The broadcast regulator is consulting on changes to the BBC’s operating licence. It wants to give the BBC greater flexibility to make changes to its services, removing quotas and the need to seek Ofcom’s approval in some instances.
At the same time, the BBC wants to replace the BBC News Channel with an ad-free simulcast of its international service under the guise of a ‘new’ service from April 2023. Removing regulatory conditions will help the BBC make the changes without Ofcom approval and without needing a consultation.
It’s understood this is one of the factors behind the BBC’s decision not to release the full plans to the public.
Viewers and non-BBC stakeholders have merely had access to a press release with selective information about the changes. Unions within the BBC have had access to greater detail.
BBC staff are clear about the changes: it will mean the current BBC News Channel will close.
- The current World News channel will be rebranded ‘BBC News’ and receive a new look.
- UK viewers will see a simulcast of the channel, minus adverts.
- News output will be aimed at global audiences and be subject to the commercial requirements of the international channel.
- UK-specific output will be limited to simulcasts of news and opinion programmes from BBC One, BBC Two and BBC Radio 5 Live: effectively the ‘new’ BBC News channel will flip between simulcasting the international channel or BBC One/BBC Two.
- In the event of a breaking news story affecting the UK, a standby team will provide coverage for UK viewers from a basic secondary studio. The BBC hasn’t publicly confirmed if this standby team is available 24/7 and what the threshold for triggering this standby arrangement would be. Arguably, major UK breaking news stories would normally trigger rolling news coverage on BBC One or BBC Two.
Where does Ofcom come into this?
Under the proposed new BBC operating licence, Ofcom proposes to remove the condition on the BBC News channel to provide more international news, and more local/regional news than other main continuous news channels in the UK.
Ofcom says: “we do not think that it adds much value to assess the breadth of the BBC’s news coverage by comparing it to the news coverage of other channels, as we consider this takes too narrow a view. Instead, we expect to monitor its performance as we do for other BBC services.”
However, this condition in the operating licence is the only thing keeping the remaining UK-specific BBC News Channel hours on air at the moment. Without the current UK-specific daytime and 8pm news output, the channel wouldn’t be able to provide “more local/regional news than other main continuous news channels in the UK.”
With no conditions attached to the BBC News Channel’s operating licence, the BBC could argue that the remaining simulcasts of Breakfast and other BBC One news bulletins would continue to ensure the channel covers a wide range of local and regional news stories after the changes.
The BBC has already hollowed out most of the BBC News Channel’s off-peak hours in favour of simulcasts. At the moment, a number of the news simulcasts are skewed towards UK news, meaning they are very different to World News bulletins.
But BBC staff indicate that this balance will change in favour of international stories. That’s a commercial decision, as outside of the UK, the BBC will want to attract as many advertisers and broadcast partners as possible.
When reporting on the UK, expect MPs to become ‘lawmakers’, the Chancellor of the Exchequer becomes the ‘British Finance Minister’. Stories from Leeds, Manchester or Newcastle might reference it being ‘in the North of England’.
In effect, the licence fee payer, who will be underwriting this commercial enterprise, will see their country being reported as if it was a third-party country.
The BBC justifies the plans due to changes to the way audiences consume content.
But the News Channel generates a lot of content that is then reused by other BBC outlets, including the BBC News website.
And recent changes to include more non-UK specific output has helped these changes become a self-fulfilling prophecy as viewers turn over to rival broadcasters for news that’s relevant to them.
The consultation on the BBC’s operating licence runs until 5pm on 14th September 2022.
- You can access a copy of the consultation document here. See page 36.
- The question that relates to the changes that would affect the BBC News Channel is Question 2: Do you agree with the proposals for Public Purpose 1? If not, please explain why.
- Viewers can suggest the current condition that the BBC News channel must provide more international news, and more local/regional news than other main continuous news channels in the UK be retained in Public Purpose 1, or suggest alternative ideas.
- Ofcom appreciates concise comments, backed by facts or research.
- You can submit your response using the Consultation Response Form.
PICTURED: BBC News logo/Ofcom logo. COPYRIGHT: BBC/Ofcom.