Are we ever going to see the News Bunny defect to the BBC and share an
autocue with Peter Sissons? I ask only because something is stirring in
its huge news and current affairs empire. It wants to be more popular.
This week’s annual report and account from the Corporation, was, on the
face of it, a pretty smug document. But in a few terse lines director
general John Birt underlined a key failing, which has only recently
surfaced in the corporate consciousness helped, I suspect, by Kelvin
MacKenzie’s jibes from the sidelines of Live TV.
It is that, despite all the attention and resources lavished on BBC news
and current affairs programmes, these distinctive offerings are not
succeeding either with people living in the five million homes now
connected to cable or satellite who can dip into 24-hour news channels
if they want, or with the late teens/early twenties audience. Panorama’s
Princess Diana interview was a freakish exception.
Only one third of the audience tunes into a BBC current affairs
programme each week, although the BBC hardly helps matters when it
schedules its most accessible, Here & Now, against Coronation Street.
A further problem is that Radio 5 Live, which was supposed to bring in a
younger audience, has actually made its name with sports coverage. Its
news coverage hardly registers in the minds of the majority of the
audience, except as an irritant when it interrupts play. This is why the
new controller of Radio 4, appointed this week, should have a free hand
to reassert the network’s key role in providing news.
This discovery explains another surprising development, which has been
seeping out over the last few weeks as the BBC has been forced to
provide details of its digital plans.
The 24-hour television service which Jenny Abramsky, ex-controller of
Radio 5 Live has been deputed to start within the next 18 months, will
be targeted at these lost millions of young and somewhat down-market
families. Instead of copying CNN or Sky News, which are basically pretty
straight forward and quasi-authoritative programmes, the BBC has decided
on an unconventional populist approach. It will have younger presenters
with a light touch, fewer desks, and a warmer feel.
The problem, of course, is whether the Corporation really understand
this sort of niche broadcasting. The message from seasoned operators
such as CNN is uncomfortable. They point out what the weekly Barb
audience figures repeatedly stress: that while around 35 per cent of
viewing in cable and satellite homes is now devoted to the non-
terrestrial services, the lion’s share is taken up by entertainment,
movies and sport, not news, however sensational - with or without a