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BBC must do more to serve audiences on lower incomes

Published: 30 November 2022
Last updated: 16 March 2023
  • Ofcom to examine why lower-income viewers are less satisfied with BBC
  • BBC faces tough financial choices, but move to digital mustn’t leave local audiences behind
  • Viewers to get more choice on BBC iPlayer as Ofcom gives go ahead for more archive content

The BBC needs to do more to reach and resonate with viewers and listeners on lower incomes, Ofcom has found in its annual report on the BBC’s performance.

Our report[1] finds that people in lower socio-economic groups – who account for almost a quarter of the UK population – are less engaged and less satisfied with the BBC.

This audience watches, listens to, or browses BBC content – including news – less than the rest of the population, and is least satisfied with how they are represented and portrayed in programmes. Staff from lower socio-economic backgrounds are also under-represented within the BBC’s own workforce.[2]

This graphic shows some metrics on the BBC and lower socio economic groups. It shows the broadcaster share of daily TV viewing time comparing the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. It also shows average weekly reach by audiences from different socio-economic groups; as well as perceptions of the BBC.

To understand why, Ofcom will launch an in-depth review into how the BBC connects with audiences on lower incomes.

We also want the BBC to set out, clearly and publicly, its overall strategy for improving perceptions among disenfranchised audiences – including how it is drawing and acting on viewer and listener research.

Holding the BBC to account

The BBC faces a challenging market and economic climate. Competition from global streaming services is intense, and people are continuing to move away from broadcast TV and radio stations towards online content[3]. Meanwhile production costs are rising, and the licence fee will be held at its current level until 2024. Factoring in inflation, the BBC has said this will create a £400m annual funding gap by 2027[4], which we acknowledge will lead to tough financial choices in the coming years.

The BBC is seeking to address these challenges in a strategy to become a ‘Digital First’ organisation. As it undergoes this transition, Ofcom expects the BBC to continue to deliver for all audiences, and will hold it to account in areas where it needs to do more.

These include:

  • Protecting local audiences. As it implements the Digital First strategy, the BBC must not lose sight of the importance of local content. This includes proposed changes to news and current affairs.[5] We will scrutinise the BBC’s plans as they develop, and assess their impact. That includes keeping a close eye on programme sharing between local radio stations, to ensure the sustained provision of high-quality local content, including local news.

    Separately, the News Media Association (NMA) has raised concerns with us about the BBC’s planned changes to its local online news offering. Our assessment of these proposals, which we expect to conclude shortly, will take account of the BBC’s analysis, the NMA’s concerns and our own data sources.
  • Better complaints handling. Yesterday (29 November), the BBC committed to improve how it addresses complaints from viewers and listeners, following action by Ofcom. It has said it will renew efforts to centralise handling so that all complainants are treated consistently; improve the timeliness of responses; and make clear, at every stage of the process, what the next steps are. These are critical reforms, and we expect them to be implemented as a matter of urgency. We will conduct a further review of the ‘BBC First’ complaints system before the end of the current Charter period to assess whether the changes have been sufficient to restore audience trust.
  • Better transparency. We are consulting today on a number of changes to BBC Competition Regulation. Our proposals include setting a specific requirement for the BBC to publicly set out, in detail, changes to its licence-fee funded public services.[6] This will ensure the BBC is more transparent about its plans with rival broadcasters and other interested organisations.

More choice for iPlayer viewers

While the overall reach of the BBC’s broadcast channels continues to decline, use of its online services such as BBC iPlayer, is growing. According to the BBC, programmes were streamed more than 6.6 billion times on iPlayer in 2021/22, up 8% on the previous year.

Having carefully considered a request from the BBC, we are today giving the go-ahead for it to increase its catalogue of older content on iPlayer - such as past series of returning titles - meaning greater choice and better value for licence-fee payers.[7]

Notes to Editors

  1. The annual report covers the period April 2021 to March 2022 and assesses how the corporation is meeting the needs of the people it serves.
  2. In 2021/22, BBC UK public service staff were around twice as likely as the wider UK workforce to have had parents in professional occupations when they were 14 (65% vs 33%), and to have attended private schools (13% vs 7%). Representation of disabled people in the BBC’s workforce has declined to 8% in 2021/22, compared to 21% of the UK’s working population.
  3. https://www-pp.ofcom.org.uk/topic-and-subtopics/media-use-and-attitudes/media-habits-adults/research-statistics-and-data/media-nations-2022/
  4. https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/speeches/2022/the-bbc-at-the-heart-of-the-digital-age
  5. The BBC announced plans, for example, to streamline its local radio and TV offering by encouraging greater programme-sharing across local radio services, and by closing TV opt-out services in Cambridge and Oxford. It also plans to improve its local online news offering by increasing the number of separate localities it serves from 42 to 46, and by ensuring that a certain number of local interest stories are published in each locality every day.
  6. These are changes which the BBC are likely to assess for materiality - i.e. changes that are not business-as-usual/part of the BBC's day-to-day business, such as individual programme scheduling decisions.
  7. Since 2019, the BBC has limited the availability of older programmes on BBC iPlayer. The BBC will no longer apply these limits and will increase the amount of older content on the platform. The BBC will still be required to consider whether any future changes to BBC iPlayer could have a material impact on competition. For this assessment, we have not considered acquisitions on the basis that the BBC will not be changing the availability of acquired content on BBC iPlayer as part of the proposal. However, were the BBC to consider making changes to its approach to acquisitions on BBC iPlayer in future, it would need to consider whether they are material under the regulatory framework.
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