During a recent interview with John Birt about how the BBC would
transform itself for the digital age, he pointed with pride to what he
described as the layer of highly-competent BBC managers developed during
his director generalship.
I made a mental note of this claim, trying to keep a straight face as I
remembered all those solemn briefings about university degrees in BBC
studies. But I recalled his words when RAJAR released its latest radio
audience research last week and sent the cocky commercial sector into a
Quite unexpectedly, after two years of retreat, BBC Radio has turned the
tables and reclaimed more than half the audience: it chalked up a 50.4
per cent share to commercial radio’s 47.6 per cent in the first three
months of this year. I know there have been severe problems with the new
diary ratings system but the findings do not seem to have been a
statistical blip: quite the reverse.
What is interesting is that the advance is not solely due to the rising
popularity of Radio 5 Live or even Chris Evans. The 40, or so, local and
regional stations which have been turned, despite controversy, into
focused speech, news and information services for distinct communities,
also played a key part.
In fact, they have clearly put pressure on the biggest losers, rival
local commercial radio, which saw the greatest single fall of audiences.
This is why there were grim faces among the sector as the news sank in.
If the drift continues, there will have to be a rethink of the pop and
prattle formula. There will also be pressure on the Radio Authority to
licence fewer niche formats.
The BBC’s new-found competitiveness was also high on the agenda of ITV’s
Broadcast Strategy conference last week. Its ratings are also causing
concern. It is a grim fact that its share of audiences between January
and April this year fell to 36 per cent, compared with 37.6 per cent a
year ago, while BBC1, at 32.6 per cent, is slightly up, even before you
add in a very strong performance by BBC2.
ITV has found itself stuck with too many tired entertainment and people
shows and too few good replacements. The question of how to win back
audiences to Saturday night and countering the BBC’s early Sunday night
success with a fourth episode of Coronation Street at 7pm formed part of
But the bigger point is that the BBC is confounding its own forecasts of
audience decline, which led it to conclude that it could survive with a
share of one third of TV and radio audiences. I put a lot of this down
to people. In recent weeks CNN, Channel 5 Broadcasting and Talk Radio
have attracted key staff from the BBC. The judgement of the market
suggests that John Birt, on this one, is right.