Introduction by Trust member for England and Chair of Audience Council England
This year the Audience Council England members have continued to bring the insight and views of local and regional audiences to the Trust’s oversight of the BBC.
The BBC’s wide range of high-quality, distinctive programmes and services contribute extensively to the cultural life of the UK. In the discussions we’ve had at our Audience Council England meetings about the BBC, I have valued the thoughtful insight and advice from members. Their understanding of what matters to audiences helps to bring both a local and regional perspective to our activities, ensuring that the views and interests of audiences across England continue to inform the Trust’s work in holding the BBC to account - particularly when considering the future strategy of the organisation.
This year the Trust has set a number of objectives for the BBC. These include making the most creative and distinctive output, improving value for money and doing more to serve all audiences. We will continue to take an active interest and give our views on how well the BBC is doing. The conclusions of a joint review of BBC internal governance by the Trust and the BBC Executive were also published, strengthening how the BBC is held to account by the Trust on behalf of licence fee payers.
This is my final year as the Trust member for England and I’d like to thank each of the volunteer members of the Audience Council and the panels, past and present, for their time, keen interest and involved commitment on behalf of audiences in England.
Alison Hastings, Trust member for England
Audience Council activity during the year
Our role is to advise the BBC Trust with insights on the performance of the BBC from the perspective of audiences across England, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. To do this we are supported by a network of regional panels, one in each of the BBC’s 12 broadcasting regions in England.
Between April 2013 and March 2014 we met seven times as Audience Council England, and led 36 panel meetings which were usually held in BBC regional centres across England.
During the year we held Audience Council England meetings in Birmingham, Bristol and London. We welcomed a number of guests to our meetings which helped us to be well-informed in our considerations and discussions on behalf of audiences in England. Over the year, we have received briefings covering national, regional and local programming, governance, policy and strategy. We have also looked at how the population of England is changing and what the BBC needs to do to reflect these changes.
Providing advice to the BBC Trust
During the year we report regularly to the Trust and provide advice for various elements of Trust work, such as the reviews of BBC services. Each year representatives from the four Audience Councils meet with the BBC Trust to discuss the priorities for audiences around the UK. We believe that the Trust should continue to encourage innovation and risk-taking both in its programmes and in the use of new technology. We have been told by our panel members that the way the BBC can best demonstrate continuing value for money is by providing high-quality services and national, regional and local programming which serves, understands and reflects an ever-changing population.
Much of our work this year has focussed on providing insight into the Trust’s review of BBC Television, and audience panels have discussed how well the BBC’s television channels are serving audiences in England. We consider that the BBC’s main television services are performing well against some aspects of their service licence. Many of the programmes are high quality and enjoyed by audiences, and there is a good range of different types of programmes, some of which gained large numbers of viewers, others with more niche appeal. We hope that the service review will help to clarify the roles and remits of each of the channels, in order for the BBC to continue to provide such high-quality programmes for all audiences. You can read our submission to the review here.
We also contributed to the Trust’s review of the BBC’s Network News and Current Affairs which looked at how well it performed against commitments set by the Trust. You can read our submission to the review here. We found that for many people the BBC continues to be a prime source of reliable and accurate news, with television news being the most important method of access. We said that the BBC news offer was successful because of the range, breadth and balance of news services and coverage though there was perhaps sometimes too small a range of stories on a daily basis in the main news output. Our panel members also felt that too many of the network news stories were about the Westminster village, rather than about the wider impact of parliamentary decisions on the public. We hope the BBC will use all of its news outlets to provide a wide range of programmes and services to suit all needs, finding ways of making news accessible without compromising its journalistic ambition.
Our assessment of the performance of the BBC in England
Each year our members provide an assessment to the BBC Trust of the BBC’s performance in England, from the perspective of the audience, to identify some of the strengths and highlights as well as areas for development.
Around 96 per cent of people in England use some of the BBC’s services, with 78 per cent of audiences in England saying that they would miss the BBC, and 60 per cent considering that the BBC offers value for money, which is also the highest in the UK.
Strengths and highlights in 2013
- Overall high-level performance of the BBC in England
Through our work, as part of the Trust’s review of BBC Television, we found that BBC Network television performs well across England with around 84 per cent of the population watching some BBC Television. Within this we are aware that there are significant regional differences in the share of viewing, with the South, excluding London, continuing to have a far greater share of the audience than the North and Midlands. Each of the BBC’s main television services are performing well against aspects of their service licences. We feel that many of the programmes are of a high quality and enjoyed by audiences, and generally, across the range of BBC channels there is something for everybody.
- Performance of local and regional services in England
The 6.30pm BBC regional news programmes are watched by around 30 per cent of adults in England, compared with the ITV regional news, at 6.00pm, which reaches around 20 per cent.
We consider that there is a great deal of high-quality journalism in regional news and current affairs programmes, much of which is significantly different from that available on the national news. We welcome the announcement from James Harding, the BBC’s Director of News and Current Affairs that “the BBC’s primary responsibility must be to serve licence fee payers – and they want and are entitled to the best possible local news services we can deliver”. We also welcome the importance he places on the BBC’s role in holding people to account and his desire to strengthen this area of local “accountability journalism” through the development of new formats and programmes. We are pleased too that he has committed to ensuring that the best of the BBC’s local and regional journalism finds a place in the network news output.
Inside Out, BBC One’s regional current affairs television magazine programme in England gets an average audience of 2.7 million. Our panel members have told us that they value the programme and consider it offers something unavailable elsewhere. They particularly enjoyed the editions which focused on a single topic, looking at the issue from an England-wide and regional perspective. We hope that the programme will continue to offer high-quality, relevant investigative journalism.
BBC Local Radio remains a key part of the BBC’s offering. Over the last 18 months there have been a number of changes to the schedule in order to meet the BBC’s savings programme. Last year we expressed concern about the impact of these changes, in particular, the introduction of a programme transmitted across all BBC Local Radio stations on weekdays from 7.00pm – 10.00pm. We are pleased that the number of people listening to this programme is, in many regions, largely stable, and we have discussed the programme with our panel members, who consider it to be high-quality and interesting, maintaining the essence and character of BBC Local Radio.
We welcome BBC Director-General Tony Hall’s ambition to have more women presenting or co-presenting the breakfast programme on at least 50 per cent of BBC local radio stations by the end of 2014. We will monitor the impact of these changes with our panel members.
We consider that BBC Local Radio remains fundamental for the BBC to deliver its public purpose to serve nations, regions and communities. It comes into its own particularly during times of local emergencies, such as the winter floods in some regions of England, and plays a major part in democratic processes by holding MPs, local councillors and other decision makers to account. We have often discussed the importance and relevance of BBC Local Radio to the communities it serves. We are pleased that 26 local radio stations now have their own specialist political reporters, and hope that the funding is available for the remaining 13 stations post Delivering Quality First.
BBC Online has been piloting Local Live in several areas between 8am and 6pm to provide short updates of local news, sport, travel, weather, user comments and links to external sites, in order to make the sites feel more up-to-date. We were concerned last year that the local and regional news pages were of a significantly poorer standard when compared with national news pages, and we will continue to monitor the improvements to the service by the BBC.
Key areas for development
- Producing original and innovative television programmes
During our discussions as part of the Trust’s service review of Television, there was a clear message: The BBC, because of the way it is funded, should look for opportunities for greater risk-taking and innovation than at present.
We recognise that many of the programmes on BBC One are very popular with audiences, with millions of people watching each week, but we feel that in recent years the need to operate in a competitive market seems to have made the channel slightly risk averse. Alongside familiar and popular programmes, we believe that BBC One should take creative risks and be willing to fail in order to keep the channel fresh. This is particularly important in drama where there now seems to be a greater emphasis placed on soaps and continuing dramas than on shorter series and single plays.
We would like the BBC to find ways to revitalise the Saturday evening schedule to offer new, creative and exciting programmes rather than content which is similar to that available elsewhere.
We also feel that BBC Two, while offering a range of excellent programmes, may have lost some of its more distinguishing characteristics such as distinctiveness and innovation, in the move to become more mainstream. As a result the relationship between BBC Two and BBC Four seems to be unclear, and this may in part explain why BBC Two now feels less distinctive than it has in the past.
- English Regional programmes on BBC One HD
BBC One HD is now available in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales but there are no plans for regional programmes to be shown on BBC One HD. We understand that there are considerable resource considerations for the delivery of 11 variations on all platforms. However, we would like to understand what is possible and the BBC’s future plans for BBC One HD in England. The Trust is exploring the potential options and we welcome that.
- Continuing to reflect and serve a changing population
The 2011 census shows how much more diverse the population of England has become since the start of the millennium. The BBC must provide programmes that appeal to this more diverse society and reflect the changing populations of all regions of England on radio and TV.
We feel that drama has a key role to play in helping the BBC develop authentic portrayal and representation of life across the UK. Our panel members have told us how much they welcome contemporary programmes such as The Syndicate and Last Tango in Halifax as well as period dramas based in England such as The Village and Peaky Blinders. However, we think more could be done by the BBC to ensure that all parts of England are represented in the range of network drama programming.
Priorities for 2014 - 2015
We have suggested the following issues to the Trust as priorities for audiences in England during the coming year:
- Providing high-quality national, regional and local programming serving all the audiences in England.
- Ensuring that the BBC’s programmes and services understand and better reflect the diversity of the ever-changing population in England.
- Encouraging innovation and risk-taking both on-air and in the use of new technology.
Members of Audience Council England (April 2013 - March 2014)
Alison Hastings (Chair); Trust member for England
Wendy Andrews; East
Jo Curry; North East and Cumbria
Sanjay Dighe; London
Jill Hogan; South East
Thelma Holland; South West (until September 2013)
Shabana Kausar; West
Steve Marshall; Yorkshire and Lincolnshire
Adrian Morgan; East Midlands
Waheed Saleem; West Midlands (to July 2013)
Toni Shaw; South
Bruce Thomas; North West
Liz Waugh; South West (from November 2013)