For those with a long memory, yesterday’s announcement sounds like a repeat of the BBC Three closure saga. Where exactly the same thing was being said about it not being a closure. And it was still viewed as a closure.
BBC Three closed in 2016, despite being very popular with its core demographic and still getting good viewing figures before the BBC started to strip away at its output in its final year. But it has struggled to make an impact on its return, with the BBC effectively having previously given away its audience to commercial rivals.
What about CBBC? Many reading this will have fond memories of Edd the Duck, Gordon the Gopher or even Ed and Oucho. CBBC shows may well have once been the talk of the playground the next day.
But the reality of modern day CBBC viewership is far removed from this.
In 2021, only 14% of its target audience was actually viewing the live TV channel, down from 27% in 2015. That’s according to figures stated in a recent Ofcom consultation where the BBC asked for permission to buy in a number of animated series.
Times do change, and the BBC is emphasising that many of the cuts are a result of changes in viewing and listening habits.
It’s clear that the rise in smart speakers and streaming apps has changed the way users access the BBC. It’s also clear that for many, traditional BBC channels are still part of everyday life.
But for younger viewers and listeners this is no longer true. Disney has already seen this and closed its linear channels. Two years ago, Disney+ replaced the iPlayer as most popular streaming service for children.
Meanwhile, further linear TV channels are expected to close in the coming years as US media giants push their streaming services and carriage deals with Sky and Virgin – signed before the streaming boom – come to an end.
For the BBC to continue persisting in linear TV channels in the face of all of this change would open itself up to allegations of wasting licence fee money.
On the other hand, it’s also clear that with more money available, the BBC could have continued dual-running services online and on TV for a little while longer, as a public service, before the inevitable happened.
In fact, the BBC has already been generous in many ways, retaining standard definition output while most of the rest of Europe has gone HD, keeping AM services on air while stations around the world fall silent and its listeners literally die off.
There are two things happening
First, the BBC is realigning itself to face a future without licence fee funding. And this could include a two-tier BBC, as advocated by Andrew Neil. This would result in a section of the BBC being relieved from public service obligations. What we see here is the BBC limbering up and losing weight to prepare for the challenge. And it needs to do this quickly.
Secondly, technological changes threaten to overtake traditional broadcasters and some decisions may be taken out of their hands.
The BBC has set itself a challenge to reach 75% of BBC TV viewers through the iPlayer each week. It currently reaches less than 50%.
At the same time, next year’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) threatens to strip broadcasters of terrestrial TV spectrum after 2030. The UK, still very dependant on terrestrial TV to reach households, needs to get people moving to online platforms as soon as possible.
The BBC’s aim to start closing TV channels in 2025 times well with Ofcom’s review of digital terrestrial television, which the DCMS requested Ofcom to undertake in that very year as part of its recent White Paper (sections 5.3 and 5.4).
Although digital terrestrial multiplex licences can still be extended until 2034, there’s going to be a clause to allow licences to be revoked from 2030, to cater for any WRC-23 decisions. Even if terrestrial TV services were allowed to continue until 2034, that’s just 12 years away without any formal plan for an ‘online switchover’.
And the BBC was the only multiplex operator not eager to extend the licence of its second multiplex just yet, hoping to defer the decision to 2025/6 (just before the licence for PSB3 ends). What a convenient timescale!
Closing a few TV channels will make the task of combining services on to one multiplex a whole lot easier. And this strategy will encourage ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – who piggyback on BBC multiplex capacity to distribute their HD channels on Freeview – to get moving with changes of their own.
PICTURED: BBC New Broadcasting House, London. COPYRIGHT: The TV Room.