BBC faces £125m in lost income over Covid-19 as it reveals surging audience for news coverage

The BBC will be forced to find further savings as it faces an estimated £125m in lost income this financial year as a result of the coronavirus crisis, despite record broadcast and digital figures.

The corporation already has to make £800m in savings by 2022, including £80m in the news department. It has decided to delay changes to free licence-fees for the over-75s as a result of Covid-19.

BBC chairman Sir David Clementi said: “Like many organisations, the BBC faces some very real financial challenges in the year ahead, but I am delighted that our services are performing so strongly and making a real difference to the public during a challenging time.”

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In its annual plan for 2020/21, published today, the BBC said the coronavirus health emergency is likely to dominate its international news coverage “for the foreseeable future”.

BBC hits record viewing figures during lockdown

In the last week of March, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the UK under lockdown measures, the BBC said 79% of UK adults tuned into the BBC national and regional news, up from 59% in February.

Among 16 to 34-year-olds, 57% watched the BBC news that week, up from 26% in February. The figures represent the highest weekly reach for the corporation since 2003.

In the last week of March, 12.5m people watched the News at One (up 81% on the same week last year), 20.5 million watched the News at Six (up 73% year-on-year), and 19.4m watched the News at Ten (up 35%).

The corporation also revealed that:

On average, the BBC News reached over 26m people daily in late March / early April, compared with 16m people on average in 2019

The 6.30pm regional news programme has often been the most watched TV programme on any given day, reaching 20.4m in the last week of March (up 63% year-on-year)

As lockdown continued during April, BBC News continued to reach 70% of UK adults on average, 50% higher than the same period last year.

Strong growth in digital news

The BBC said it has seen some of its strongest growth during the crisis in digital news, where browser numbers have been almost 60% higher than the previous record set five months ago.

A record 81m UK browsers came to BBC News Online in the week of 16 March, up 58% on the previous record set in the week of the general election in December 2019.

BBC News Online was visited by an average of 60m UK browsers a week in April. Since the pandemic hit the UK, there have been over 1bn page views to coronavirus-related stories on BBC.com.

The BBC also revealed that:

The BBC News Youtube account saw 38m video views in the last week of March, compared with a 2019 weekly average of 9m views

The BBC News UK Twitter account saw record numbers of engagements, with 5.6m in the first week of April, compared with of 1.2m per week on average in 2019

The Coronavirus UK map: How many confirmed cases are there in your area? page has accumulated 118m page views, making it the BBC’s most-read page ever.

Looking ahead

The BBC News department put plans to axe 450 jobs this year on hold as it faced up to the challenge of reporting on the coronavirus, cutting some programmes and providing only a “core news service”.

But the corresponding “modernising” of the newsroom, set out by director of news Fran Unsworth in January, will continue, with a focus on stories rather than programmes, and a reduction in story output.

“Our new story-led approach will help us ensure the most important stories will be produced with our increasingly digital audiences in mind,” the BBC said.

The corporation said BBC News Online “is now one of the most important ways in which audiences consume our journalism” and plans to strengthen it alongside BBC iPlayer and audio app BBC Sounds.

“We will invest less in linear programming and more in online content,” the BBC said. “We will lift the editorial quality of our storytelling online so our digital journalism stands out in the market.

“We will showcase the BBC’s extraordinary expertise and personalities online and give the stories a warmer, more personal and engaged tone, just as we have always done on TV and radio.”

As part of this drive, the BBC News app will be completely redesigned later this year, with a focus on the “mobile generation” under 35.

“In an endless sea of mobile offers and user-friendly aggregators like Apple News and Facebook News, BBC News needs to be as intuitive and easy to use as other news providers, and to have a better editorial offer than anybody else,” the BBC said.

The online news offering will amplify fewer “but more relevant and important stories”, with “journalistic and editorial expertise” said to be central to the BBC’s digital and social output.

The BBC said specialism is one of its key strengths in news. As a result it will “bring more of our specialists from across programmes and platforms to work together in new ways on stories that cut across traditional boundaries and expand the range and diversity of voices”.

It added: “The pandemic has shown again the value of our specialist editors and correspondents who have led coverage in BBC News across the full spectrum of issues.”

The BBC said it will build on its ability to cover live events and breaking news by investing in digital tools “that will make it easier for people to get involved and participate”.

It also plans launch a Panorama podcast on BBC Sounds, and will use the medium “as a vehicle for investigative journalism and as companions to some of our biggest brands”.

The BBC has also expanded its Local Democracy Reporters scheme to cover Covid-19 issues and adapt to the crisis, extending contracts by six months.

Local radio

A number of local commercial radio stations impacted by the coronavirus have taken up the offer to run regional BBC News bulletins, the corporation said.

In radio, the BBC plans to make local and regional services “more dynamic and responsive” and build them around a definition of “local” that is determined on audience need.

It will focus on better serving audiences in the Midlands and the North of England, which have been traditionally underserved, including Bradford, Sunderland, Wolverhampton, Blackpool and Peterborough.

“Under the pressure of the crisis, we have demonstrated that new technology is allowing us to operate in simpler and more efficient ways to decrease cost and increase impact,” the BBC said.

Outside the UK

Outside the UK, the BBC said it is seeing “unprecedented audiences”.

In each of the last two weeks of March, World Service Languages reached 164m people around the world on digital services alone.

This included a record 73m on BBC World Service Language sites in the week of 23 March, driven by coronavirus stories.

As a whole the BBC reaches 426m people a week outside the UK.

“There is an opportunity for the BBC now to build on this strength by doubling its audience reach and deepening its impact. And that matters now more than ever,” the corporation said.

“There is a global battle for influence, with well-funded actors in Russia and China seeing state-sponsored news provision as an extension of state influence.

“Behind its heavy investment into the Belt and Road initiative, China is building a communication infrastructure across the developing world and using it to distribute its version of news.”

Picture: Reuters/Neil Hall

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