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May 26, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:22am

BBC to merge news channels and make CBBC online only in move to become ‘digital first’

By Andrew Kersley

BBC director-general Tim Davie has declared that the BBC will become a “digital-first” publisher as he announced a shake-up of the broadcaster, including plans to merge its TV 24-hour news output and axe the BBC Four and CBBC channels.

The reforms also included proposals to make BBC Four and CBBC online-only, making an array of BBC World Service offerings digital-only as well as a target of getting 75% of its viewers from iPlayer each week.

The move aimed to refocus investment into the BBC’s digital offerings with increased funding for news and current affairs content on iPlayer and BBC Sounds, as well as funding for UK Nations and Regions.

While some regional programming has seen cutbacks, Davie maintained that the funding for the Local Democracy Reporting Service would be ringfenced.

The list of reforms included:

  • Merging the UK-focused BBC News Channel and internationally-focused BBC World News channel into a single 24-hour TV channel called BBC News serving domestic and international audiences;
  • Moving smaller channels like CBBC, BBC Four and Radio 4 Extra online only in the next few years;
  • Cutting back bureaucracy, reducing running costs and simplifying ways of working to free up time;
  • Shifting a number of World Service languages to be digital-only;
  • Bigger investment in programming from the UK’s nations and regions;
  • New news and current affairs content focused on digital audiences on BBC Sounds and iPlayer with new video formats, simulcasts and podcasts;
  • Reviewing commercial options for audio production and calling on Ofcom to remove regulatory restrictions on iPlayer to expand boxsets and archive content;
  • Radio 4 is being taken off long wave, previously used to contact the hardest-to-reach homes, effectively ending Radio 4’s presence on AM broadcast.

In addition the broadcaster announced the end of the regional current affairs programme We Are England after just five months on-air amid wider cuts to programming that have seen several regional BBC operations axed.

The BBC South Today Oxford bulletin will end in November, with operations set to be moved to Southampton. BBC Nations director Rhodri Talfan Davies said it was a “difficult decision” but would “strengthen” online news services.

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Press Gazette understands that the broadcaster’s Look East Cambridge operation is also set to be axed in November with all coverage of the region being moved to the BBC’s base in Norwich. One source said the news had gone down like a “lead balloon”.

We Are England was a follow-up to Inside Out, the long-running show that was cancelled by the broadcaster in 2020 amid the last major shake-up of BBC England which included the loss of 450 jobs.

The programme had promised to “provide a voice to our diverse regional audiences” but has been marred by controversies since its launch.

In one case a piece on a cryptocurrency millionaire was pulled at the last minute, after The Guardian questioned whether the BBC was confident in his claimed financial returns and questioned why it did not mention that its subject’s cryptocurrency was shut down, leaving many investors reportedly out of pocket.

Davie told staff: “This is our moment to build a digital-first BBC. Something genuinely new, a Reithian organisation for the digital age, a positive force for the UK and the world.

“Independent, impartial, constantly innovating and serving all. A fresh, new, global digital media organisation which has never been seen before.

“Driven by the desire to make life and society better for our licence fee payers and customers in every corner of the UK and beyond. They want us to keep the BBC relevant and fight for something that in 2022 is more important than ever.

“To do that we need to evolve faster and embrace the huge shifts in the market around us.”

He added: “I believe in a public service BBC for all, properly funded, relevant for everyone, universally available, and growing in the on-demand age. This plan sets us on that journey.”

The BBC has been looking at ways to plug a reported £1.4bn hole in its finances.

Davie said the changes were a “£500m plan for the next few years” made up of £200m per year of cuts “necessitated by the two-year licence fee freeze”.

“This represents the majority of our £285m a year challenge by 2027/28,” he said. “£50m of this £200m is already baked into our current budgets. The rest is delivered by stopping things and running the organisation better where we can.

“Then there’s a further £300m a year which is about moving money around the organisation and delivering additional commercial income. This means that we are not just cutting money everywhere but making choices where to invest.”

The National Union of Journalists’ national broadcasting organiser Paul Siegert said the announcement was a “direct consequence of the government’s decision to refuse to fund the BBC adequately”.

He added: “It’s the second restructuring for BBC England in the past two years and a clear sign that the first process was ill-thought through and poorly implemented. As a result, some NUJ members are facing the risk of redundancy for the second time in two years.”

He went on: “Any transition to a digital-first approach must have the BBC’s breadth and diversity of news and quality journalism at its heart.”

News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith said it was “disappointing” that the BBC hadn’t used the restructuring to significantly cut back its own local news services, saying it left the broadcaster ” in direct competition with commercial providers” and the move “would have a profoundly negative impact on independent local news”.

Davie told a House of Lords committee earlier this week he was “sure” more job cuts will be needed at the broadcaster in future.

Davie told the committee: “On our current financing, having cut 30% in ten years, the BBC has lost 1,200 people in the last 18 months. And we’ll have to go further, I’m sure.

“In public service, we are going to have to make those choices. But I’ll do everything I can to make sure that these choices are protecting the things we all care about.”

Picture: Shutterstock

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