future of the much-loved Shipping Forecast. 

The move of CBBC — which has been broadcasting as a standalone channel since 2002 and ended its regular afternoon blocks on BBC One in 2012 — to iPlayer has caused a lot of concern. Moving a children’s channel online might seem logical at first glance. Children are far more accustomed to streaming their favourite show than turning on the television at a specific time. Over Christmas my young niece was staggered to learn that when her grandparents were her age they didn’t have Netflix, while my nephews binged an impressive number of episodes of The Octonauts. Commercial channels have paved the way, with Disney closing its linear channels to focus on Disney+ last year. 

Yet moving CBBC online would be a disaster for lower income households who may no longer be able to access children’s programmes. Many families may not have a compatible television to watch programmes on demand, or the other devices needed to allow children to watch their favourite shows online. This has already been an issue for the BBC. During the first wave of the pandemic the broadcaster unveiled its “biggest educational offer in its history”, hundreds of hours of the syllabus available on demand while schools were closed. By the time of the second lockdown, many of these educational programmes were also shown on BBC Two after senior staff realised that some of its vital audiences could not access them in the first place. Unless a block of CBBC programmes is shown on BBC One again (could we see the nostalgic return of Blue Peter at 5pm, followed by Newsround?), the broadcaster will be limiting the potential viewership of children’s programming, which undermines the ideal of universal access it has always strived for.

Then there’s the future of BBC Four. If the BBC can take one lesson from the last few years, it is that moving services online doesn’t always work. BBC Three returned to linear television a few months ago, having struggled to maintain its audience figures online. Enders Analysis research says that audiences fell by more than 70 per cent (though it should be noted that the channel’s programming budget was also slashed over that time). And even though BBC iPlayer keeps breaking records, if your programme has not been heavily promoted elsewhere or appears predominantly on iPlayer homepage, it can get buried. 

BBC Four is a slightly different case to BBC Three: sadly, there’s very little money going towards the channel in the first place. Last year its budget was hollowed out and the channel was rebranded an “archive” service (in other words: repeats). It would still show occasional new documentaries under its Storyville brand, or a new arts show or Scandi noir drama, but essentially it has become a place to watch classic episodes of Top of the Pops. The channel was once a thriving destination for exploring topics that other channels ignored, as well as nurturing new shows that went on to become much more popular, such as Charlie Brooker’s Wipe and Only Connect. If the younger target audience of BBC Three wasn’t willing to follow the channel online, it’s hard to imagine BBC Four’s older one will be.

While the corporation glossed these cuts and changes as evidence of a “digital-first” BBC, you can’t help but wonder whether this is the first indication of the public service broadcaster shrinking and taking a smaller position in our national landscape. In among the announcements made yesterday, the BBC also said that it will be making 200 fewer hours of programmes a year. Shows that do not drive viewers on-demand will be cut. This comes at a time when, despite Netflix subscription wobbles, streaming rivals are spending billions of pounds on new content to lure people away. The BBC has been a unique and dominant force in Britain’s cultural life over the last 100 years. If there is simply going to be less of the BBC than there was before, it’s hard to imagine how it can stay that way for the next 100 years.

[See also: How the BBC became a “football” in the climate change culture wars]

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