The BBC will redirect its television budget to make “lighter” dramas and comedies in the belief they will appeal to Britons from poorer backgrounds.
The broadcaster also said it would try to attract viewers from lower socio-economic groups by making sports documentaries and crime shows, after criticism from Ofcom that these audiences are more likely to watch commercial outlets such as ITV.
While the corporation remains highly valued and used by most Britons, the media regulator found the national broadcaster was struggling to reach people from younger and less privileged backgrounds who have “persistently felt underserved by the BBC”.
This potentially undermines the universal licence fee model, where every household consuming any live television or iPlayer services pays £159 a year.
The broadcaster has already brought back BBC Three as a live television channel, six years after making it online-only, in a bid to reach poorer viewers outside London aged 16-34. Ofcom praised BBC Three successes such as RuPaul’s Drag Race UK v the World, Conversations with Friends, and Glow Up: Britain’s Next Make-Up Star as examples of shows that had done well with younger audiences – but said it was too early to decide whether the move had been worthwhile.
The longrunning hospital drama Holby City was also axed in favour of reviving Rochdale-based school drama Waterloo Road, in an attempt to have more shows made in the north of England.
The report said: “A particular issue we raise this year is that we have found audiences in lower socio-economic groups and disabled audiences continue to be less satisfied with the BBC. This has been the case for a number of years …
“Those classified as falling within lower socio-economic groups, in particular those referred to as the D and E groups, represent almost a quarter of the UK population. These audiences consume less BBC content and have consistently rated the BBC lower than other audience groups.”
As a result, the BBC said it was “commissioning more TV content aimed at C2DE audiences, particularly lighter drama, crime drama and comedy drama, as well as factual entertainment competition formats and sports documentaries”. It will also focus on sports via BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Sounds to reach these groups, alongside some targeted speech and music output on BBC Sounds.
One structural problem the BBC faces is that while older listeners and viewers grew up with the corporation’s services and then stuck with the BBC throughout their life, the corporation is struggling to build the same deep bonds at a young age with modern audiences.
Despite investing heavily in podcasts aimed at younger listeners, the number of BBC Sounds users aged 16-34 is flat at 570,000 a week – below the BBC’s target. The corporation said it would invest in sports content and other material in order to grow its audio reach among poorer audiences – a category that includes around a quarter of the population.
Despite the long-term challenges, Ofcom said that overall the BBC continued to “perform well” and reached about eight in 10 British adults each week. It is also the UK’s primary source of news, reaching 73% of UK adults.
Yet, its audience is smaller among children, potentially setting up further problems for the future. This is partly because while toddlers – and their parents – are big fans of CBeebies, the broadcaster is struggling to convince older kids to watch CBBC programmes rather than YouTube or TikTok. How to lure these audiences back in adulthood is a major concern for a corporation already struggling with a licence fee freeze.
On Wednesday, Ofcom gave permission for the BBC to increase the amount of archive material on its iPlayer streaming service, lifting limits on how much vintage material could be available for streaming. At the moment, most programmes are available only for 12 months after their initial broadcast. However, viewers are unlikely to see a rapid increase in the amount of shows available as the corporation would be likely to have to pay ongoing licensing fees to programme makers to keep old shows available indefinitely.