BBC audience falls after lifestyle shows are dropped

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The Independent Online

The BBC may have ditched makeover shows in favour of arts and current affairs programmes, but the latest figures suggest that viewers are happier watching The Simpsons and Big Brother.

The BBC may have ditched makeover shows in favour of arts and current affairs programmes, but the latest figures suggest that viewers are happier watching The Simpsons and Big Brother.

As the corporation strives to prove its public service credentials, viewers are turning away from its two main terrestrial channels, BBC1 and BBC2. Instead they are switching to the BBC's smaller commercial rivals, Channel 4 and channel Five, official figures from the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (Barb) show.

In the first six months of the year BBC1's average share of the audience fell by nearly 5 per cent. Between January and June 2003 its average audience share was 26.04 per cent, but in 2004 it fell by 1.22 percentage points to 24.82 per cent. BBC2 fared even worse, dropping 6 per cent to a 10.25 per cent share.

The figures reflect the BBC's decision to schedule more programmes of the kind the television market would fail to deliver of its own accord, in an attempt to ensure it wins a 10-year extension to its Royal Charter, which is up for renewal in 2006.

On BBC2 in particular, the controller, Jane Root, decided to end lifestyle shows including Life Laundry, Home Front, How I Made My Property Millions and the cookery show Tony and Giorgio.

"We're offering a schedule that's got depth and breadth," a BBC spokeswoman said. "At this point in the year it's not too unusual to be down and it would normally even out over the course of the year."

Channel 4 has enjoyed a remarkable start to the year with its audience share up 2.8 per cent to 9.77 per cent. It has had a string of hits, including the dramas Shameless and No Angels and factual shows such as Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. The fifth instalment of Big Brother has provoked widespread criticism, but is also a ratings success.

The smallest terrestrial channel, Five, has also had a strong start to the year, largely due to the appeal of its mix of films, football and US acquisitions such as CSI. Five's total audience share has risen by 5.1 per cent to 6.78, in spite of industry claims it had peaked last year.

Its audience share has been boosted by the surge in popularity of Freeview, which means viewers who could not previously receive the channel's signal can now watch it through digital set-top boxes.

ITV1, like the BBC channels, has had a difficult six months, with its audience share dropping 2.1 per cent to 23.3, although it made up a small amount of ground on BBC1.

Sport has, however, recently brought an uplift to BBC1. The combined effect of the Euro 2004 quarter-final between England and Portugal and Wimbledon meant that last week the channel enjoyed a peak-time audience share of 36.3 per cent, its highest since Christmas 1998.

But Graham Lovelace, a media analyst, said the total fall in the BBC's audience share was significant. "Although the amount sounds small it means everything in TV-land. All schedulers and programme-makers are watching performance on the main terrestrial channels like hawks," he said. "We might have to get used to the fact a new BBC under Michael Grade and Mark Thompson won't necessarily worry too much about individual channels so long as programmes continue to reach a huge proportion of the total multichannel television universe."

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