The BBC may not be sustainable in its current form as it struggles to win over the attention of younger audiences, the media watchdog has warned.
In a damning report published today, Ofcom said the corporation was at risk of a “lost generation” as young people increasingly tune out of its services.
The reach of the BBC’s TV channels among 16 to 24-year-olds has fallen below 50 per cent for the first time, according to the latest viewing figures.
In its second annual report on the broadcaster, Ofcom said the BBC was “generally serving people well”, adding that it had maintained its reputation for trusted and accurate reporting.
However, the watchdog warned that the organisation was vulnerable to a rapidly changing media landscape – something the corporation has itself acknowledged.
The company has outlined a raft of new measures in recent months in a bid to keep up with shifting consumer habits and the rising popularity of streaming services.
The BBC has secured permission to keep programmes on iPlayer, its on-demand platform, for longer, while a full overhaul of the service is planned for next year.
It has also launched BBC Sounds, a much-maligned streaming app aimed at bringing together all audio programming and podcasts.
But Ofcom said its findings showed the BBC must do “much more” to connect with children and younger adults if it is to avoid losing a whole generation of potential licence fee payers.
Sharon White, Ofcom chief executive, said: “The BBC is still a vital, valued part of British culture, but we’re concerned that a new generation is tuning out of its services.
“So the BBC must set out bolder plans to connect with younger viewers and listeners.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC has a clear plan in place to meet the needs of younger and diverse audiences, outlined in this year’s annual plan.
“It is focused on BBC iPlayer, BBC Sounds and BBC News Online. All three have grown strongly in the last year. So our plan is clearly working. But we want to do even more for young and diverse audiences and we will set out our next steps in our upcoming annual plan.”
News and current affairs
In a separate review of the BBC’s news and current affairs output, also published today, Ofcom outlined similar concerns about the broadcaster’s reach.
The review found that the BBC remains the UK’s primary news source, and was able to fulfil its role of combatting fake news and disinformation.
But it stated that younger audiences were increasingly turning to social media or so-called news aggregator apps – such as Apple News or Upday – at the expense of the BBC.
Less than a quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds watched BBC TV news during 2018, a drop of just over a third in five years.
A BBC spokesperson said: “We welcome Ofcom’s recognition of our reputation for trusted, accurate news; that we provide a range and depth of analysis not widely available from other UK news providers; and importantly, that we remain the place people turn to most when they want to know what’s going on.
“We will do all we can to maintain this trust and serve all audiences across the UK.”
In an unusual intervention, the watchdog also acknowledged that the BBC had come under fierce scrutiny over its so-called due impartiality obligation, and said broadcasting rules did not require BBC journalists to remain “absolutely neutral on every issue”.
“They should feel able to challenge controversial viewpoints that have little support or are not backed up by facts, making this clear to viewers, listeners and readers,” the report stated.
Ofcom said it was “concerned” with how the BBC was delivering against its requirements on diversity.
The watchdog said it recognised that the corporation had a number of initiatives in place, and was leading the way in collecting diversity workforce data.
However, it found that certain groups were still dissatisfied with how they were represented and portrayed by the BBC.
Ofcom called on the BBC to set out in greater detail what it was doing to improve its reach for these groups.
“We are committed to ensuring the BBC serves all audiences and reflects and represents the whole of today’s UK, and while we have made progress in reflecting this in our workforce we have been clear there is still more to do,” a spokesperson for the BBC said.
Ofcom used its annual report to raise further concerns about the BBC’s editorial complaints process, which it said “lacked transparency”.
While it acknowledged that the BBC’s fortnightly complaints procedure was generally working well, the watchdog outlined problems with the broadcaster’s Executive Complaints Unit, saying there was not enough transparency over how it reached decisions.
Ofcom cited the recent case relating to Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty, who was accused of breaching impartiality over comments she made about US President Donald Trump.
The BBC initially partially upheld the complaint, before director general Tony Hall reversed the decision.
Ofcom has accused the corporation of trying to block its investigation into the incident after the BBC refused to give additional information and dispute the regulator’s right to launch a probe.
“Overall, we consider that this case highlights that the BBC should provide more transparency on the reasons for its findings ,” Ofcom said in its report, adding that it would be addressing the lack of transparency “as a matter of urgency”.
Linking to third-party sources
In its review into news output, Ofcom said the BBC should include more links to other news websites.
Under its operating licence, the public service broadcaster is required to provide adequate links to third-party sources both to support the wider news industry and to benefit the reader.
Ofcom’s analysis showed that more than 80 per cent of links on the BBC News website and app were internet ones to other BBC articles.
A breakdown of external sourcing revealed just over 40 per cent of links were tweets, while roughly 20 per cent led to business or organisation websites. Only 12.5 per cent of external BBC links led to UK newspapers.
Ofcom said a number of commercial news providers had argued that the BBC’s online news coverage fell short when it came to sourcing or attributing stories.
The BBC said it was focused on improving the quality, rather than the volume, of links within news items.
Rivals also raised concerns about the BBC’s expansion of its editorial scope online into areas traditionally covered by newspapers, most notably lifestyle, celebrity or entertainment topics that were traditionally the domain of the tabloids.
The comments echo the findings of the Cairncross Review, published earlier this year, which raised concerns about the BBC’s move into so-called soft content, as well as the negative impact its all-encompassing coverage was having on local news outlets.
Ofcom also outlined plans for a review into BBC Studios, the broadcaster’s commercial arm. The regulator said it will look at the boundary between this part of the broadcaster’s businesses and its public service obligations.
Ofcom said the BBC had withdrawn its “voluntary commitment” to separate financial reports for its production business from those of the rest of the organisation, which it said “reduced the granularity of reporting” for BBC Studios.
The watchdog said it would carry out a review into whether the lines of business provided sufficient transparency for stakeholders and for Ofcom.
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