Death of Elizabeth II leaves BBC with tricky balancing act

Viewers can easily switch to streaming or social media if they tire of rolling updates and downbeat music

The death of the Queen has left the BBC with a tricky balancing act. It needs to act as the national broadcaster and commemorate the Queen, while also ensuring it doesn’t overwhelm audiences so much they switch off altogether.

A combined television audience of about 16 million people were watching the BBC, ITV and Sky News at 6.30pm on Thursday evening when the news of the Queen’s death was formally announced.

Millions more were watching the same broadcasts via online streams, with the BBC’s iPlayer and Sounds apps both struggling to keep up with demand. Many people are also likely to have found out the news from push alerts on their phones.

The challenge facing British broadcasters is that the media has changed substantially since the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and the Queen Mother. Back then, there were only a handful of television channels and it was easy to enforce the same mood around the nation. Now, with endless streaming options and catchup services, it is easy for viewers to go to Netflix or TikTok if they tire of television news updates and downbeat music on radio stations.

There remains a deep paranoia in the BBC about being judged to be insufficiently respectful to the monarch, as symbolised by the fixation on the colour of the tie worn by Peter Sissons to announce the death of the Queen Mother. Yet judging the tone and breadth of coverage can be difficult. The wall-to-wall coverage of Prince Philip’s death last year became the most complained-about issue in the BBC’s history.

Different audiences around the world also have different expectations. BBC News Africa had to urge its audience to be more “respectful” after posting a tweet celebrating the Queen’s “longstanding connection” to the continent. The account was flooded with posts highlighting the negative impact of British colonialism, leading to BBC Africa manually hiding some replies.

For now, BBC One has been given over entirely to rolling news about the accession of King Charles III and the start of the formal mourning period for Queen Elizabeth II, with discussions ongoing about how long this should continue. Many popular shows, such as EastEnders, have been shunted across to BBC Two. The Last Night of the Proms, scheduled for Saturday night, has been cancelled. Many of the corporation’s radio channels have been airing sombre playlists with reduced chat between songs, while the likes of the Radio 1 breakfast show host, Greg James, focus on the universal idea of loss.

ITV has also continued with rolling coverage of the new monarch without advert breaks, although its for-profit commercial status means it is more inclined to return to a normal schedule. It also suffers by comparison with the BBC, which – regardless of the quality of coverage – tends to attract the majority of television audiences for major national events. It has already postponed the National Television Awards which were due to take place next Thursday.

The Sky Sports News television channel has been taken over by Sky News, meaning that people tuning in for updates on the appointment of Graham Potter as Chelsea manager were instead greeted with coverage of the Queen.

Channel 4 appears to have decided to embrace the role of providing counter-programming, saying it exists to offer viewers an alternative which is “particularly important at times like this”, by showing programmes such as Gogglebox.

All online news websites have seen extraordinarily high traffic, while print newspapers, some filled with articles that have been written for decades, have sold out across the UK as people pick up souvenir copies.

But at the BBC, it may have been the approval of the Daily Mail that was greeted with a sigh of relief by the director general, Tim Davie, and the new BBC News boss, Deborah Turness. The newspaper praised the corporation’s “simple but magisterial coverage” of the announcement. But even if it got the coverage of the Queen’s death correct, the challenge might be ensuring the coverage strikes the right balance in the 10 days until her state funeral.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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