According to official industry figures to be published shortly, BBC1's share fell to 29.5 per cent in 1998 from 30.8 per cent the previous year, a decline almost matched by ITV, which slipped back by 1.2 percentage points to 31.7 per cent.
The drop comes at a sensitive time for the corporation as it sets about convincing both the Government and public of the validity of the universal licence fee in the multi-channel age. Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has just appointed a panel headed by the economist Gavyn Davies to advise on setting the level of the fee until 2006.
"You've got to put the fall in the context of 19 new channels coming on stream and a further 12 doing massive relaunches," said a BBC spokeswoman. "You've also got the first real effect of Channel 5 being felt."
In any case, the BBC will argue, the corporation exists as a public service broadcaster to provide programmes that other networks do not offer in peak-time such as The Life Of Birds, The Human Body or current affairs reports such as Panorama. "Our differentiation is our programming," added the spokeswoman. "We are all about quality and diversity although obviously we would like to show that to as wide an audience as possible."
Although Sir John Birt, the BBC's director-general, has consistently warned that audiences will inevitably decline as channels proliferate, the corporation is acutely aware that the lower its share, the more challenging it becomes to argue for a fee levied on every household.
This was one of the chief concerns underpinning the conflict between BBC Broadcast, which commissions programmes for BBC1 and 2, and BBC News over the recent revamp of the main network's news output.
Conscious that bulletins provided soft spots in peak time against which commercial rivals could schedule popular programming, BBC Broadcast was keen to boost the appeal of the news with more "audience-friendly" presenters such as Jill Dando.
The other likely worry for Sir John is that cable and satellite's gain has so far been, for the most part, ITV's pain. But there is now evidence that ITV's rate of decline is slowing. Under a new management team appointed last year, ITV secured a 37.9 per cent share of viewing between 7pm and 10.30pm, compared with a target of 38 per cent.
The BBC can take some comfort from the fact that BBC2 has held up comparatively well. It slipped back by 0.3 points to 11.3 per cent in 1998, allowing the BBC's overall share to stay above 40 per cent and retain its place as the nation's leading broadcaster. With Channel 4 also retreating (by 0.3 points to 10.3), only one terrestrial network - Channel 5 - increased its audience.
At the end of 1998 (its first full calendar year on air), Channel 5 nearly doubled its share from 2.3 per cent in 1997 to 4.3 per cent as its mixture of movies beginning at the 9pm watershed and selected sports events such as Chelsea's Cup Winners' Cup campaign last season appears to be paying dividends.Reuse content