Review of BBC News 24
mediawatch-uk response to DCMS
FACING THE COMPETITION
ediawatch-uk is aware of the criticism levelled against BBC News 24 on the grounds that it attracts a relatively small audience share. We believe that this, in part, is a consequence of the increasing take-up of multi-channel television services and the resulting fragmentation of the overall audience rather than because of poor presentation or some other defect. To be fair, this is a problem also faced by other news channels.
BBC News 24 is in direct competition with other 24-hour news services whose audience share is no more impressive. In addition to these BBC News 24 also has to compete with 24-hour radio news services, newspapers and, increasingly, news accessible on the Internet.
The BBC, however, reported in March 2002 that the weekly audience has risen to 3.3 million and that the gap with the main competitor, SKY News, has narrowed.
THE BBC's RATIONALE
he rationale for BBC News 24 was said in the BBC promotions, some years ago, to be to provide news "when you want it" rather than wait for the next scheduled bulletin. This acknowledges that many peoples' lifestyles have become more flexible and, accordingly, there is a growing necessity for news coverage accessible at any time and not bound by schedules.
In 'Extending Choice', published in 1992, the BBC made out a case for the future and described its four main roles, which included:
"providing the comprehensive, in depth and impartial news and information coverage across a range of broadcasting outlets…"
It summarised its approach to news thus:
"To ensure that issues of importance to the nation, irrespective of immediate popular commercial appeal, will be properly reported, debated and analysed".
'Extending Choice' asserted that:
"the public now expects to be kept directly in touch with breaking news, particularly in times of crisis. Meeting these expectations should be a public service priority for the BBC. It can only do this by delivering continuous news channels on radio and television…"
The BBC's Corporate Image Survey published in 1992 found that 87% of respondents said that the BBC provides a high quality news service and 67% said the BBC is the best national news provider.
In 'The BBC's Digital Service Proposition', published in June 1977, the BBC welcomed support for its 24-hour news channel and the opportunity it offers to broaden our news coverage. (our emphasis) Further, the BBC said the new service would
"allow BBC News to report on and analyse a greater range of topics - and in greater depth - than is currently possible on BBC Television."
The drawback of a 24-hour news service was recognised with a promise to "look closely at the way in which we repeat items of news" bearing in mind the "viewers will not tolerate too much repetition".
However, the BBC said it "must offer something fresh" and that the channel should be "constantly surprising" with "clear objectives for our news teams to widen the agenda…".
The BBC undertook to "do all we can to increase access as widely as possible".
It is unfortunate that this aspiration has been hindered by the evident public confusion about switching to digital television. This has not been helped by the absence of a comprehensive public information campaign.
The recent failure of ITV Digital has undermined public confidence and this has not been helped by the uncertainty over analogue switch off. Moreover, the delay in publishing the Communications Bill has added to the overall uncertainty.
ediawatch-uk accepts that lifestyles have changed in recent years with increased mobility and a wider diversity of activities and interests outside the home not dependent on television. Accordingly, an increasing number of people are not being served by news programmes in fixed schedules. 24-hour rolling news channels do provide news coverage for such people should they want or need to access these services.
The BBC's case for public service provision of BBC News 24 is, to some extent, undermined by 24-hour news services provided on other channels, particularly SKY News, ITN and ITN Radio and less significantly by foreign providers like CNN. However, we believe that the problem of repetition is less pronounced on BBC News 24 than on other channels.
We acknowledge that in national emergencies or international crises rolling news services can be and are used to suspend schedules on other channels when judged appropriate. The terrorist attack on the American World Trade Centre in September last year is a notable example of this as was the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
mediawatch-uk broadly accepts the assessment made by the Chairman of the BBC in the Executive Summary of his Review currently under consideration. We acknowledge the importance of specialist half-hour programmes and the shortcomings in respect of regional programmes.
In general we believe that BBC News 24 has not yet fully lived up to the aspirations to broaden the news agenda, which is still generally prioritised by a small number of news editors, or to deal with stories in greater depth. Although there are bulletins from the regions these tend to be local angles on national stories already covered in national news. It is evident that the news priorities are similar whatever the channel even though the running order may be different.
e are pleased to acknowledge that BBC News 24 has introduced exciting new ways of concurrently accessing different news stories using handsets and on-screen computer style menus. We welcome these sophisticated developments, also used by SKY News Active, aimed at attracting and maintaining the interest of younger viewers. It is evident that some of the news material relating to films, soaps, music, and so on, is calculated to achieve this. We acknowledge, too, the direct links to other BBC TV channels and to 'GCSE bite-size' to assist students with school and college course work.
he cross promotion of BBC News 24 on BBC 1 and BBC2 can and does give rise to grievance from those viewers who have not yet switched to digital television. We have some sympathy with those who cannot access BBC programming, available only on digital channels, for which they have paid through the Licence Fee. We believe this ill feeling could be overcome if low cost decoders, not linked to subscriptions for other providers, could be offered to the public. We believe that the BBC's digital services, on their own, should not be used as a way of "driving digital take up".
The problems that have overtaken ITV Digital in recent weeks show that the programmes on offer have not attracted subscribers in sufficient numbers to achieve viability. It is for the broadcasting industry, as a whole, to make their programme schedules and packages attractive rather than to rely on a political decision to switch off the analogue system.
onsidered on its own, BBC News 24 has become an indispensable public service using the latest developments in technology and presentation. However, it operates in a ruthlessly competitive environment and there is, therefore, some force to the argument that the BBC should not expend licence fee revenue by trying to do everything especially when others provide similar news services. The BBC cannot eliminate the competition and so it must succeed by being the best in every respect.
BBC News 24 has a much less opinionated style of presentation in line with public expectations. In order to gain in stature improvements ought to be made in regional news coverage and the news agenda could be broadened by those in the news gathering departments to include some good news and success stories that might relieve the 'doom and gloom'.
Apart from the shortcomings that the BBC itself acknowledges we believe that BBC News 24 does fulfil its commitments and conditions and is a valuable addition to the range of television services offered by the Corporation. Accordingly, we recommend that the BBC be encouraged by the Government to continue to provide BBC News 24 and enhance the overall provision by dealing with the shortcomings identified.
15 May 2002
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