During the pandemic, when schools were shut and children stuck at home, the BBC was a lifeline. Not only educational – unlike most things they were consuming on YouTube or TikTok – but often entertaining. My own history-loving teenager credits her knowledge of British monarchs to the chorus of a Horrible Histories song: “William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John, oi!”.
She is not alone. A report by Ofcom last November showed a huge appreciation for the BBC among parents and teenagers in particular during the crisis when CBBC, which showed BBC Bitesize every weekday morning during the pandemic, became audiovisual daycare with shows such as Newsround and Operation Ouch. Which makes it all the depressing that just a few months later, the BBC has announced that the terrestrial channel is to move online as part of a package of cost cuts to fill the £285m funding gap created by the two-year licence fee freeze imposed by the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries.
Not that words such as “cuts” were included in the BBC announcement, which instead talked about changing and saving but could not hide the fact that there will be up to 1,000 fewer people employed in the public-funded part of the BBC in the coming years. “Digital first” has long been the go-to phrase when putting a positive spin on bad news but does it really make sense this time? Yes, younger audiences, particularly the seven- to 12-year-olds targeted by CBBC, are increasingly turning to streaming services such as Netflix and Disney+ and Ofcom figures suggest YouTube is poised to eclipse the BBC as the most used news source for 12- to 15-year-olds. Yet there are two groups that are not reliably part of this revolution: those too poor to pay for subscription services and those in areas without adequate broadband.
Ofcom’s Media Nations report in 2019 found that homes with only free-to-air digital terrestrial TV still amount to 11.3m, or 40% of all households, not only the biggest proportion but an increase of 2.3% since 2012. And while surveys suggest more people will migrate to online-only services, the cost of living crisis heading our way with inflation at 9% will hit those unable to pay.
The government’s own consultation over the renewal of the terrestrial licences referred to the Ofcom figures and yet many government ministers, among other BBC critics, constantly suggest that its £159 licence fee is on a par with Netflix’s £132 standard subscription.
It isn’t. While Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History may be brilliant on Netflix, there is simply not enough money in educational or news-based programming to make subscription-based companies produce as much in these areas as a broadcaster whose entire remit is to produce shows for all. Universality not only underlines the compulsory nature of the licence fee itself but the very purpose of the BBC, especially when it comes to pure public service content. The BBC cannot and should not try to ape the streaming giants, with their deep pockets and global reach. Its purpose is to serve all British citizens, whether rich or poor, urban or rural and anything in between. Local content, whether regional drama or memorable ditties about medieval kings, does not sell globally.
BBC executives stress that the number of hours of content will stay the same. The problem with moving content to iPlayer, however, is that shows tend to disappear, lost in the morass of online choice. Just ask BBC3, now back on a terrestrial channel with shows that young people really wanted to watch. Linear TV may be declining but it still swamps the numbers of viewers for streaming channels. Piers Morgan is a case in point. T he numbers who left Good Morning Britain when he did have not all turned up to watch his new show on TalkTV.