Cool Auntie or mad cat lady?

The Director General of the BBC has announced further changes this week as part of the corporation's move to a Digital First future. How does this fit with the comfortable image of Auntie?

The precise moment that the BBC became known as 'Auntie' is unclear. However, there are two contributors to the now very familiar nomenclature.

In the 1940s and 1950s the rather proper tones and moral standing of the BBC was much more paternalistic. It became perhaps the best known example of a national tone known as 'Auntie knows best'. However, this applied across the British establishment and wasn't limited to the corporation.

Kenny Everett

Doubtless aware of this history the nickname became more consistently applied in jibes and digs by the most anarchic of its children Kenny Everett. By the early 1980's the rather stuffy BBC was most definitely also 'the beeb' or 'Auntie.'

Kenny Everett's complaint was two fold. Firstly that Aunty was too stuffy, too far behind the times and just not with it enough to be cool or relevant.

His second complaint was the uncertainty over what the BBC wanted to be and (in today's words) whether it was spreading itself too thin.

At that time in the seventies, he was complaining about increasing forays into print journalism via the Radio Times (remember that?). He also famously said of the organisation "Isn't it funny that I'm being filmed by one end of the organisation about being sacked by the other end?:"

John Charles Walsham Reith, 1st Baron Reith

In the 1920's Lord Reith became the first Director General of the newly formed British Broadcasting Corporation. He above any other was responsible for the raison d'etre of the BBC over the rest of the century.

Should anyone need reminding, of that public service duty, it was to 'educate entertain and inform.' In his era, this was delivered exclusively through the medium of radio, however that ethos has survived and informed the organisation to the present day.

Skip forward a century and the current Director General, Tim Davie faces a very different landscape. So what (at a headline level) has he announced this week?

Tim Davie - Director General BBC

In essence, some of the broadcast channels (BBC 4 and Cbeebies) will move from traditional terrestrial broadcasting on to digital platforms.

Also, BBC World news and The BBC News channel will merge, though the exact details of how that might be achieved have yet to be agreed.

On radio, the BBC will essentially abandon long wave with Radio 4 no longer being broadcast on that wavelength and material currently on Radio 4 extra (along with some yet to be announced) will move from the radio waves to the digital cloud.

In terms of digital journalism, the ambition appears to be for the BBC website to continue its existing growth. The aim is for journalists around the globe to be able to file stories to the web in real time supplementing traditional news outlets.

Whether this undoubted shift of emphasis works in the medium to long term is an open question. The BBC media correspondent put it best for me in one of his throw-away comments about today's changes.

Amol Rajan - Media Correspondent
We used to be a shark in a media pond, now we're a sardine in a media ocean. Amol Rajan BBC news channel

Radio has perhaps the least impact and the BBC has a proud tradition of international standing in the World Service. The core four stations remain fairly popular although radio as a medium has a reducing audience base.

Amol Rajan is correct in saying the power and influence of the broadcaster is reducing year on year. A look at any set top box shows the wide array of streaming services and medio providers with far, far deeper pockets.

It's unlikely the corporation will secure either a license fee increase sufficient to compete any decade soon. Neither is it likely the move to subscription TV is coming to its aid any time soon. An experiment to make archive and on demand content available through Britbox hasn't set subscription viewing on fire for aunty.

Britbox subscriptions are thought to be around 700,000 in number but only half the content in the corporations and at roughly £5 per month it doesn't touch the sides of funding the content gap.

ITV looks likely to pull out of Britbox soon in favour of its own platform and that appears to be the direction of travel for all producers. Netflix and Google face reduced content as studios and the likes of Disney launch their own output platforms.

While I'm not a great believer in there ever having been a golden age of TV, it has certainly been better.

When I think of BBC productions and hits of the past I think of home grown comedy, costume dramas, a significant element of children's and educational programming and some great documentary journalism.

Unfortunately, most of those styles are now considered old hat, too expensive or too niche. Others (long form journalism) died a death some time ago along with the likes of World in Action, Weekend World. Equinox, The Cook Report etc. Only panorama survives and in a very dumbed down form. I'm lucky to have enjoyed some great science content ranging from Cosmos to Horizon and Connections. It does feel that other than Brian Cox and David Attenborough those have proven too expensive. Perhaps the final nail in the prospects of the BBC is its stated intention to swim against a very obvious tide. The beeb is actively seeking to attract the under 30s to radio while audience stats show that radio is niche cool at best in that age bracket and overlooked at worse.

Similarly, the rush to younger viewers is highlighting BBC 3 content, but there simply isn't the mass audience to compete on making the content for it.

The largest growth in BBC journalism is on the website while regional radio and to some extent tv is being cut back further.

Perhaps the time has come to ask what we want the BBC to do well and stop trying to be all things to all people. The bottom line will, in my view, win out. There just isn't the money to do much more than fluff and nonsense and that may become more apparent if rumoured studio mergers go ahead. I doubt the BBC will survive in its current public service form for much longer. Its output isn't valued by enough people. Many don't see the licence fee as good value for news and content that can now be obtained elsewhere. There certainly doesn't appear to be an appetite to fund it further from what I can see.

I don't really recognise the BBC as the benchmark provider of quality programming it once was. Perhaps we've all out grown Auntie Beeb?


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