BBC risking 'lost generation' as younger audience tunes out

24 October 2019

  • Reach of BBC TV among 16-24 year-olds drops below 50% for first time
  • BBC generally serving people well, but Ofcom calls for clear plan to reach younger and disengaged audiences

The BBC may not be sustainable in its current form, if it fails to regain younger audiences who are increasingly tuning out of its services.

Ofcom’s annual report on the BBC, published today, assesses the corporation’s performance over the period April 2018 to March 2019.

We have found that the BBC is generally serving viewers and listeners well, through the breadth and quality of its programmes. People’s satisfaction with the BBC remains high – comparing well with other TV and radio broadcasters.

But like many broadcasters, the BBC is vulnerable to a rapidly changing media landscape. The corporation has acknowledged it is struggling to engage and retain younger audiences, and it is working to address this – such as by launching BBC Sounds and making programmes available for longer on iPlayer.

Ofcom’s findings show that the BBC must do much more to connect with today’s children and younger adults – through relevant, appealing, and well-placed content – or it could lose a generation of potential licence-fee payers.

The scale of the BBC's challenge

Ofcom’s annual report on the BBC sets out the nature of the challenge it faces.

  • Last year, for the first time, less than half (49%) of young people aged 16-24 tuned into BBC TV channels in an average week. Among males in this age group, it was 46%.
  • People aged 16-34 spent an average of one hour and 12 minutes with the BBC every day – five minutes less than the previous year, and half as much time as audiences overall.
  • After several years of stability, the proportion of children aged 4-6 who watch CBeebies each week fell, from 39% to 34%.
  • BBC iPlayer’s reach of 15-24 year olds fell from 28% to 26%, while Netflix saw its younger audience increase from 56% to 66%.
  • The amount of time 18-24 year-olds spent each day on BBC websites dropped by a quarter, from 2 minutes 43 seconds each day, to 2 minutes.

Similar challenges are revealed in Ofcom’s review of BBC news and current affairs, also published today. The review gathered views from audiences across the UK, and involved innovative, detailed research on how people get their news.

Our review finds that the BBC remains the UK’s primary news source, and has maintained its reputation for trusted and accurate reporting. In a time of increased fake news and disinformation, BBC news is still the place people go for a reliable take on events, particularly breaking stories.

However, we found that younger audiences are turning away from BBC news and current affairs, increasingly using social media and news ‘aggregator’ services – such as Apple News or Upday – where the BBC is just one of many sources. Among 16-24 year-olds:

  • Less than a quarter (23%) watched BBC TV news during 2018, a drop of over a third in just five years.
  • Fewer than one in 10 (8%) watched current affairs across BBC TV, around half the proportion who watched five years ago. In contrast, more than three quarters (76%) now use social media for news.
  • Younger people in our research questioned how far BBC news coverage was ‘talking to them’, rather than older generations.

Reaching other audiences

The BBC is also struggling to reach other groups within the UK, today’s reports find.

Our research shows that some people – such as older women and those from lower socio-economic groups – continue to be dissatisfied with how they are portrayed on the BBC. People in Scotland and those aged over-65 have similar concerns.

Similarly, our report on BBC news shows that some people see it as representing a white, middle class and London-centric point of view that is not relevant to their lives.

More widely, however, the BBC is still performing well on editorial standards and output. In the vast majority of cases that we considered during the year, the BBC is meeting the standards of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, as well as our regulatory conditions.

What we expect the BBC to do

Sharon White, Ofcom Chief Executive, said: “The BBC is still a vital, valued part of British culture. But we’re concerned that a new generation is tuning out of its services. So the BBC must set out bolder plans to connect with younger viewers and listeners.

“We also want the BBC to broaden the appeal of its news, which some viewers and listeners feel isn’t relevant to their lives. And the BBC must find ways to be more distinctive online, where our research shows younger people are passing it by.”

  • Reaching younger people. While the BBC has launched initiatives that can help extend its appeal, these are not far-reaching enough. The BBC should set out clear plans for producing distinctive, innovative content that reaches younger audiences where they want to find it.
  • Broadening its appeal. The BBC needs to set out a more detailed plan for improving how it represents and portrays the whole of UK society, including less satisfied groups. Our news review calls on the BBC to focus on authentic news and current affairs content that feels relevant and engaging to all audiences. People told us they want to see more news about their communities, reported by people with a deeper understanding of the area. With its unparalleled local and regional newsgathering resources, the BBC should be able to represent the whole country using a variety of style, tone and subject matter.
  • Engaging younger audiences online. As more people rely on social media and aggregator platforms for news, the BBC's online content needs to do more to stand out. It should publish the steps it is taking to help all audiences – especially younger people – understand and engage with the world.
  • Due impartiality. Although trust and accuracy rate highly, perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality are more complex. Our news review examines the reasons behind this. It shows that audiences have respect for the calibre of the BBC’s journalism and expect its reporters to investigate, analyse and explain events. This should give the BBC confidence to be bolder in how it achieves ‘due impartiality’ – an important requirement under Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code.
  • Supporting other news sites. Our work indicates that the BBC could provide more links to external, third-party content. External links support the wider news industry and benefit audiences by providing access to a wider range of material. Ofcom will gather further evidence to establish if the BBC should do more to link to outside sources.
  • Transparency. Our annual report also raises serious concerns about the BBC’s openness and transparency. These include the BBC’s reluctance to engage effectively with parties affected by changes to licence-fee funded services; and how it releases and explains its decisions on editorial compliance, something Ofcom is examining as a matter of urgency. A commitment to transparency will aid trust in the BBC.

Alongside today’s reports, Ofcom has written to the BBC’s Director-General to set out our main findings. We will liaise with him over the next few months on our concerns so that he can ensure that they are fully taken account of by the BBC Board.

We expect to see a clearly articulated plan, to address those areas that continue to raise concerns, in the BBC’s annual plan and budget setting process for 2020/21, published at the end of March 2020.