Late last year, OfCom released its third annual report on BBC performance. Once again, the decline in younger audiences for BBC services was highlighted. According to the report, time spent with the BBC by 16-34 year-olds now stands at less than an hour a day, down 22% since 2017. The largest drop of all is among those aged 16 to 19.
This is the precise audience segment for which I was responsible ten years ago, when these young people were part of the CBBC remit of 6-12 year olds. I was an in-house BBC executive producer, the editorial lead for CBBC’s websites and interactive content. CBBC was in its heyday, when both the channel on air and the online offering regularly topped a million users in a given week. The BBC Children’s iPlayer had been launched at the end of 2008 to great acclaim. But the research was already warning us that YouTube was becoming the most popular destination for children 6 to 12 in the UK, even though it was a service for 13 plus. My final task on staff at the BBC in 2014 was to launch YouTube channels for CBeebies and CBBC, in an effort to create journeys back from YouTube to BBC platforms. But as this generation has become potential license fee payers, they have drifted away from the BBC’s services to sign up for Netflix, Disney+ and other streamers.
Ten years ago, we knew we were talking to a remarkably active and activist generation – new platforms allowed them to engage with our programmes in much more personalised and empowered fashion. We encouraged kids to make their own content with our brands, writing collaborative stories for Tracy Beaker, submitting items to Newsround, making games with our characters as well as playing them. In 2013, we even ran a competition online to select a new host for Blue Peter. We trusted kids and gave them greater control of their experiences with content. This is the bar we now have to meet to attract young audiences back to the BBC.
OfCom’s report claimed that young adult users find the iPlayer confusingly general – the core public service concept of ‘content for everyone’ – whereas the streamers, with their more rapacious data harvesting and algorithms, deliver ‘content for me’. The BBC can’t compete on these terms, because as a public service institution, it cannot track user behaviours and preferences as closely as its competitors. AI and algorithms that provide the tailored experience of a Netflix homepage aren’t available at the same level of granular data detail to the BBC.
But I contend that the BBC has another way to create stronger links between individuals and BBC content. And it’s through that other great area of debate – the licence fee. Many resent paying the fee. Some have bought into the false narrative that the BBC wastes public money on high salaries and overheads. But most feel, with more evidence, that the BBC doesn’t reflect their lives and interests (another theme in the OfCom report, largely expressed by users from lower income households or regions further from the south east). It doesn’t feel like the BBC is for them.
This has to change. After all, the BBC belongs to the public. We should have a say in what the BBC produces. For the generation that the BBC is losing fastest – the activist, game-ified, digital natives in their late teens and twenties – this would come as naturally as liking a post. Rather than presenting us all with a binary choice – pay or don’t pay, watch or don’t watch – we need to let license fee payers choose how to spend their license fee as members of the BBC community. We need to be commissioners of our own content.
Imagine a cross between the iPlayer and Kickstarter. Commissioners place their development slates on the site, with target ‘pledge points’ from license fee payers required to green light any content. Licence fee payers get 157.5 pledge points (equivalent to the £ amount of their fee) to pledge as they choose. You could spread your points across twenty ideas, or place it all on one. You could commit your funding to a specific genre you love – say, natural history series or comedy specials or politics podcasts. Suddenly, you are a stakeholder – your choices are reflected in the content getting made. The BBC can keep you up to date on your personal selections, with updates from production and access to early trailers. The content makers can engage with you and other pledges – a built in audience test group for their ideas. You can share the updates with your friends, making you an advocate for the content and helping bring more of your peers back to the BBC.
This system could also become a submissions platform, opening up the BBC to a new range of diverse voices and ideas.
Of course, engagement with such a system would be optional. Many won’t have the appetite for gamification of their licence fee payment, and that’s fine. Plus the areas of greater public need, such as Children’s, News and Learning, will need to be ring-fenced. And commissioners, people with immense curatorial expertise, still need to influence content choices, so a formula for input from the pledges and the commissioners would need to be developed. But this kind of approach could not only re-energise younger audiences around BBC content, but it could also create far greater transparency and understanding of how your licence fee gets spent, and how much of it goes directly to content that you value.
A public service protecting its users’ data, the BBC has limitations in ways it can compete with commercial streamers. But perhaps empowering the public is the way for the BBC to win that competition and remind the UK audience it has a personal stake in public service media that is the envy of other nations.