In any list of institutions that define our national life, the BBC once figured prominently. No longer, it now appears. It has been the dominant source of information, engagement and amusement for generations. But we are going through a tumultuous cultural and social change as digital communication and information technology sweep all before it.
Latest figures from Ofcom show video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime now have more subscribers than traditional pay TV services in the UK. The switch off is slightly less pronounced in Scotland – but here, too, viewing terrestrial TV channels is on the way down.
Nearly 40 per cent of UK households now subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime or Now TV. Teenagers and young people are watching around 40 per cent less than they did seven years ago. Viewing among five to 15-year-olds dropped by 15 per cent in 2017 and by 12 per cent for 16 to 24-year-olds. In fact, 16 to 24-year-olds now spend more time watching Netflix than all BBC TV services, including BBC iPlayer and among 16 to 34-year-olds the decline is similar.
Ofcom has also revealed that spending on TV by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 has dropped by nearly £1 billion over the last 20 years, a 28 per cent drop in spending.
Here in Scotland, we watch an average three hours and 46 minutes a day – 24 minutes more than the UK average. But viewing is also on the decline: a fall of 3.8 per cent on 2016, and 16 per cent (46 minutes) less compared with 2010.
For terrestrial channels and for the BBC in particular, these are grim figures, pointing to an epochal cultural shift in viewing habits. And it begs the question: How long can the BBC survive in its present form? Ten years? Five years? It needs to compete with game shows, soaps and comedy clips to maintain viewing figures against the Netflix/Amazon onslaught. But is this the role of a public service broadcaster?
Given the present rate of attrition, the BBC could be little more than a fringe public service outpost. As the BBC chairman Sir David Clementi, admitted this week, “the market around us is increasingly dominated by a very small number of very large, global players with extraordinary creative and financial firepower. As the BBC, we need to think very carefully about how we respond to all these pressures”.
Perhaps the BBC has been little more than a freak historical circumstance. Until the 1950s, tight constraints imposed by technology meant that only one channel was possible – and the BBC became the sole broadcast presence in households across the land - and the most influential broadcaster in the world. The government of the day was in no mood to rush approval for a commercial TV rival financed by advertising. The great and the good looked down their noses at brash commercialism and quiz shows interrupted by advertising jingles for toothpaste and hair wash.
Against this onslaught, the BBC stood out as the national voice of good taste, decorum and authority, the quintessential example of a public good. In those post-war years, the news was sonorously read by McDonald Hobley, a character straight out of Noel Coward whose sole concession to weekend formality was to read the news on Saturdays dressed in a dinner suit and bow tie. His one lapse from this mannered perfection was to have referred to the Labour minister Sir Stafford Cripps as “Crapps” – a slip that millions of viewers in austerity Britain may well have cheered. Compared with that studied formality, today’s nightly outpourings from Laura Kuenssberg to explain Brexit seems almost hysterical.
The BBC’s distance and authority has all but gone. Broadcast rivals are no longer reliant on advertising for their income but can raise massive amounts by subscription. The BBC and its £150.50-a-year license fee system has wilted under the assault. It still has the capacity to create stunning and opinion-changing programmes such as Blue Planet, and mount great documentaries and prize-winning historical drama. But why are viewers deserting in their millions? Netflix is capable of mounting first-class drama such as The Crown and House of Cards. Check into a hotel and the likelihood is your room TV will default to Sky News.
And ‘the Beeb’ – and terrestrial television generally – has come under fire for all manner of faults, ranging from a glut of soap operas (six on Tuesday evening alone) formulaic quiz shows, unadventurous comedy, lookalike food programmes, left-liberal political bias, its own advertising and relentless self-promotion, mind-boggling salaries paid to celebrity performers, the arrogant defence of intrusion of privacy (Sir Cliff Richard) and arguably most irritating of all – repeat after repeat after repeat.
The number of peak-time repeats on the BBC’s flagship channel has risen by 65 per cent in the past year, as financial pressure forces the corporation to recycle old shows. Viewers who tuned in to BBC One between 6pm and 10.30pm may be excused a sense of deja vu when watching Pointless Celebrities on Saturday nights or Would I Lie To You mid-week.
The number of repeats in the channel’s most watched timeslots rose from four per cent in 2016/17 to 6.6 per cent in 2017/18, a decade after the BBC’s then chairman, Sir Michael Grade, pledged to make BBC One a repeat-free zone within 10 years.
It has been criticised by Ofcom for showing too many daytime repeats, concerns likely to embrace peak time re-runs, which filled more than 100 hours of viewing last year. BBC Two continues to give over more than a quarter of its peak-time schedule to repeats, up to 26.7 per cent last year.
And then there are the pop music binge-fests, with BBC 4 recently devoting almost an entire Saturday evening to Duran Duran, a “New Wave” band popular in the 1980s. Commitment to diversity? Really? It does seem that the BBC is facing a profound existential challenge, its future never more uncertain. Addressing this will require creativity and innovation, not a fall-back on constant debilitating repeats, if it is to survive at all.