BBC braced for new crisis after `black Wednesday' fiasco

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The Independent Online
BBC BOSSES were last night preparing themselves for more ratings trouble, this time over digital television.

A new report to be published next week will show that the BBC has failed to corner this market and is trailing dismally behind other digital television stations.

This news will be a further blow to the corporation's esteem, especially in the wake of last week's "black Wednesday", when the BBC recorded its worst performance since transmission began more than 50 years ago.

It will also cast gloom over the launch tomorrow of the BBC's annual mission statement to licence payers.

At Wednesday's nadir, the BBC's viewing figures plummeted to 1.9 million, as people switched to watch ITV's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, hosted by Chris Tarrant, and the Euro 2000 football qualifying finals on Channel 5.

ITV's highpoint was 12 million viewers for the game show, which represented a 59 per cent share of the audience, compared with the BBC's peak of 4.4 million with Keeping Up Appearances.

The BBC diary of disaster started with nearly 10 million viewers switching on to watch Emmerdale on ITV compared with only three and a half million for Television's Greatest Hits on BBC1.

On Channel 5, more than 8 million viewers were watching Euro 2000. This robbed the BBC of its audience for Jack of Hearts, which averaged a paltry 2.9 million viewers. The football gave Channel 5 one of its best weeks for viewers since it first started transmission.

The BBC has been admitting for some time that it expects its share of viewers to fall in the face of competition from other stations. However, it was hoping to compensate by making a successful foray into the digital television market with stations such as News 24.

To fund this, the BBC is demanding that viewers pay an extra licence fee, which has prompted accusations that the corporation is squandering licence-payers' money on jaunts into new technologies while core standards fall. This was a topic which dominated this year's Edinburgh Television Festival.

Industry insiders say the BBC's dismal performance on Wednesday and the digital figures that are due to be released this Friday will cast doubt on whether this extra fee would be justified.

Rivals say the reason for the BBC's lack of success in the digital market stems from the volume of repeated shows which it broadcasts.

Sky said the corporation would be penalising people who do not like its existing offerings with its plans for an extra licence fee.

"The BBC is doing nothing original," said a spokesman for Sky. "If the BBC can't keep its audience for its domestic channels, which billions of licence funds already go into, then how can it justify an additional fee for digital viewers?"

Channel 5 was also quick to capitalise on its triumph last week over the BBC.

"The BBC should stick to what it does best," said a spokeswoman for Channel Five."It is trying to cash in on things which ITV and other stations are doing. The BBC is not offering much which is different."

But last night the BBC was putting a brave face on these setbacks by arguing that the dip in viewing figures was "unusual" and that it had a raft of new programmes to offer viewers for the autumn.

"We knew we were never going to do very well against the football," said a spokeswoman for the BBC.

"We are not pandering to commercial necessities. At the Edinburgh International Television Festival everyone was saying we should be doing something different, then we get criticised when we do.

"ITV has not had a good summer and had to put out Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? to boost its own figures."

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