More news, not pop culture, will attract BBC viewers

A few days ago I was debating with the bureau chief of one of the big US networks the BBC’s decision to review its entire news output - and Channel 5’s blatant appeal to the youth audience, with colour coded news.

A few days ago I was debating with the bureau chief of one of the

big US networks the BBC’s decision to review its entire news output -

and Channel 5’s blatant appeal to the youth audience, with colour coded

news.



After the show we had a frank exchange. Off air this powerful American

was genuinely perturbed. What was wrong with the BBC sounding the

serious way it did? All three US networks have long-established anchors,

as we have here, because audiences expect it. The executive pointed out

that American TV could learn much from the best practices at the BBC and

ITN, from extensive foreign coverage to the promotion of women and

ethnic minorities as mainstream presenters.



Outside views are always a good corrective. But I happen to think the

BBC would be in dereliction of its duty if it did not take a cool look

at its performance, especially as it is on the brink of recruiting for

its

24-hour TV news service. The issue goes to the heart of its public duty:

these services absorb both a large proportion of the licence fee and in

return provide a critical flow of information.



Much of the current tone of the BBC’s main news bulletins and programmes

was set in concrete some ten years ago, after John Birt arrived. This

was before the launch of Sky News, the rapid growth in Internet and on-

line news services, and the perception of news as just one more

commercial commodity.



The BBC’s emphasis has been on developing expert correspondents and

handing out analysis. Until BBC 1 launched an accessible magazine-based

current affairs programme, Here and Now, three years ago, it had wrongly

turned its back on its popular Nationwide tradition.



A recent annual report showed that only a third of adults watched BBC

current affairs, four in ten regional news, with figures for the under-

24s pitifully low. There has been scant innovation: Question Time has

been going 17 years and has lost its way. Radio 5 Live’s success in

mixing serious news and chat may help form the new 24-hour channel,

although its big audiences tune in for sport.



None of this gives the BBC carte blanche to let rip. After some 20 years

of declining ratings, audiences for news programmes are stabilising. The

way to serve younger people and downmarket people may lie, not in adding

pop culture to established bulletins, but in extra news programmes. The

BBC’s Newsround serves around three million young viewers pretty

well.



BBC 2 could devise short slick news programmes and stick them on before

Red Dwarf. These could also direct viewers to the BBC news Web site. It

could expand the frequency of Here and Now. But the unanswered riddle in

all of this is whether a 24-hour news service will expand and

democratise the BBC’s reach? It seems highly unlikely.



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