Why BBC risks becoming a dinosaur preserved in aspic – leader comment

Sir David Attenborough in Seven Worlds, One Planet, a documentary that is the type of programme the BBC should be concentrating on (Picture: BBC)
Sir David Attenborough in Seven Worlds, One Planet, a documentary that is the type of programme the BBC should be concentrating on (Picture: BBC)
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The BBC must learn from success of Netflix-style companies that have exploited the potential of the Age of the Internet, while the corporation has been relatively slow off the mark.

Ask anyone to name the most important British institutions and the BBC is likely to feature prominently. Canada’s Mike Myers was so impressed that Austin Powers even sang an ode to the corporation in his spoof-1960s spy film.

Generations of people in this country grew up with Play School, Blue Peter and Grange Hill, while, around the world, the BBC is famous for the trustworthiness of its news, particularly when compared to the state-controlled PR pumped out by dictatorships.

However, despite this, it is not immune to change. Ofcom’s newly published report on the broadcaster warns it is “vulnerable to the rapidly changing media landscape, particularly in its struggle to attract and retain younger audiences”.

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When the Age of the Internet dawned, companies like Netflix stole a march on the BBC, which is still trying to turn its iPlayer from a “catch-up” service into a streaming one.

Ofcom cautions that if it cannot engage young audiences, the BBC risks losing a whole generation of viewers, who may then be understandably reluctant to continue paying the licence fee.

This payment method is a relic from the days when the BBC was the only show in town and many people have pointed out the iniquity of fining – and then sometimes jailing – people who do not pay the fee to watch EastEnders, Doctor Who, Strictly etc, when the penalty for defaulting on utility bills is usually just being cut off.

Global force for good drama

It is beyond doubt that the licence fee is an unusual funding model. While it protects the BBC from the vagaries of the market, this is not necessarily a good thing.

Change is more difficult, particularly for a large organisation, if it is not demanded by financial imperative. The risk for the BBC is that it is slowly becoming a dinosaur, artificially preserved in aspic that one day will suddenly give way to reality.

The Ofcom report said that the corporation was “broadly delivering on its remit” with “a significant volume of news and current affairs” and “high-quality, distinctive and creative content”. And this is true.

But to continue doing so, it needs to concentrate on what it’s good at in the 21st-century media world, moving towards becoming a global force for good drama, fascinating documentaries and news that can be trusted.

In the UK, there are some aspects of the BBC, like Radio 1, that exist simply because they always have and would perhaps be better left to commercial rivals.