The BBC is facing the very real threat of extinction unless it can urgently win back young viewers following the explosion in streaming services like Netflix and YouTube.
That’s the eye-catching conclusion of an annual health check on the BBC’s output and operations by its regulator Ofcom, which published a 57-page report on its findings on Thursday.
Ofcom said the BBC is facing the prospect of a “lost generation” of viewers and “may not be sustainable in its current form” if young audiences continue to flock to online rivals.
A senior BBC source, however, voiced frustration with the “sensationalist, headline-grabbing” framing of the Ofcom report and said it does not reflect the British broadcaster’s recent progress.
Among its key findings on young audiences, Ofcom said:
- For the first time, less than half (49%) of people aged 16-24 watched the BBC’s TV channels in an average week.
- Netflix reaches almost two-thirds of 15-24 year olds each week in the UK and YouTube 42%. BBC iPlayer reaches just 26% of this age group, a drop of 28% on 2017.
- People aged 16-34 spent 72 minutes with the BBC in 2018, compared with 76 minutes the year before – a 5% decline.
- The BBC’s youth channel, BBC Three, was moved online in 2016 and since then its reach has halved. In contrast, rival ITV2 has had success with young viewers, largely because of reality format Love Island.
- Young people do not have a “close association” with the BBC News website and consider it to be just “one of many” online news services.
“With increased choice and strong competition in the market, there is a clear risk that as children and young people age, they do not come to engage with the BBC as previous generations once did,” Ofcom said.
“If people don’t consider the BBC as a core part of their viewing, then it may be hard to encourage them to pay the licence fee in years to come which will have significant implications for the BBC’s revenue.”
It added: “The BBC needs to work harder to reach young people through making content that appeals to them, making it easier for young people to find that content, and ensuring that it is readily available where they want it.”
A BBC spokesman said the corporation has a “clear plan in place to meet the needs of younger and diverse audiences.” A key plank in this strategy is supercharging iPlayer through extending its catch-up window from 30 days to 12 months and revamping the streaming service.
The BBC also pointed to more recent progress. Ofcom’s report looks at the BBC’s performance in both 2018 and its financial year, which runs to March 2019. The BBC said that since then, iPlayer reach among young audiences is up 20% between April and September 2019.
Ofcom’s report wasn’t all bad news for the BBC. It concluded that the broadcaster is “generally serving viewers and listeners well, and people are satisfied with it.”
A BBC spokesman said: “We welcome Ofcom’s recognition that audience satisfaction remains high and that the BBC continues to deliver for British audiences by producing high quality, distinctive and creative content as well as the most trusted and accurate news.”
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