Audience Councils

Annual Review 2015-16

Introduction by Trust member for England and Chair of Audience Council England

This year the insight and views of the Audience Council England members have brought vital local and regional perspectives to the Trust’s oversight of the BBC.

The contribution of the council members and our many volunteer panel members has remained essential during a year in which the future governance and strategy of the organisation during the BBC Charter Review process has been at the forefront of debate and discussion. I said last year that the BBC contributes enormously to the life of people across the UK as well as to many millions across the world, serving as a catalyst to creativity, the arts and enterprise across all of the UK. From our work this year it is clear that this remains the case and it continues to be a great achievement that the public’s trust in it remains high.  

The BBC’s public service role in the cultural life of the UK remains distinctive and unique, providing informative and trustworthy content to licence fee payers and audiences. In the discussions we’ve had at our Audience Council England meetings, I have valued the understanding of what matters to audiences across England to ensure that their views and interests help to inform the Trust’s work in holding the BBC to account. The BBC’s twelve English regions are together home to the largest proportion of the UK population, and in parallel with services to the devolved nations, it remains important to audiences that local and regional services throughout England are considered to ensure both their evolution and the authentic representation of each English region during the next Charter period.

As the Trust member for England I’d like to thank each of the volunteer members of the Audience Council and the twelve regional panels, for their time, keen interest and involved commitment on behalf of audiences in England. 

Mark Florman, 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 audience panels, one in each of the BBC’s 12 broadcasting regions in England.

Between April 2015 and March 2016 we met six 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, Salford and London.  We have received briefings covering national, regional and local programming, strategy, diversity performance and policy which ensured we were well informed in our discussions on behalf of audiences in England.

Providing advice to the BBC Trust

During the year we report regularly to the Trust providing informed insights on the views and needs of local and regional audiences in England; through this we help to ensure that issues of importance to audiences in each region of England inform the Trust’s understanding on how well the BBC is serving these audiences.

And in our meetings and through our activities we give an audience perspective on different aspects of the Trust’s work, which this year has included our submissions to the reviews of BBC services and consultations along with discussion on the BBC’s role and remit in relation to BBC Charter Review.

Our meetings with panel members in each English region help us better understand the importance and impact of the BBC’s local, regional and network services. They tell us their views on how well the BBC is serving licence fee payers and audiences in England through the range of BBC output from drama, music, the arts and science to news, current affairs, documentaries, natural history, sport, children’s and entertainment – providing a choice of original, distinctive, often ambitious content and programmes for audiences across all genres.

In addition, each year some of our members join colleagues from the other three Audience Councils and meet with the BBC Trust. It enables us to talk about the performance of the BBC in each of the four nations and share the viewpoints and priorities for audiences around the UK.

Given the evolving digital media market, audiences tell us that innovation in new BBC services and content is an essential component of a dynamic and ambitious public service broadcaster. However, they also tell us that this needs to be thoughtfully planned by the BBC to ensure that all licence fee payers in England remain equally served.

Last year we noted that the Trust “should continue to encourage innovation and creative enterprise in all BBC services to sustain both the provision of high-quality programmes and to reflect the lives, experiences and interests of the diverse audience and population in England”. This ambition for the BBC’s services in the future remains key to offering something for everyone.  

This year our work has concentrated on gathering the audience perspective and the insight of licence fee payers for the Trust’s consultations on BBC Charter Review and the Trust’s review of the BBC’s Local Radio, News and Current Affairs services in England. 

We contributed to the Trust’s review of the BBC’s Local Radio, News and Current Affairs services in England which found that the services meet the individual service licence remits and are performing effectively. Overall the services provide core public value for citizens and licence fee payers across the 12 English regions, delivering informative and enjoyable content, along with a significant level of audience appreciation.  

We found that the ways in which audiences choose to listen, watch and consume news and current affairs has evolved considerably in recent years – and we welcome the BBC’s role in responding to such change to ensure that the wider audience in England, across all demographics, remains well-served with trusted and engaging news and current affairs programmes and local radio services.

Furthermore we encourage the BBC to sustain the unique role of BBC Local Radio to reach and serve listeners. Clearly audience tastes and listening habits have developed in recent times and we encouraged the Trust to explore how Local Radio might further grow its wider listener and audience base while continuing to serve the regular, target audience in the English regions. You can read our full submission to the review.

During the year we discussed and submitted our views to the Trust on BBC Charter Review. We replied to both the key questions of relevance to audiences in the government’s Green Paper (published July 2015) on the BBC’s future, its mission, scope, funding and regulation; and we considered British, Bold, Creative – the BBC Executive’s proposals for programmes and services during the next Charter period.  In particular we deliberated on how the BBC’s role might evolve to meet the priorities and needs of audiences in England as both consumers and citizens in the digital age.

We found that the BBC is highly valued by many people in England along with continuing support for the BBC’s mission to inform, educate and entertain. Our discussions underlined the need to consider the diversity of the population in all respects, both on and off-screen. We feel this is fundamental to the future plans for BBC programmes and services in England, and within each English region, particularly in a more complex and ever evolving media market.

And while the BBC has experienced many challenges since its inception members believe it is essential that the BBC protects and preserves its independence from government.  You can read our full submission to the Trust.

We responded to the Trust’s second consultation on the BBC Executive’s proposals to close BBC Three as a broadcast channel and reinvent it online; evolve BBC iPlayer; launch of a +1 channel for BBC One and extend the hours of CBBC.  Our findings reflected our initial conclusions.

We know that the ways in which audiences consume television is evolving rapidly, bringing new possibilities for the BBC to innovate and to keep pace with changing technology and audience preferences. While concerns were raised by the extension of CBBC hours we supported the move of BBC Three to an online only service to transform the offer to the 16-34 audience. However, we were mindful of the need to focus on providing quality content for the younger audience and accommodate the disparity in broadband access across England; and we recognize that the impact of such changes on this younger demographic, who are not using the BBC in the way that previous generations did, has yet to be evaluated.

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. This is done from the perspective of the audience, to identify the strengths and highlights as well as areas for development.

We found that the BBC generally serves audiences in England very well, with trends in general impression and perceived value for money of the licence fee largely stable and positive, as they have been in recent years.  The BBC remains the broadcaster most likely to be missed in England with 78 per cent of the audience saying that they would miss the BBC if it were not there; and with 58 per cent saying that the BBC offers value for money.

In common with trends for the UK overall, there are variations in usage among different audience groups. Similarly, across the BBC’s 12 English Regions there are variations in usage and perceptions of BBC services. However, overall the services continue to provide an extensive range of distinctive, often ambitious, content and programmes for audiences across all genres.

Strengths and highlights in 2015/16

  • Overall high-level performance of the BBC in England

We have no concern with the overall performance of the BBC in England; and remain pleased that the BBC provides real breadth, range and high quality content across its services.  The BBC continues to be greatly valued by most people in England, with continuing support for the BBC’s mission to inform, educate and entertain. In our work this year we have discussed the BBC’s role and remit both in relation to BBC Charter Review and in our submissions to the Trust’s service reviews and consultations.

We understand that BBC television’s weekly reach in England has fallen slightly, with lower reach among black, Asian and minority ethnic audiences, and decreases in time spent with the BBC among young audiences.  Given the disparity in usage among different audience groups we welcome the strengthened ambition to improve diversity, inclusion and representation, to achieve significant, enduring impact for audiences and licence fee payers in the next Charter period.

There has been little change in the reach, audience appreciation and time spent listening to BBC network radio. We found that speech radio is performing well and is highly appreciated by audiences for the calibre and range of programmes. The network music radio stations continue to deliver an impressive breadth of entertaining and informative programming and provide some outstanding new, UK and live music serving a variety of audience interests.

While live TV viewing still dominates for all audiences, children and young adults are spending more of their time online.  People place value on the BBC’s quality of content on the internet and BBC iPlayer. We understand that the reach of BBC Online is broadly stable, used by around 50 per cent of adults; and slightly higher among the 16-34 audience. With the pace of change of new technology we consider that the BBC must continue to develop strategies to meet changing audience needs in a rapidly evolving digital media landscape. There was continuing praise for the quality and range of CBeebies and CBBC. However, for the young, mid-teens to late 20s audience some felt that the BBC’s offer could be strengthened.

As digital services become more widely available and come into their own as a standard option for people to use we will continue to monitor the BBC’s progress towards personalisation, the development of myBBC and innovations such as Weather Watchers.

Audience Council England

And, while we found strong support for the development of digital services on newer platforms, the transition to digital technology should be thoughtfully managed by the BBC including socio-economic considerations. In this context members noted the challenges and opportunities for understanding and responding to audience trends in a time of rapid change; alongside the imperative for the BBC to reflect and represent all areas of the UK, its nations and regions.

There remain ongoing issues with uneven broadband distribution within the English regions, which we recognise sit outside the BBC’s remit, but which impact constantly on some sections of the audience, particularly in rural areas. 

  • Performance of local and regional services in England

We discussed and provided our views and findings on the BBC’s Local Radio, Local News and Current Affairs in our submission to the Trust’s service review.

Audience Council England 

BBC Local Radio continues to provide a unique service for the English heartland audience, providing local news, information and entertainment to each English region, urban and rural. We noted last year that local radio listening was continuing to decline with wide variances at an individual station level and this trend has continued. We understand how varying listening habits and changing media impact on audience choices and preferences year by year. In this context we value the initiatives developed by the BBC to meet evolving local needs including the expansion of Local Live; offeringbrief updates of local news, sport, travel, weather, user comments and links to external sites and with a greater focus on social media to engage audiences.

We value the importance of BBC regional news for audiences and the role it plays in the BBC’s mission to inform, educate and entertain. The BBC’s ability to provide high quality, informed and engaging journalism for the audience in each English region is valued. And providing authentic coverage of each region to reflect and report on social, cultural, political and economic aspects is considered vital.

Local and regional programmes and bulletins have a different feel to national news, providing variation in the overall mix of news, current affairs and magazine style programme content across the BBC’s news output in England. The 6.30pm BBC regional news programmes on BBC One continue to be watched by around 47 per cent of adults in England each week, compared with the ITV regional news, at 6.00pm, which reaches around 23 per cent. We welcomed the pilot for and subsequent permanent extension of the 10.30pm regional news bulletin in England after the national news at ten; delivering the opportunity for the development of stories and for further distinctive news coverage within each region.

While we are aware of regional variations in audience consumption of local radio and regional TV news – with core audiences tending to be older while younger adults are more likely to access news online - we consider that the BBC’s role in keeping audiences informed, and providing varied but knowledgeable voices in debate and reportage, must remain a priority to meet changing audience needs.

We welcomed the commitment to develop arts and cultural content across English regions output; and we were pleased by the idea to add value to local democracy and serve audiences in holding public figures and services to account through local and regional political coverage, including the range of output across all platforms.

As we stated in our submission to the Trust’s review of BBC Local Radio, News and Current Affairs services in England, we consider that Inside Out, BBC One’s regional current affairs magazine programme and Sunday Politics remain essential to the BBC’s distinctive role as a public service broadcaster; particularly given the absence of regional current affairs and politics programmes from other broadcasters in many other English regions.

This year we have discussed the BBC’s emerging Charter Review proposals with a particular focus on the considerations for audiences in the English regions. Each English region covers a significant geographical area, with varied demographics, often substantially larger in population than each of the three devolved nations. With 12 diverse English regions, we have sought to understand how the BBC will develop its future news and current affairs provision in the next Charter period to accommodate the evolving ways audiences consume such content locally and regionally.

Priorities for 2016

Last year we noted the challenges and opportunities for the BBC in serving all audiences and demographic groups, particularly for the younger 16-34 audience and the black and Asian minority ethnic audience in England who are watching and listening less to BBC programming.

Alongside the call from the devolved nations for better portrayal it is important not to forget the needs of the varied English regions in this context; and we continue to push for the provision of content and services which include and reflect our diverse society across BBC services in all regions and localities of England on radio, TV and online. While our members tell us that they perceive some improvement in portrayal and inclusion this clearly remains an issue for the BBC.

We have suggested the following issues to the Trust as priorities for audiences in England during 2016.

  • Ensure authentic portrayal and representation of life in all regions of England.
  • Protect and preserve the BBC’s independence from government.
  • Nurture on-screen creative ambition to deliver inclusive services which routinely represent the diverse population and audience in England.
  • Develop BBC Local Radio online and digital services to meet changing audience needs while continuing to serve the regular target audience. 

Audience Council England members (April 2015 - March 2016)

Mark Florman (Chair) Trust member for England
Will Burns South (from June 2015)
Jo Curry North East and Cumbria
Sanjay Dighe London (to May 2015)
Lyndsey Hannam Yorkshire & Lincolnshire representative
Felicity Harvest South East
Stuart Hobley East (from July 2015)
Robin Jones West Midlands
Shabana Kausar West (to July 2015)
Carole King West (from July 2015)
Alvin Kofi North West
Adam Millward Yorkshire (from April 2015)
Adrian Morgan East Midlands
Sarah Ralph East (from May-July 2015. Relocated)
Michele Scott London (from June 2015)
Toni Shaw South (to May 2015)
David Sleight Yorkshire and Lincolnshire
Liz Waugh South West

Current members of Audience Council England