BBC viewing figures fall to all-time low

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The Independent Online

Viewing figures for the BBC's two main television channels have fallen to an all-time low in the week that the director general, Mark Thompson, announced swingeing cutbacks.

Viewing figures for the BBC's two main television channels have fallen to an all-time low in the week that the director general, Mark Thompson, announced swingeing cutbacks.

BBC1's share of all television viewing is set to fall through the psychologically important 25 per cent barrier for the first time in the broadcaster's history, according to audience figures for this year up to 9 December.

BBC2 has also seen its audience share plummet by almost 9 per cent over the same period. If these trends continue for the final three weeks of 2004, it will mean that for the first time less than 10 per cent of the television audience are tuning into BBC2 on average, while less than a quarter of viewers are watching BBC1.

The figures, which reflect the changing landscape of British television, show the combined audience share for BBC1 and BBC2 has fallen by almost 9 per cent since 2000.

The decline, largely because of the rise of multi-channel viewing, has afflicted ITV1 even more severely than the BBC - since 2000 the channel's audience share has fallen 22 per cent to 22.8 per cent of all television viewers. In 2004, for the first time, multi-channel television has attracted higher overall viewing figures than either BBC1 or ITV1, with 26 per cent of the audience.

But Channel 4 has proven it is possible for a terrestrial broadcaster with a public service remit to improve its audience share against such a competitive backdrop. In the past year, the channel's audience share has climbed by 1.4 per cent to 9.8 per cent, thanks to a range of popular factual programmes, such as Wife Swap and How Clean Is Your House?, and to its coup in winning the terrestrial rights to The Simpsons from BBC2. Channel 4 began broadcasting the popular American cartoon show in March this year. Channel Five has also seen its audience share climb by 1.7 per cent to 6.66 per cent.

Between 1 January and 9 December, BBC1's audience share fell 3.5 per cent to 24.67 per cent, while BBC2's share dropped by 8.9 per cent to 9.99 per cent.

The figures from the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (Barb) reflect the dilemma that sits at the heart of Mr Thompson's battle to secure the licence fee for another 10-year charter period, when the BBC's current royal charter comes to an end in 2006.

In Building Public Value, the document putting forward the case for maintaining the BBC as the bastion of public service broadcasting in Britain, Mr Thompson argues that making high quality programmes is more important than chasing ratings.

He repeated this sentiment last week, when he attempted to soften the blow of 2,900 job cuts and a further 15 per cent cuts across the board, by affirming a commitment to journalism, comedy, music and drama at the expense of popular but derivative lifestyle programmes.

A BBC1 spokeswoman blamed the decline in audience figures on the rise of multi-channel television and said the BBC has responded to the changing television landscape by launching its own portfolio of digital channels including BBC3 and BBC4.

She said: "We have to be realistic in this day and age with the growth of multi-channel television. What we have managed to do in the past four years is to halt decline.

"BBC1 still reaches 86 per cent of the population, the highest reach of any of the big channels," she added. BBC2's decision to replace lifestyle shows such as Home Front and Food and Drink with arts and current affairs programmes in peak time has also resulted in a fall in viewers.

"We are neither surprised nor disturbed by this at a time when multi-channel is growing so consistently," said a spokeswoman for the channel.

An ITV spokeswoman said: "Increased multi-channel penetration has changed the television landscape. ITV now has a strong portfolio of channels and since the launch of ITV3 on 1 November, share of viewing across ITV's family of channels is up 9 per cent on the same period last year."

The television consultant Graham Lovelace of Lovelacemedia said: "The BBC says it is no longer chasing ratings, but viewers will equate the value of the licence fee with the most watched programmes. If the BBC puts emphasis on being the cornerstone of public service broadcasting, you must accept that some programmes won't necessarily be ratings winners."

The new viewing figures emerged as former chairman Gavyn Davies warned that one quarter of households believe the BBC is not worth the licence fee. Research commissioned while he was still with the corporation showed that six million households were unhappy paying the £121 per year.

This "disaffected minority" includes members of ethnic minorities, people on low incomes and those who live outside the South-east of England.

More needs to be done to win them over or the funding of the BBC is in danger, Mr Davies warned. The former BBC chief, who resigned in January in the wake of the Hutton inquiry, revealed the survey findings in a paper published by the Social Market Foundation. The study showed that 17 million households value the BBC at or above the £121 fee. A third of the population would be willing to pay double the fee and 25 per cent treble. But about six million households say they value the BBC at less than the current fee.

Mr Davies said the BBC should tailor services towards addressing the problem.

...and part of the slide is down to one man

By Ciar Byrne

Losing Homer Simpson to Channel 4 has been a major blow for BBC2, leading to a drop in early-evening viewers.

The Simpsons used to attract an average audience of more than 3 million to BBC2, which held the terrestrial rights from the mid-Nineties. Losing the cult cartoon has contributed to a drop in ratings of nearly 9 per cent over the past year.

A spokeswoman for BBC2 said: "It was inevitable that the switch of The Simpsons to Channel 4 would have an impact on BBC2's audience share this year."

Lucy Rouse, a former editor of Broadcast magazine, summed up the appeal of The Simpsons. "It is one of the gems in the schedule in that it brings in an upmarket, sizeable audience. You can schedule it every single night and you know you are always going to pull in those numbers and that demographic."

BBC2, which paid £100,000 per episode, pulled out of bidding in 2002, after the channel controller at the time, Jane Root, said she refused to pay "football match cash" for the rights. Channel 4 struck a deal said to be worth £750,000 per episode. Since its launch on Channel 4 last month, the cartoon has attracted ratings of up to 3.5 million.