advanced-television.com’s Colin Mann has contributed a chapter to The Generation Game, a collection of essays asking the question: ‘Can the BBC win over today’s young audience?’
The work, published by Bite Size Books, features contributions from broadcast industry figures such as former digital minister Ed Vaizey, presenter Mike Read, executive Paul Robinson and analyst Alex DeGroote.
Colin’s chapter is reproduced below by kind permission of the publisher and the authors, Michael Wilson and Neil Fowler.
How do young people consume content? Does the manner in which they do provide any clues to how they might engage with the BBC in the future? Colin Mann finds out first hand from a group of teenagers on their thoughts on the corporation and whether these insights offer any hope. It might be an uphill struggle
In seeking to address the issues raised in this book, I found myself at an early disadvantage: no close family who could be categorised as the ‘missing generation’, and under lockdown, no easy prospect of gauging their thoughts on the matter.
However, a close associate with children falling into that demographic, and whose kids’ school and college friends were keen to contribute, undertook to host an online discussion.
At the outset, one participant admitted that they hadn’t watched the BBC since actor Matt Smith “stopped being Doctor Who”, around 2014, when he was replaced by the older Peter Capaldi.
This group, although far from what might be considered an empirical sample, proved very opinionated and passionate about the topic, particularly in terms of their current perception of the corporation and its funding model.
“The BBC is irrelevant to our generation,” declared one. “You don’t get taxed for watching things online,” added another. All participants saw the licence fee as a tax, with the potential penalties for non-payment a cause for concern. “If you don’t pay, you go to jail,” observed one. “It’s like 1984.”
“The more they try to force us to pay, the less we want to watch,” warned another.
What one participant described as ‘bundling’ was not favoured. “I only want to watch Killing Eve, not the rest. Why should I pay if I don’t want to watch all of it?”
“Forcing people to pay is where it’s going wrong,” said another, with others agreeing that they would be happy to pay to watch it on another platform.
“The BBC should concentrate on making programmes and sell to the Netflixes,” was one suggestion. “You can engage with that platform and will pay for that content.”
“We know the BBC has got to make money somehow, we know that’s how it is, but we just don’t agree with how they are doing it,” summed up one contributor. There certainly wasn’t a sense that this group wanted ‘something for nothing’.
A question of image
The perception of the licence fee as a ‘tax’ will prove problematic for the BBC as it seeks to ensure that this generation, who will become wage-earners in the coming years, continue to contribute to the corporation’s finances. They all expressed their willingness to pay for the content they like and professed to eschew piracy.
The group was clear as to how it saw the BBC. “What I hate most, is that it’s old-fashioned, mumsy and patronising,” admitted one contributor. “Yes, it’s fuddy-duddy,” agreed another. One source of annoyance were programme interstitials, with the suggestion that this was just ‘propaganda’. “I have no patience for it.”
Indicating perhaps that there is a misconception as to the BBC’s status, one participant ventured that “the BBC is run by the government and I don’t trust the Government, so I definitely don’t trust the BBC. They are not independent and they spew out propaganda,” with another saying: “They certainly don’t represent people like us”. Another felt the BBC was “too political”.
“We don’t feel we’re getting the whole story from the BBC; it only panders to small section and everyone else feels disenfranchised,” was one observation. “It’s non-inclusive, it’s left-wing, London-centric and not an organisation for young people,” was one accusation .
“They are like the Civil Service,” suggested one. “Their content is rubbish; they make it for themselves, not for us,” ventured another, who added: “They need to function like a business, and sell us what we want”.
For some participants, it was not necessarily the BBC’s content that was the problem, but the platform itself. “I’ll watch BBC content on Netflix, because it is legal,” admitted one. The multiplicity of SVOD options is also problematic. “All these different platforms are a pain; we just want one or two for everything,” complained one.
Back in November 2018, Sharon White, then Ofcom CEO, called for UK public service broadcasters (PSBs) to form a combined catch-up platform in order to be more like Netflix. On-demand provider BritBox was launched in the UK in 2019 but the PSBs still have their own catch-up platforms. And since then Disney+ has joined Netflix and Prime Video in the SVOD marketplace, further complicating the ease of access issue.
In describing what content this sample consumes, and how, Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, TikTok and Starz were mentioned as popular platforms, and apps.
“I like to binge a series, not waste a whole week,” admitted one. “There’s a lot of [BBC] content that’s not relevant. YouTube gives each person what they want to see and there’s far more of it.”
Of those who were familiar with the UK PSB online services, ITV Hub was not favoured. “There are too many ads, it’s hard to navigate and there is too much junk,” was a typical gripe, which suggests that any form of ad-supported BBC platform is not in favour. The group was not impressed by ads overall, with a number admitting to using ad-blockers.
Suggesting that the BBC operates a ‘long-tail’ model, one contributor said that the BBC tends “only to go where there’s a big audience”, with the group agreeing that they want “very niche content”.
Although there is an indication that this generation is willing to pay for BBC content, a hybrid, AVOD (advertisement based video on demand) would not appear to be an option.
Those favouring YouTube found people on the platform “very knowledgeable”, saying that you can engage and talk with the people who made the video and they will talk back. Authenticity and engagement were important, with users often going to the ‘Comments’ section first to discover their peers’ thoughts.
In terms of sharing views on content, it is worth noting that the discussion took place just before the BBC launched its BBC Together initiative, designed to enable family, friends, and classmates to watch and listen to BBC programmes together even when they are apart, enabling people to watch and listen to video and audio content from iPlayer, Sounds, Bitesize, news and sport at exactly the same time.
A later follow-up with a smaller section of the group ascertained that, novel though the idea was, it didn’t really chime with their viewing habits and social interactions.
“We go to TikTok and YouTube because we can say what we think. It’s not curated. The BBC is like it’s run by teachers; TikTok and YouTube are more like the playground. You can chat with your friends, it’s real, it’s now, it’s relevant,” was the verdict.
“No-one I know watches the BBC, it’s not what we talk about. We talk about what’s on Netflix,” one revealed. “When Netflix releases a big show, we’re all talking about it and Instagramming,” another added.
And the future?
The idea of communal, shared viewing was a somewhat alien concept, with few admitting to watching linear TV with friends and family. “I watch on my own although sometimes I do watch movies with others,” was the closest admission.
As to availability and relevance of content, the market-leading SVODs were favoured. “There’s loads to watch on Amazon and Netflix. The recommendations on [those platforms] work really well,” was one testimonial.
Although expressing a willingness to pay for content, the omens do not look good for BritBox. “Why should they charge for things made years ago?”
It is apparent that this group don’t watch content with other people, they watch it on their own, but they want to share it and talk about it afterwards. The idea of sitting down and watching something on TVs went out about ten years ago; they are watching on mobile devices.
“They have no future in their current form,” contended one. “It’s not too late for them to change, but they need to do things they are not willing to do. They are too blinkered and too deaf.”
Summarising the discussion, it was clear that the group had no confidence that the BBC understands their generation or was willing to change; and even if it were willing to change, that would not be enough to make them want to pay the licence fee.
What emerged was that if the BBC called it a subscription, and said it would cost £12 a month to subscribe to this content service, the group would see it completely differently. It was a choice to subscribe, not an enforced action.
There is a misunderstanding that their generation is pirating; they don’t need to do that anymore. There is so much content available that they can view legally.
This generation are also content creators. Platforms such as YouTube, TikTok and Instagram take up a lot of their time. They are interacting and creating content of their own.
Initiatives such as BBC Together may go some way to re-engaging this generation, but the problem of content relevance still remains an issue.
In closing, one parent and offspring who contributed to the discussion agreed with the earlier observation regarding Peter Capaldi replacing Matt Smith as Doctor Who, led to their break from linear TV, suggesting the move typified the decreasing relevance of the BBC. A regeneration too far perhaps? The corporation’s ‘Doctors’ have regenerated; the question now is: “Can the BBC?”