The decline in audiences for television news is no reason to dumb down, says the BBC’s Mark Damazer. There is still hunger for serious news, albeit delivered through more and different channels

It is now 13 years since a BBC boss asked me to write a paper about the decline in audiences for television news programmes. And, since then, there have been many similar studies within the BBC – and in countless other broadcasting organizations, universities and regulators – all asking more or less the same set of questions: why are audiences for news and current affairs programmes falling? How can we attract young, female and poorer viewers to serious news and current affairs? How can we shape our programmes to lure them away from the gaudy offerings scheduled against the high-minded bulletins that we are trying to make? Are we doomed to failure? And so on.

The pessimism and anxiety in Britain have been made more acute by the low turnouts in the past two general elections. Some even assert that the decline in turnout is due to the supposed failure of broadcasters to make their political coverage interesting enough. Put all the papers and seminars together and you have an impressive – nay biblical – heap of jeremiads. But a lot of the wailing and gnashing of teeth is overdone. There is still a huge demand for news – and serious news at that.

The good old days

Of course things ain’t what they used to be. When I first put finger to mouse to try to understand what was going on I was editor of the BBC’s main nightly TV news bulletin and we regarded an audience size of less than 6 million as very worrying. Mostly we sailed in happily above that and enjoyed huge audience “spikes” when something genuinely surprising happened. The millionaire fraudster Robert Maxwell jumped off his boat and bequeathed us an audience of 14 million. Now the programme – an hour later – averages less than 5 million viewers and even big news events won’t push the audience much above, say, 8 million.

At least, for the most part, the critics, consultants and analysts understand that the explosion of choice in TV and radio means that it is impossible for the established terrestrial broadcasters to hold on to the same number of eyeballs and eardrums when we offer the nation our best shot at reporting and explaining the news. But this is hardly a problem that uniquely affects news and current affairs. Indeed, audiences for news programmes on the main BBC TV and radio channels have held up better than for programmes about religion and worship (predictable) or comedy (less predictable), or many other genres for that matter. And news and current affairs programmes rank high, very high, in any survey that asks what it is that people value about the BBC. “Value” can be a more worthwhile way of measuring success than ratings.

However, the BBC is funded by a compulsory annual levy on all individuals with a television, and it would reinforce our sense of worth if we could persuade those licence-fee payers who are reluctant consumers of our news and current affairs to watch and listen more regularly to the serious material on offer. There has been a barrelful of suggestions about how to pep things up, although, mostly, the barrel has been filled with similar, uninteresting ingredients.

News, celebrity-style?

There have been pleas for “more relevance” and “greater accessibility”. There should be less time spent on politics and, particularly, politicians. We should acknowledge we live in a “celebrity age”. We should look at the revolution in general factual programmes and learn from it. We should encourage people to “look and see” rather than merely tell them what’s happening in the world. Not all of this is rubbish, though much of it is.
It is not reasonable to assume that a mass audience will know why they should sit up and take notice, say, if a hedge fund fails or if there is yet another impasse in the Northern Ireland peace process. The BBC needed to learn from research about the desire for a story to be properly told. But it is a big mistake to assume that relevance is much of an answer. News is for citizens who belong to a polity. It is not a digest of consumer need.

To take an example, I am not sure that a change in the government in Italy affects the day-to-day life of most of our audience. But I am sure that, for the BBC at any rate, it is news. Apart from anything else, if you get a chance to understand what is going on outside Britain, you can make better judgments about what is going on inside Britain.
You cannot feed the audience a disproportionate diet of lifestyle and feel-good stories and then expect them to understand why there are big problems in the Middle East that can lead to horrors close to home. And, as for dressing news in more colourful broadcasting clothes, nobody, so far, has come up with a magic TV format that combines the pizzazz of programmes like Pop Idol or Big Brother with the high fibre of newsgathering to produce a boom in audiences.

A rival broadcaster made a series pluckily trying to inject some of the Pop Idol formula into the selection process for a British parliamentary candidate. Good luck to them – and there were moments of decent fun – but the audience figures were not exceptional and it did not leave any lasting imprint on current affairs journalism. And this was only the latest in a line of programmes that have laboured under the hype of a “reinvention of current affairs”. There has been progress – in reporting style and in craft skills – but no real revolution in form.

Substance use

What works is substance. Serious substance. That means tough and impartial interviewing, investigations, foreign news, economic news and, yes, political news too. Others may do some or all of these things. The BBC exists to do them more consistently and better than any other broadcaster. And it is not just the prosperous or the readers of broadsheet newspapers who expect that of the BBC. It is what the majority of the audience wants from the BBC – indeed, requires from the BBC – and it is mostly what they get.

Readers of the Sun or the Mirror, or the Daily Star do not want BBC news and current affairs programmes to reflect the values and the agenda of those papers. They want the BBC to be serious. Not pompous or boring, but serious, and seriousness is not a broadcasting crime. Radio 4, the BBC’s speech station, offers, in the Today programme, the most up-market breakfast news programme in any medium, and romps home. The programme has the largest news audience and the most clout. Breakfast TV has never caught up.

The BBC is lucky. We have a secure funding base. Directors general come and go, but all of them have understood that the BBC is not there to gamble with its reputation for authority by experimenting with celebrity news or news-lite in the vague hope that the ratings will soar. Even the controversial move of the television current affairs flagship, Panorama, to Sunday evening has ended up giving the programme a licence to be focused on what matters and not consigned to doing programmes about how much your house is worth (a British addiction). Industry awards (a haphazard measure to be sure) have come thick and fast.
And the future is not so bleak. The BBC’s news website attracts 12 million unique users a month.

They are disproportionately young, as the chart shows. If they end up watching fewer editions of the 10 O’Clock News and using the BBC in a different way, there is no reason to fret. And, if the audience won’t sit around the television to watch programmes on the main channels, they are increasingly watching or listening to 24-hour news channels. The audience will find news when it wants, not when we want it to. That is something to celebrate rather than to mourn. The market is fragmenting and the competition is unrelenting. The BBC’s job is to stay the course. It has – and it will.

CV Mark Damazer

Mark Damazer is the controller of BBC Radio 4 and BBC 7. He first joined the BBC in 1981.