Class and the BBC: is it still informing, educating and entertaining?

By Media Reform Coalition / Wednesday December 20, 2023 Read More

Responding to Ofcom’s recent Audiences review, Lee Edwards, Professor of Strategic Communication and Public Engagement at the London School of Economics, discusses the BBC’s relationship with working-class audiences.

The BBC retains one of the strongest positions in the UK media landscape. While competition from streaming services and other terrestrial broadcasters is fierce, it remains the most widely viewed and most popular media institution among UK audiences. However, this does not mean that everyone is satisfied with it. Ofcom’s recently published review of satisfaction with the institution’s delivery on each of its public purposes shows a clear decline in satisfaction between wealthier, better educated members of the public and others.

The review engages with people designated in socio-economic groups D and E – those who ‘are often referred to as having ‘lower’ socio-economic status, being from lower-income households or from working-class backgrounds. They are more likely to be older, unemployed or in insecure work, have a disability or be retired with only a state pension’ (Ofcom, 2023, p. 5). As the review makes clear, they are also the least satisfied – particularly with the BBC’s delivery on opportunities for learning for people of all ages, delivery of creative, high quality and distinctive output, and representing the diverse communities of all the UK nations. In all these areas, less than 60% of this group expressed satisfaction with the BBC’s current activities. Even in what might be regarded as the BBC’s ‘flagship’ purpose of providing impartial news and information, satisfaction is only 64%.

For any organisation, the reality that over 40% of one’s audience is less than satisfied with most aspects of its performance is a wake-up call, and the BBC is no different. The low ratings have prompted Ofcom, as the BBC’s regulator, to monitor its performance over time and the review does highlight some actions taken by the BBC to address the challenge. However, in its focus on audience perceptions, the review also demonstrates eloquently the breadth of the challenge in practice.

A barometer for success

The review focuses on audience perspectives of the BBC’s connection to them, the content it produces, and the contextual factors that affect their views. Importantly, while these socio-economic groups are often framed as being or having ‘less than’ other population segments, when it comes to media use, this is not the case. The review confirms that they are high-level and discerning consumers of media. They actively look for new and entertaining content, as well as for content that offers an escape from the complex lives they face, but also represents those lives authentically. And if content does not deliver to their needs or expectations, they will go elsewhere – habits of sourcing media from multiple different devices and channels means they know plenty of options to choose from. They also tend to have lower incomes than other groups, which means value for money is an important part of their evaluation. In many ways, then, they exemplify the ‘active audience’ that scholars have long debated but research has confirmed; indeed, one might argue that their support for any media institution could be viewed as a barometer of its success.

The participants in this research also highlight one ever-present truth about media consumption, sometimes overlooked when discussing media performance: the fact that audiences consume media in context. Members of these social groups often face intersectional disadvantages (e.g. they are more likely to suffer from mental health challenges or have a disability). Consuming media is an opportunity to cope with the challenges that such disadvantages present by engaging in an easy activity, viewing something comfortingly familiar or adventurously escapist.

Too familiar, middle-class and ‘safe’?

The BBC certainly has a role to play here, but the broadcaster’s own history – its comforting familiarity, its origins in the middle- and upper-class echelons of the British establishment that presumed to know what kind of media and content were in the public interest – is also a disadvantage. Notwithstanding the variety and range of content that it does provide, and its efforts to improve accessibility (detailed in the review), participants in the review did not always view it as competitive with other services – particularly in an environment where media is increasingly consumer-oriented, personalised and where algorithmic tailoring offers easy-access, immediately appealing content for viewers. High-profile BBC successes such as Strictly Come Dancing are recognised as representing excellent quality, but also indicative of ‘safe’ and perhaps more boring broadcasting than other channels and services.

Participants were also critical about representations of diversity on-screen, which they felt reflected the middle-class and Southern English bias that the institution has found so hard to shake off. Storylines and characters about minority groups were perceived to draw on negative stereotypes rather than reflecting the variety of marginalised lives (working-class experiences, for example, or those of people with disabilities). Where they were depicted, participants argued that they were presented as exceptional – a object of scrutiny, rather than day-to-day life for almost a quarter of the population.

In a recent rapid evidence analysis of research on diversity in public service broadcasting, these tendencies in representation were also confirmed: research consistently found that a range of characteristics – class, age, disability, ethnicity, gender, regional identity – were represented on-screen in relatively limited ways. Class, for example, was communicated through accent, food, and ‘rags to riches’ narratives, with few exceptions. Research on off-screen diversity (in production contexts, for example) showed that it was also lacking (although this topic received less scholarly attention overall).

Connection and accountability

The review’s analysis of the BBC’s connection with audiences and their perception of its content is essentially grounded in the audience as a consumer of media, with certain expectations that are or are not being met. The danger of this representation is that the focus can become too centred on reactions to media output. The last section of the review, however, starts to reflect the wider self-perceptions of audiences as citizens, who have expectations of the BBC as a public service broadcaster. Perhaps this is no surprise: the founding principle of public service broadcasting in the UK was to communicate information that would educate audiences, not only entertain. While historically, decisions about what counts as ‘educational’ or ‘entertaining’ were the remit of the state-entrusted BBC, one long-term outcome of such efforts is an audience that no longer accepts top-down decision-making by public service media, and demands more involvement with a set of institutions ostensibly there to deliver to their interests. It is in this arena that the standards to which the BBC is held are most visible in the review: it is certainly valued as a British institution and part of public life, but in return for this privilege, and for the public funding it receives, it is expected to be answerable to the public.

This attitude was also evident in the online citizen’s assembly conducted as part of Ofcom’s Small Screen, Big Debate consultation about the future of public service media in 2020-21. The discussions suggested that when given the chance, the public want to speak with the BBC, not about it, with their opinions reflected its identity, practices and output. This is not to say that they will hold back on opinions as viewers and consumers of media – but once questions start to interrogate the BBC’s public service identity, a rich diversity of opinions emerges.

The need for fundamental, systemic change at the BBC

What conclusions does the current review allow us to draw about the BBC and its ability to satisfy this audience? On one level, the results are mixed – participants liked some aspects of the BBC, but not others; they viewed some aspects of its work positively, but felt others were out of touch with current expectations in a complex, competitive media environment. In the context of a market-driven media environment, this is problematic for the BBC, not least because the idea of dissatisfaction suggests disengagement – and loss of audience share.

But this is not all there is to the picture. In fact, the review arguably demonstrates a high degree of public engagement with the BBC and its purposes among these groups. The ‘public’ element of public service media encourages debate, reflexive consideration of what expectations one might have, and why, as well as what promises are made by public service broadcasters, and whether they are fulfilled. These considerations go far beyond content and representation; they also link to the BBC’s responsibility as an accountable public institution that carries the weight of national representation, as well as individual and public service.

Nonetheless, certain opinions are clear: while the BBC is recognised for many good things, it does not fully or adequately recognise the context in which these audiences consume media, or the expectations they have of a public service broadcaster that claims to act on their behalf. As the review emphasises, the institution recognises its shortcomings but progress addressing them is slow. Perhaps only a fundamental, systemic change in production and governance, focused on working with the public rather than for them, will produce a genuine transformation of practice.