Advanced Television

Ofcom: ‘BBC must do more to serve lower income audiences’

November 30, 2022

By Colin Mann

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.

Ofcom’s report 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.

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

Ofcom also wants 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

According to Ofcom, 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. 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 £400 million (€463m) annual funding gap by 2027, which Ofcom acknowledges 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 Ofcom about the BBC’s planned changes to its local online news offering. Ofcom’s assessment of these proposals, which it expects to conclude shortly, will take account of the BBC’s analysis, the NMA’s concerns and Ofcom’s own data sources.

Better complaints handling. The BBC committed November 29th 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 Ofcom expects them to be implemented as a matter of urgency. Ofcom 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. Ofcom is now consulting on a number of changes to BBC Competition Regulation. Its proposals include setting a specific requirement for the BBC to publicly set out, in detail, changes to its licence-fee funded public services. 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 per cent on the previous year.

Having carefully considered a request from the BBC, Ofcom is 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.

In response, a BBC spokesperson said: “Ofcom recognises our investment in distinctive UK content, how we bring audiences together for major national moments and the significance of our trusted, impartial news, which means we’re delivering on our remit and delivering value for audiences.”

“While BBC is the most used media brand for low socio-economic groups, we know we have further to go both on and off screen, so we are commissioning ever more varied content that reflects UK communities and we’ve set a new staff target, for 25 per cent of staff to come from low socio-economic backgrounds to ensure we’re serving all audiences.”

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