Like many households during this cost-of-living crisis, the BBC needs to save its pounds; 285 million of them, to be exact. The shortfall is because the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, decided in January to freeze the licence fee for two years, which has left the BBC director general, Tim Davie, to plug the financial hole.
On Thursday 26 May, Davie announced the BBC will scrap the linear TV channels BBC Four and CBBC, with up to 1,000 job losses. This latest wave of redundancies, in addition to several years of job cutbacks, is a stark reminder of the growing pressure from Conservative voters to scrap the licence fee altogether. But the loudest outcry appears to be caused not by this, but rather by the transition of channels from terrestrial TV to BBC iPlayer.
Let’s be clear, the channels have not been cancelled. CBBC will continue to produce content for iPlayer and beyond. Indeed, for the past few years BBC Four has already served as an “archive” channel, broadcasting curated playlists of programmes already offered by iPlayer. Radio 4 Extra will move from the airwaves to BBC Sounds. In fact, the BBC is putting up to £50m a year towards iPlayer, a total investment of £300m, with the ambition to reach 75 per cent of its audience each week via the platform. This goal of becoming a digital-first service provides the BBC a unique opportunity to be, in Davie’s own words, “a Reithian organisation for the digital age”.
After all, no one is watching TV anymore. A report by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board found that despite the pandemic increasing overall video viewing habits, those under 25 are still watching less broadcast TV than in 2020. This is particularly true for children and young adults: according to a 2021 report by Ofcom, 96 per cent of children aged 5-15 watch any type of video on demand, compared with 56 per cent who watch live TV. In moving online, the BBC is not excluding its audience; it is following them online and hoping to redirect the remaining.
There are understandable concerns, such as those raised by Scott Bryan in the New Statesman, that this could exclude viewers from lower-income families or those with limited internet access: in the same report Ofcom found 2 per cent of children only had access to the internet through a smartphone. However, this issue extends far beyond children’s access to their favourite entertainment channels. The BBC’s move only reinforces how important it is for households to have a strong internet connection. We should support the expansion of online media while arguing for greater digital access through government ownership.
More than anything, the reaction against moving channels to the internet reveals something about our attitudes towards digital media. Taking TV channels online has traditionally been seen as a last-resort measure – a broadcaster’s budget-saving hack. Yet the BBC has seen plenty of success with that sort of action before; BBC Three’s move online in 2016 meant it could diversify and experiment with its programming. No longer required to fill up fixed broadcasting time, the channel could take creative risks and produce highlights such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Killing Eve, Fleabag and Normal People. Since its move back to TV, it has struggled to retain the same viewing figures or critical praise (though this can in part be put down to the pandemic’s disruption of production).
It is a common error to overestimate the influence of TV on contemporary culture. Look at GB News and TalkTV; they could have been equally successful, or more, had they been broadcast online only, rather than on terrestrial TV. Those channels only enter the public conversation if they happen to trend on social media, and it isn’t that speculative to assume they would still have achieved this if they were broadcasting via YouTube. YouTube would also provide the benefit – because of online live-view counters – that even their worst videos would register more than the zero viewers watching some of their TV shows.
Despite the growing recognition and competition of streaming services such as Netflix and Disney, we continue to overvalue the idea of legacy media like TV. Instead, the decision to prioritise iPlayer exclusive content may finally provide the opportunity for the platform to rival streaming giants, while securing the BBC’s future against the ongoing threats posed by this Tory leadership.