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Auntie's dilemma

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Mark Easton | 10:31 UK time, Thursday, 30 October 2008

The great challenge for the BBC is to retain broad appeal. Its charter talks of the need to serve "audiences" plural, to represent all the communities of the UK.

That is why corporation executives get so exercised about how many 60-year-old black women in Wales are tuning in. The argument for a publicly funded broadcaster may be fatally undermined if it can be demonstrated that it only pleases some of the people some of the time.

The "prank-call row" (as we now seem agreed to call it) is what happens when that search for broad appeal goes horribly wrong.

The BBC knows that its future depends on connecting with the next generation of potential licence payers. But young audiences are particularly hard to reach once they have grown out of C-Beebies.

Tony BlackburnSince Tony Blackburn introduced "Flowers in the Rain" on Radio 1 four decades ago, Auntie has tried to find ways of connecting with youth - but without alienating her core audience.

It is a mighty difficult trick to pull off because the demands of young and mature audiences are often contradictory.

Evidence of this is the broad support for Ross and Brand among the BBC's younger audience, contrasting with general dissatisfaction among the core.

Youth programming needs edge. It must feel a little dangerous.The older we get, the more risk averse we become. That is why Chris Moyles and Alan Titchmarsh don't do a double-header (although it might be quite interesting).

Before you all write in to tell me you're 83 and can't get enough of Crissy Criss on Radio 1 Xtra, my point is a general one.The attitudes and sensibilities of those entitled to a young person's railcard are different from those carrying their pensioner's bus pass.

For the BBC, the job of connecting with both groups simultaneously is made infinitely harder by the digital age. Niche broadcasting is most effective among those who are most comfortable scrolling down to channel 453 in search of entertainment and stimulation. New technology is just technology to a generation which has never known anything different.

If the Beeb cannot keep enough young people on board, it is sunk. The challenge is true for many organisations - big multinationals also need to ensure their market doesn't simply die off. But the pressure on the Corporation to appeal to youth is, effectively, enshrined in its Royal Charter. And it has a licence fee to justify.

IJonathan Rossf you want to know why Jonathon Ross or Simon Cowell command such rich rewards, it is because they are deemed to possess a rare talent: they appeal to young people and older people at the same time.

Finding the tone of voice and format to achieve broad penetration in a fragmenting media world is what every mogul seeks. Such personalities possess the X-factor.
They may not be your cup of tea and I am sure some of you will tell me so, but their careers live and die by the numbers. And until now, Jonathon Ross's numbers have been good.

Sometimes, however, the plate-spinning trick doesn't come off.The crash of breaking crockery still echoes around Broadcasting House this morning.

There has been surprise expressed that this affair should have blown up inside Radio 2 - the' easy listening' station as some see it. But that is to misunderstand its role. If Radio 1 is firmly on one side of the generational divide and Radios 3 and 4 are located on the other, it is Radio 2 that attempts to span the gap. It is all about broad appeal.

In committing the "gross lapse of taste" identified by the BBC Director General, Ross and Brand showed what happens when broad is not broad enough.


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