BBC's politics revamp fails to win young audience

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The Independent Online

The BBC has abandoned its attempt to engage younger viewers in traditional Westminster politics after failing to attract the under-45s to a series of new political programmes.

The BBC has abandoned its attempt to engage younger viewers in traditional Westminster politics after failing to attract the under-45s to a series of new political programmes.

Research conducted by the BBC has revealed that five new shows commissioned in response to a wide-ranging review of its political output have not succeeded in boosting the proportion of younger viewers.

Audience figures for the BBC's political programmes have risen overall since the revamp, but the new viewers are older people who were already interested in politics.

Instead of trying to interest younger viewers in daily events at Westminster, the BBC is now trying to attract them through shows such as the BBC2 docu-drama series If, which takes a futuristic look at single issues such as obesity and the power supply.

"Westminster is not the way to appeal to younger viewers - shows like If are," Fran Unsworth, the BBC's head of political programmes, said.

"Although we've increased the audiences to new programmes like The Politics Show and This Week, we've singularly failed to shift the demographic," she added.

"The politics research we did shows that young people are very interested in single issues. What we do at BBC Westminster is Westminster-based programmes, and young people are not particularly attracted by having their issues presented through that prism."

The BBC went through a lengthy tender process last year to commission a new political programme aimed at young people, after a review by the former Newsnight editor Sian Kevill which showed that younger viewers felt disengaged from politics. It eventually decided on Weekend, a show presented by the former Today programme editor Rod Liddle, which promised to be lively and informal, but was described by one senior insider as having a "design by committee" feel about it.

Politicians appearing without their jackets against a bright white set decorated with furniture in primary colours failed to appeal to the target audience, as did the time slot - nine o'clock on a Saturday morning.

The show was scrapped after just six weeks last summer. Viewing figures dipped as low as 400,000 and never rose above 600,000. Not only did the programme fail to attract as many viewers as had been hoped, only 36 per cent of those who did watch the show were under 45.

It was followed last autumn by The Sharp End, a humorous current affairs show hosted by Clive Anderson, which also only lasted for six episodes, and only had a 36 per cent share of under-45s in its audience.

"It wasn't bad, but given that they were aimed at under-45s we would have hoped for 50 per cent," Ms Unsworth said.

One of the other innovations to emerge from the year-long, £100,000 politics review was the replacement of the Sunday lunchtime programme On The Record with The Politics Show, a more informal format fronted by Jeremy Vine.

The Politics Show has increased the overall number of weekly viewers by 200,000 to 1.3 million, but only 28 per cent of those are under 45 - the same percentage of younger viewers who watched On The Record.

Timing is a crucial factor in attracting a younger audience. Ms Unsworth admits that it may have been a mistake to schedule Weekend early on Saturday morning - a slot usually occupied by cartoons. "I don't think the issue is that everybody's in bed, but it's a very, very competitive youth market at that time," she said.

This Week, the political discussion show presented by Andrew Neil, which follows Question Time on BBC1, is more popular with younger viewers, who make up 35 per cent of its audience of one million, because of its late-night slot, Ms Unsworth said.

The Daily Politics, a late morning show which replaced Westminster Live on BBC2, has not been so successful, attracting just 200,000 viewers, of whom just 29 per cent are under 45.

The BBC now plans to bring more single issues, such as the tuition fees debate, into The Politics Show and This Week, and make more use of the internet to engage under-45s directly with democracy.


The Politics Show

The decision to replace the BBC1 Sunday lunchtime show On The Record presented by news veteran John Humphrys with The Politics Show fronted by a tie-less Jeremy Vine against a more informal backdrop has won an extra 200,000 viewers, but not in the elusive under-45 demographic.


The BBC2 "yoof" politics show presented by the former Today programme editor Rod Liddle promised to be lively and informal, but politicians stripping off their jackets at nine o'clock on a Saturday morning didn't appeal to the under-45s and it was scrapped after just six weeks last summer.

The Sharp End

Clive Anderson fronted the humorous BBC2 current affairs show that filled the 9.15am Saturday slot for six weeks in autumn 2003. The "witty and amusing" format looked at four issues each programme and dissected the stories of the previous week, but it has not been recommissioned.