In the past week or so we've had shock-horror headlines in the press, with the news that both ITV and BBC Television's share of viewing fell again in 2004 and that BBC1's share fell below 25 per cent for the first time. To read some of these articles, you would think that the broadcasting world is collapsing, with banner headlines such as "It's official - the BBC is a turn-off" and "Multichannel the 2004 share victor". Actually, what happened last year was entirely predictable. It follows a pattern seen over the past three decades in the US, and has been happening in Britain for more than a decade.
The facts are these. Last year BBC1's share of the total audience fell from 25.6 per cent to 24.7 per cent (a fall of 3.6 per cent), while ITV's fell from 23.6 per cent to 22.8 per cent (a fall of 3.4 per cent). But this scale of fall isn't new, or even exceptional. Over the past decade ITV's audience share has fallen by 42 per cent (an average of 4.2 per cent per year) and BBC1's by 24 per cent (an average of 2.4 per cent a year). So last year's figures show that ITV did a bit better than its average decline over the decade and BBC1 a bit worse.
Why is this happening? The simple truth is that when people are offered a wider choice in television, they spend some of their viewing time watching the new digital channels that they are now receiving. Hardly a great shock. In particular, they turn away from public-service programming on the traditional networks, particularly in areas such as religion, arts and current affairs, which politicians and regulators are keen for people to watch, but which audiences increasingly don't. Interestingly, the total number of hours of television that people watch today has hardly changed at all with the advent of multi-channel television. It's a very different story in the newspaper industry, where total readership, particularly among the young, is virtually in free fall.
So the trend in viewing figures reflects nothing more complicated than what happens when multi-channel television takes off. Yet some newspaper articles have suggested that the terrestrial channels are threatened by a new, dangerous competitor called "other" or "multi channel". In fact, "other" is a whole range of digital channels, and although between them they attracted 26.3 per cent of total viewing last year, no individual channel got more than a 1.5 per cent share.
And some of those "other" channels are also struggling to maintain audience share. The very channels that started the fragmentation back in the early Nineties by winning viewers away from the terrestrial channels - channels such as UK Gold and Sky One - are losing share themselves. Again, this is not surprising. When they were started, there were only a few new channels; now there are dozens.
What all this means is that it was essential for the traditional terrestrial players to move into the multi-channel market. The BBC went down this route in the late Nineties with News 24, and in the early part of this decade, when it launched its children's channels plus BBC3 and 4. Channel 4 followed suit with E4, and will soon launch More Four, while ITV was late into the multi-channel world, but has caught up quickly by launching ITV2, ITV3 and the ITN News Channel. With all three terrestrial players able to cross-promote from their traditional terrestrial channels, their new channels have rapidly become big players in the "other" category.
For the BBC, losing share is a always a problem in that journalists, politicians and commercial rivals immediately ask how it can it continue to justify the licence fee. Some of these very same people complained that the BBC was too "populist" when it was doing better in the ratings battle. As I've often said, the BBC lives in a no-win world.
Nothing illustrates the BBC's predicament better than the story of The Simpsons. Faced with having to bid more than $1m (£530, 000) an episode or lose the series, the BBC stepped aside. Channel 4 bought it at this incredible price, not because it really wanted the series, but because it didn't want it to go to its commercial rival, Channel 5, which had made the first large bid. Losing The Simpsons was the main reason why BBC2's share fell from 11 per cent to 9.9 per cent last year, bringing the predictable criticism about the licence fee. But just imagine the flak the BBC would have suffered, had it coughed up such a vast amount of public money to buy the new series.
The religious right are so wrong
The row over the decision to play Jerry Springer - the Opera on BBC 2 was more profound than the usual bust-up over a controversial television programme. It brought the tactics of the US religious right into Britain, possibly for the first time; tactics which I've never experienced in 20 years as a television executive. Publishing the names and addresses of BBC executives on the web exposed them and their families to potential risk from any religious fanatic.
Britain isn't the US and we should be grateful for that. Britain is still a tolerant, liberal society and we should fight to keep it that way. I felt deeply offended by this campaign.
Having seen Jerry Springer in the theatre, I can see how some might find it offensive, although I thought it was a brilliant production not aimed at ridiculing the church but aimed at ridiculing the more sordid end of television. But that's beside the point. Every viewer had the right to choose whether or not to watch the programme, and once a small, aggressive minority of "believers" has the right to decide if the rest of us can view an award-winning theatre production reproduced for television, then our society is in deep trouble.Reuse content