Young Britons 'tuning out' the BBC, regulator warns

The BBC headquarters in London is the subject of an Extinction Rebellion climate protest on Oct 11, 2019.
The BBC headquarters in London is the subject of an Extinction Rebellion climate protest on Oct 11, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Britain's venerable BBC may lose its relevance if it fails to engage a younger audience in the social media age, the British broadcasting regulator warned on Thursday (Oct 24).

For the first time, less than half (49 per cent) of Britons between the ages of 16 and 24 reported watching BBC TV channels at least once a week, Ofcom said in its annual study of the 97-year-old company.

The BBC is also failing to break through to a younger audience with its iPlayer app, whose use by children and young adults is falling while that of rival Netflix goes up.

"The BBC is still a vital, valued part of British culture. But we're concerned that a new generation is tuning out of its services," Ofcom chief executive Sharon White said.

"The BBC must set out bolder plans to connect with younger viewers and listeners."

The regulator's report concluded that the "BBC may not be sustainable in its current form".

The BBC is primarily funded through annual licence fees, which Britons must pay to get legal access to its various channels.

Responding to the report, a spokesman for the broadcaster said "the BBC has a clear plan in place to meet the needs of younger and diverse audiences, outlined in this year's annual plan".

The use of BBC television and radio apps and website "have grown strongly in the last year," the spokesman said, pointing to overall usage by all age groups.

Ofcom said the BBC remained "the UK's primary news source," despite stiff competition from commercial rivals Sky and ITV, as well as internet-based media.

But it warned that the number of young viewers watching BBC news and current affairs programmes has been falling for five years.

"This group also questioned how far BBC news coverage was 'talking to them', rather than older viewers," Ofcom said.

British news has been dominated for more than year by wall-to-wall coverage of the Brexit crisis, with a heavy focus on complex battles between parliament and the government.

The BBC has been reported to be studying ways to reduce its flow of Brexit reports, even though the total number of people watching news has shot up.