Northern Ireland Annual Review 2014/15

Foreword by the BBC National Trustee for Northern Ireland and Chair, BBC Audience Council Northern Ireland

It has been a privilege for me to act as the BBC Trustee for Northern Ireland in what has been an exciting, challenging and creative year. With the help of the eleven dedicated Audience Council members, who bring a breadth of experience to the table, we have endeavoured to ensure that the voice of Northern Ireland audiences is heard at the heart of the BBC.  

I would like also, at the outset, to congratulate BBC Northern Ireland in its 90th year and to thank the Director, BBC NI - Peter Johnston - and all his team for their proactive engagement and interest in the work of the Audience Council.

This year we have consulted on BBC network music and speech radio services, as well as the BBC’s proposals for the future of BBC Three and on a number of other associated changes. We met with people of all ages and backgrounds in different parts of Northern Ireland, energised and inspired in what we do by the interest, enthusiasm and passion people have for the BBC. This was particularly evident in our engagement with young people who are, and will be, the audience of the future in a very different and diverse world. Thinking about how the BBC should meet the needs of younger audiences has been a priority focus for the Council in 2014/15 and we intend extending this into 2015/16, stressing the need for more than a strategy for youth but a strategic process of engagement with young people. This audience has something important to say and we want to listen.

In a rapidly changing landscape - globally, nationally and locally - the BBC serves an invaluable role in its mission to keep audiences informed, educated and entertained. These Reithian principles continue to fulfil audiences’ expectations of what they want from the BBC. The real challenge is the pace of change as technology advances, platforms increase and people consume media in more diverse ways. Add to this mix, the increasing complexity of our political and social landscape in terms of a maturing devolution debate, the impact of austerity, and an ever more diverse local demographic. Altogether, this presents a fascinating picture of life as a contemporary, modern Northern Ireland emerges and evolves.

BBC programme highlights across the year have included a second series of crime drama The Fall, live coverage of the Giro d’Italia, a refresh of the Radio Ulster/Foyle schedules and award winning current affairs. On a very sad note, we lost a great broadcaster in Gerry Anderson.

As we move towards Charter review in 2016, the Audience Council will continue to ensure that the audience in Northern Ireland is to the fore in the BBC’s thinking about the future. We will focus in the coming year on issues relating to what we understand local audiences want - accessible, high quality services for all, that deliver value for money. And we will aim that young people are able to help shape the services they want to see, as never before. 

Dr Aideen McGinley

Audience Council activity during the year

Our role and membership

The Audience Council’s role is to provide advice to the Trust and raise emerging issues or priorities, on behalf of local audiences, as well as providing an annual assessment of BBC performance in Northern Ireland.

Our work involves regular meetings throughout the year and an active programme of direct engagement with audiences to hear, at first hand, their views and perspectives on BBC services. The National Trustee provides a direct link between the Audience Council and the Trust, ensuring that local interests are represented at the highest level.

Our meetings

The Audience Council met eight times during the year to consider a wide range of audience related research and data, regular briefings from BBC management and direct audience feedback gathered through our engagement activities. In addition to the regular schedule of meetings, members met as sub-committees focused on particular aspects of the Council’s work. The year culminated in March with an extended conference to assess the BBC’s performance in Northern Ireland in 2014/15. This assessment has been considered by the Trust and is outlined in this review.

Engaging with audiences

Our activities this year focused on the Trust’s reviews of BBC network music and speech radio services and a public value test on the BBC’s proposals for BBC Three. We held discussions in Belfast, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Downpatrick, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Magherafelt, and met with a range of different groups including university and college students, media trainees, young people, members of probus clubs, representatives from sports governing bodies, as well as members of the public and representatives of local organisations in the Portstewart and Armagh areas.  

These discussions are vital to our role in representing local audiences and underpin our advice to the Trust. We are extremely grateful to everyone who has taken the time to share their views with us.

Audience priorities and emerging issues

Council’s engagement events provide audiences with an opportunity to highlight particular issues or concerns about any aspect of the BBC’s performance. Lack of portrayal of audiences in Northern Ireland within BBC programming; concerns over editorial standards; the quality of the BBC’s journalism and the BBC’s overall value for money; plus the audience’s challenges in accessing BBC services on some digital platforms, continue to feature in conversations.

Each year, the four Audience Councils identify areas of priority reflecting issues where local audiences would like to see improvements in their respective nation, in the coming year. We report on the priorities for 2014/15 below.

We also outline the priorities for the Northern Ireland audience in 2015/16 at the end of this review and we will assess performance against these next year.

Reviews of BBC services

As the governing body, the Trust must review each of the BBC’s services at least once every five years. Service reviews aim to assess how well a service is performing against the terms of its respective service licence, and whether any changes should be made to the service for the benefit of audiences. The Audience Councils provide early advice to the Trust, on behalf of audiences in their respective nation, to help inform the framework for each review.

This year, we contributed to reviews of BBC network music services Radio 1, 1Xtra, 2, 3, 6 Music and Asian Network, as well as network speech services Radio 4 and 5 live, and their sister digital stations 4 extra and 5live sports extra. We also provided advice to a Trust-led public value test on the BBC’s proposal to transform BBC Three into an online service alongside a number of other changes to BBC services.

The Trust published its reviews of network news and current affairs, BBC television and network music radio services. We maintain an interest in service reviews as the Trust’s recommendations are implemented, to understand whether the intended benefits are delivered for audiences.

The Trust will complete the cycle of service reviews required under the current BBC Charter, with reviews of local radio and news services across the nations and regions in 2015/16.

Non-service reviews

The Trust also carries out reviews, and commissions independent reviews, on other aspects of BBC performance such as impartiality and value for money. This year, we welcomed an independent review of impartiality in BBC coverage of rural affairs as this has been an area of ongoing interest to the Council. An independent report into the BBC’s arrangements for managing on-screen and on-air talent delivered positive news for licence fee payers, with a 15% reduction in BBC talent costs in the last five years and a number of recommendations for further improvements. The Trust also looked at the BBC’s arrangements for the supply of television and radio content and online services - an area of particular interest and relevance to the local creative industry in Northern Ireland and elsewhere around the UK.

Audience Council discussion event focused on BBC network radio services

The Audience Council’s assessment of BBC performance in Northern Ireland

Each year the Audience Council reports to the Trust on how well the BBC is performing for audiences in Northern Ireland. Our assessment has drawn on a wide range of audience information, our knowledge of BBC strategy and services and, in particular, our understanding of local audiences.

We have considered the range of BBC services in Northern Ireland, at both network and local levels, and across television, radio and digital platforms. We also looked at the performance of BBC services against the Public Purposes and the Audience Priorities we had identified for the year.

BBC Television

We were pleased to see the Trust’s review of BBC television services report very strong performance overall, on the basis of audience reach, quality, value for money, and delivering the public purposes, in spite of the increasing choice of platforms and content available to audiences, and the pressures of BBC savings initiatives. The review also highlighted, however, that important challenges remain for the BBC in responding to developments and opportunities in an increasingly complex media landscape, and in finding ways to better serve harder-to-reach sections of the audience. We welcomed the Trust’s review and recommendation for more creative ambition and increased distinctiveness in television programming, especially on BBC One, as well as the need to improve the appeal of BBC TV to younger audiences - themes in local audience feedback we had referenced in our advice to the review.

Our engagement with young people on the BBC’s proposals for BBC Three further underlined the needs of this particular audience. We spoke with a range of young people, impressed by their passion and commitment for broadcasting and the concerns many expressed about the potential closure of a TV channel dedicated to them. We reflected these concerns in our advice to the Trust’s public value test of the proposals and have highlighted further, in our annual report, the need for a strategic process of engagement with young people to better understand and meet their diverse needs, as an important future audience. This focus is one we will continue to follow in the coming year.

Consumption of BBC television in Northern Ireland remained lower than in other parts of the UK, though it was encouraging to see this year record the highest BBC TV portfolio share in Northern Ireland since 2009. We recognise that local audiences are broadly positive about the BBC with average quality scores for BBC programming above the UK average. The visible portrayal of people from Northern Ireland on BBC network programmes and content that resonates with local audiences, play an important role in meeting the needs of local viewers.

Network programmes Mrs Brown’s Boys, Holby City and The Voice attracted audience share in Northern Ireland which was above the UK average. The Missing - a tense drama starring local actor James Nesbitt - had strong appeal and a second series of local crime drama The Fall outperformed the UK average audience share by 12%. BBC One’s Scotland Decides reflected strong local interest in the devolution debate.

BBC Northern Ireland continued to deliver quality, distinctive local programmes for local audiences with broad socio-economic reach and appeal, and non-news television opts adding, on average, almost 5% points to BBC One and BBC Two channel share during 2014. Documentaries Road and Belfast City: Mud, Sweat and 400 Years, as well as comedy series The Blame Game and Christmas entertainment special Five Gold Rings featured amongst the top ten most popular programmes, whilst documentary series True North’s reflections of local contemporary life in Northern Ireland were well received by audiences. Audiences’ appetite for the Giro d’Italia 2014, North West 200 and Ulster Rugby Live reflected local enthusiasm and appreciation for BBC Northern Ireland’s coverage of major sporting events and live sports programming.

BBC Radio

The Trust has carried out major reviews of all network radio services this year. Our advice to the reviews of music and speech radio was informed by a programme of engagement with a wide range of people to hear what they valued most about the stations and how they believed services might be improved for the future. BBC Radio 1 has continued to have a strong following in Northern Ireland, but it is important that the BBC doesn’t take this audience for granted - we heard from many young people who told us they listened to the station very little, or not all. We also heard how much BBC Radio 2, 3 and 4 listeners, whilst relatively small in number, valued the stations they listened to for quality, distinctiveness and range of content including news and topical discussion output. Sports enthusiasts shared their appreciation for the quality and range of sports programming offered by BBC Radio 5 live, though there was an appetite amongst some for more coverage of non-mainstream sports in the schedules.

We were pleased to see the Trust’s network music radio review findings reflect elements we had highlighted in our advice relating to younger audiences and BBC radio online services. We maintain a keen interest in the implementation and impact of the actions identified in the review, and look forward to the forthcoming publication of the Trust’s review of network speech radio services.

We are aware that audiences in Northern Ireland continue to consume less BBC network radio than listeners in other parts of the UK explained, in part, by the popularity of BBC Northern Ireland’s local radio services.

BBC Radio Ulster/Foyle has maintained its position as one of the BBC’s best performing local radio stations, with more than half a million listeners each week, and remains an important ingredient within the BBC’s radio mix and BBC Northern Ireland’s overall commitment to local audiences. Whilst a wider downward trend in average hours of listening to radio continues, it was encouraging to see average weekly hours of listening to Radio Ulster/Foyle slightly increased on the previous year.

We welcomed the station’s schedule refresh and, in particular, the introduction of a dedicated business programme to provide more in-depth analysis of the local economy and business - an area of interest we had previously identified through our engagement with audiences and the local business community, and now successfully addressed. We recognise the strong performance of Radio Foyle and the ongoing popularity of Pure Culture, first introduced as part of Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013.  We also welcomed the announcement of the BBC’s Music Day festival which emanated from the partnership between BBC Northern Ireland and Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013. We recognise that the station’s listenership skews heavily toward an older demographic and would like to see it reach a greater number of younger listeners, while maintaining its heartland audience, alongside a sustained focus on reflecting communities across Northern Ireland.

We will maintain an interest in the impact of the station’s refreshed schedule, particularly in the context of BBC Northern Ireland’s commitment to providing programmes that continue to be relevant and engaging for local listeners. Furthermore, we remain of the view that audiences would benefit more from BBC radio overall with regular opportunities for discovery on the network stations through, for example, special seasons and joint projects between network and local radio.

BBC News

Overall, BBC news and current affairs has continued to deliver for audiences in Northern Ireland with levels of consumption and approval above the UK average, and BBC One, BBC Radio Ulster/Foyle, BBC Online and the BBC News Channel prominent amongst news sources used.

Northern Ireland remains the most news-hungry of all the regions of the UK with high levels of news consumed across all platforms, coupled with high expectations of quality journalism. Audiences consistently tell us that they value intelligent, impartial news that reflects a diverse, breadth of views and opinion.

We maintain an ongoing interest in the development of BBC news to keep pace with technological and societal change. Whilst we welcomed the actions outlined in the Trust’s recent review of network news and current affairs, we regret the continuing lack of comparative policy analysis between the regions of the UK and, indeed, the wider world in the BBC’s news/current affairs content.

Local news and current affairs continued to reach an appreciative audience through valued weekly staples BBC Newsline and Evening Extra, as well as Spotlight’s award-winning investigative journalism. BBC News NI online is also a highly respected source and the pilot of a BBC Northern Ireland Local Live news stream - unique with archive capability - provided a valuable addition to the news menu.

We are mindful that audiences want the local news agenda to develop, to reflect a contemporary Northern Ireland and encompass a wide range of interests and issues beyond political affairs, including more international coverage. We have welcomed BBC Northern Ireland’s continued focus on the arts and developments in business coverage, whilst the True North series has proved a successful vehicle for human interest stories from across Northern Ireland.

However, we believe there is scope for BBC news and current affairs output – at network and local levels – to develop further with more rigorous, factual and discerning analysis of topical interests and policy issues such as health and education. We would also like to see the BBC do more to involve young people in the news agenda building on, for example, the success of School Report.

We will also watch with keen interest BBC News’ Future of News project as it gathers pace in the run up to Charter Review in 2016, and look forward to the Trust’s review of local news services in the nations in 2015/16.

Digital services

The story of digital is one of continuing evolution and transformation. New technology and new habits are changing the media landscape and audience behaviour. Our advice to the Trust’s network radio reviews and BBC Three public value test highlighted, amongst other things, audiences’ expectations around findability and easy access to services and content, as well as an appetite for digital curation and personalisation.

We recognise the BBC’s commitment to developing digital services and connecting audiences with content through, for example, BBC iPlayer, BBC iPlayer Radio and BBC News apps. More recent developments are bringing audiences closer to increased personalisation and curation with, for example, BBC Music Playlister. Other notable developments have included the BBC Rewind online project, combining technical and editorial innovation to make vast archive content accessible to audiences through daily journalism, and we particularly welcomed BBC Northern Ireland’s Local Live pilot, leading the way in enhanced online news services for local audiences.

Furthermore, BBC Radio Foyle becoming available on a permanent basis, region wide, on DAB was good news for listeners. We understand that the availability of nations’ programmes on BBC Two HD will be proposed as part of the BBC’s plans for the next Charter period and will remain, in the interim, available in Standard Definition.

Despite Northern Ireland having a high standard of digital connectivity there is below average take-up of broadband. Our engagement work this year also highlighted issues around access that go beyond digital infrastructure to issues of affordability for some sections of the audience, and quality of service - especially in rural areas. This is an issue we would aim to explore further in the coming year as it is fundamental to the principle of universality.

Audience Council members meet with members of the audience at The Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Armagh 

Progress against audience priorities for 2014/15

Our assessment of the BBC’s performance against areas of priority for local audiences in 2014/15 is outlined below.

Reflecting and serving a contemporary and changing society in Northern Ireland on the BBC’s networks and local services

The need for the BBC to reflect and serve contemporary society in Northern Ireland has been an enduring theme in audience feedback. Council identified this as a priority for 2014/15 looking at a number of areas where there was scope for improvement, specifically – the development of the local news and current affairs agenda to keep pace with changes in society; the reporting of devolved policy in network news; and the wider portrayal of a post-Troubles, modern Northern Ireland in network output. Council also asked that the BBC build on the success of special events coverage in portraying Northern Ireland in a more contemporary light in a national and global context.

We maintain an ongoing interest in local news and current affairs and, as outlined in our assessment above, believe there is scope for further development of the local news and current affairs agenda to reflect a contemporary and evolving Northern Ireland.

We actively monitor how well public policy in the devolved nations is reported on network news following the Trust’s review of this in 2008. Whilst we have welcomed progress to date, we agree with the Trust’s network news review that the reporting of devolved matters becomes increasingly complex as devolution progresses and, with the focus on the Scottish Referendum in 2014, that there is scope for BBC News to do more to reflect an increasingly complex UK-wide policy landscape. This will remain an audience priority going forward.  

Making more programmes in Northern Ireland for the BBC’s networks

Network supply - the BBC’s strategy for making more network television programming outside London - has been of particular interest to Council. Endorsed by the Trust, it aims to contribute to the economic sustainability of the creative industries, nurturing local creative talent and better reflecting life, across the UK.

Council has welcomed the long-term commitment of BBC Northern Ireland to developing local talent as well as attracting writers and producers to Northern Ireland. This year delivered a strong supply of programmes produced in Northern Ireland for broadcast on the BBC’s networks with drama commissions for BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, and TV production including crime dramas The Fall and Line of Duty, documentaries Digging for Ireland, Being James Galway and Ireland Journeys with Martha Kearney, as well as returning strands Points of View and Wanted Down Under, current affairs programmes for Panorama and The One Show inserts.

Some of the largest performance gaps for the BBC remain in the area of representing the regions and communities of the UK in network output. Audiences continue to want the full and authentic portrayal of life in Northern Ireland in programming targeted at a UK-wide audience, and we remain keen to see the full benefits of network supply delivered, which includes greater local representation on the networks. We welcome progress made in this area and are encouraged that improvements have been sustained. The Fall - with a local storyline - continued to have a particularly positive impact, proving that the gap can be bridged, and we are pleased that a third series has been commissioned.

We also maintain a keen interest in the potential of a nations-to-network approach to deliver tangible benefits in terms of a broader and richer representation of life in Northern Ireland, as well as value for money for licence-fee payers. Whilst the broadcast of some BBC Northern Ireland programmes on the networks this year - such as Groundbreakers and Paisley: A Life - are to be welcomed, there continue to be significant opportunities missed to deliver enhanced portrayal and efficiencies from nations-to-network transfers. Therefore, the production of programmes in Northern Ireland and the transfer of local programmes for broadcast on the networks require continued focus and commitment.

Access to BBC services

Access to services on broadband and other digital platforms remains an important issue for local audiences and a recurrent theme in audience feedback. Audiences want and expect to be able to access BBC services - network and local - in ways, and at times, that are most convenient to them. In an increasingly complex media environment, Council has welcomed BBC initiatives toward innovative and efficient ways to deliver content, as outlined in our assessment above, but this is an area for continued vigilance.

Looking to the future

Our direct engagement with audiences and our assessment of BBC performance this year reflects the high value local audiences place on BBC services and their support for a strong and distinctive BBC. The Trust will have an important role to play in placing licence fee payers’ interests at the heart of the Charter renewal process. We welcomed the development this year of the BBC Trust Online Panel - on which Northern Ireland is represented - as part of a commitment to involve licence fee payers in the Trust’s work and decisions going forward. Furthermore, we have identified the needs of young people as a continuing audience priority for 2015/16.

Audience Council discussion event at the Flowerfied Arts Centre, Portstewart

Audience Priorities for 2015/16

Areas of priority for local audiences identified for 2015/16 are outlined below.

1. A strategic process of engagement with young people

The BBC’s strategy for replenishing its audiences is at the heart of securing the future of the BBC, taking account of new technologies, changing audience behaviour, access to services and how content is promoted and discovered. We recognise the broad age demographic in Northern Ireland but believe the needs of young people are paramount and that it is vital that a long term view is taken, in terms of audience development, with a greater focus on engaging with this audience to understand and best serve their needs.

2. Understanding value for money

In the coming year, Charter renewal will present challenges for the BBC around audiences’ perceptions of value for money. We believe that a more in-depth understanding of the drivers of value for money would be helpful to the BBC. Furthermore, we also believe that a strategic approach to communicating to audiences in Northern Ireland - and more widely - the range of services that the BBC provides across platforms, may help to present the BBC as a more unified service and create better public awareness of the breadth, quality and value of the BBC’s overall offer.

3. Continued development of the BBC news agenda

As highlighted in this report, audiences in Northern Ireland have a particularly strong appetite for news and current affairs output and want local news that encompasses more positive stories and a wide range of issues of interest and relevance to daily life, including more international coverage. Council recognises the challenge for local and network news services in keeping pace with changes in society, part of which is the emerging debate on devolution, as well as technological advances and the challenge of instant news-making via social media in this context.

We believe that a sustained focus is needed to further develop the local news agenda, building on progress and strengths across all platforms, as well as a more fully developed, intrinsic approach to network reporting of devolved policy and issues.

4. Access to BBC services

Access issues for some sections of the audience in Northern Ireland extend beyond the availability of digital infrastructure to affordability as well as quality of provision, especially in rural areas. In terms of universal access to BBC services, we would wish to highlight that these issues present significant challenges in serving all audiences that must not be overlooked.

5. Network supply

The progress in network supply in Northern Ireland towards the delivery of 2016 supply targets is laudable and we recognise the importance of targets and quotas in being able to achieve this. The nations-to-network strategy, with opportunities to further enhance the portrayal of Northern Ireland on the networks whilst delivering efficiencies and minimising the volume of network repeats, is a key strategy going forward.

Council believes there is scope for further developments in these areas. This will require improvement in the commissioning process which underpins network supply and the development of indigenous talent. Council wishes to see transparent access to commissioning, with a focus on volume and quality. This is central to ensuring continuity of commissioning and programming in support of a vibrant and sustainable creative production base in Northern Ireland. In this context we recognise that the unique partnership between the BBC and Northern Ireland Screen will be key to ensuring positive opportunities and outcomes for the local creative sector.

Member of the audience discusses BBC services

Audience Council Northern Ireland members 2014/15

April 2014 - March 2015

Aideen McGinley, Chair

Aidan Langan

Beverley Todd

Brendan Johnston

Diarmaid Hanna

Elaine Hicks

Helen Jackson

Joan Shine

Mahendra Varma

Niall McCaughan

Peter Mann

Steven Law

Current Audience Council Northern Ireland members

If you would like a copy of the Annual Review 2014/15 in an alternative format, please contact us at: or telephone 028 9033 8856 or textphone 028 9033 8100. 

BBC Northern Ireland Management Review 2014/15

BBC Northern Ireland has also published its 2014/15 review. Read the review here>>