The start of 2020 looked bleak for the BBC, the world’s oldest national broadcaster, with the core of its funding model under threat.
Conservative politicians led by the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson had grown increasingly resentful of the BBC‘s alleged liberal bias and planned measures that would cut down revenues from license fees – the chief source of funding for the storied institution.
While long-term existential threats are not gone, there are many reasons to seem optimistic of the BBC, as the crisis has shown just how important having a public broadcaster really is.
“The BBC is having a good pandemic,” a recent column in The Economist was titled, arguing the coronavirus has provided the BBC with a chance to prove its relevance.
BBC’s television audience is up by a third, while its daily news bulletin reaches almost a third of the British population — some 20 million people — making it by far the most popular source of news in the country. A survey showed that 80% of people receive news on COVID-19 from the public broadcaster.
It is part of a larger trend across Europe. According to The Fix’s analysis, readers in March turned to public broadcasters for information (versus mainstream or tabloid media, though not as much as community funded media), with an average increase of 65% in traffic for this type of media.
BBC’s situation highlights the importance of public service coverage, especially in times of crisis like those today. The corporation does not hide its publications under the paywall, and nor does it suffer a hit from the advertising decline.
With coronavirus fakes being a looming problem, evidence shows that having a publicly-funded media corporation negatively correlates with the volume of misinformation in a country.
“There’s nothing like a situation like this to remind politicians of the value of the institution,” claims a senior BBC executive quoted by The Economist.
Still, the BBC still faces long-term problems for its universality. The media across Western countries is increasingly polarized, but BBC’s appeal should stay universal, since it is a public broadcaster funded by taxpayers.
Moreover, the BBC‘s audience is increasingly older, with less young people tuning in. Viewing among those aged 16 to 24 has fallen by 50% over the last decade. The young do consume a lot of video, it is just not from broadcast TV.
In the summer, BBC’s Director-General Tony Hall will step down. His successor will have to face hard decisions about the future of the world’s oldest national broadcaster.