The BBC’s director of policy has said the refresh of its regional current affairs programming which is resulting in the cancellation of Inside Out is “long overdue”.
Clare Sumner told Ofcom that Inside Out, which was cancelled with the loss of 29 jobs this year as part of plans to save £25m across BBC England by March 2022, was no longer making the same impact it did when it launched almost 20 years ago.
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Its audience has been in decline for ten years, she said.
In a letter to the broadcast regulator in response to its questions about the regional programming changes, Sumner said: “Our new current affairs programme will be more contemporary and focused than Inside Out and more relevant to our audiences.
“This refresh is long overdue – it is unusual to keep the same format on air for nearly twenty years without making editorial changes.”
The news of Inside Out’s demise prompted outcry in the summer from producers and editors who claimed the loss of its 11 regional editions would leave “many viewers very poorly served”.
The BBC at the time announced it would replace Inside Out with a new programme produced from six regional hubs in Newcastle, Leeds, Norwich, Birmingham, London and Bristol.
Sumner said in her letter, published on Wednesday, that the new format is still being developed but will provide more “in-depth and higher quality documentaries and investigations” designed to resonate more with a working class audience.
The reduction in the number of editions will mean this can be produced at the same time as the necessary savings, Sumner said.
“This will allow us to invest more in each story and programme, while ensuring that they are still local and relevant to our audiences across England,” she added.
Ofcom published Sumner’s letter as it warned the BBC in its third annual report on the corporation that it needs to do more to explain the impact of the changes to its regional news programming “so that audiences have a clear sense of how their needs will continue to be met”.
It plans to monitor audience engagement and satisfaction with the corporation’s regional current affairs output.
Sumner said: “We agree with Ofcom that our regional news and current affairs services are highly valued by our audiences.
“However it is right that we maximise efficiency, and every part of the BBC is being asked to make savings. The savings we require from Nations and Regions are proportionally the lowest across the main BBC Divisions, and other BBC Divisions are also further ahead in realising these necessary efficiencies. These savings do not impact our ability to deliver the quotas set out in Ofcom’s operating licence.
“We are also confident that we will continue to serve all of our audiences across the UK with the national, regional and local services that they rightly expect and value.”
Ofcom warned the BBC and other broadcasters they must do better to reach viewers and listeners who feel underrepresented or inaccurately portrayed.
In BBC programming, that includes people living in Scotland and west and south-west England, older disabled people, and people from working class backgrounds.
Ofcom said the reach of BBC news sources to audiences in the lowest socio-economic group, DE, had fallen “substantially” from 71% two years ago to 63%. By contrast 81% of AB adults continue to use BBC news services.
An increase in the number of adults who were dissatisfied with the BBC’s news performance from 14% to 17% in a year had been driven by rising levels of negative perceptions within groups including women, those aged between 55 and 64, audiences in the C2 socio-economic group and those living in England, Ofcom said.
The regulator also published its latest annual study on the diversity of the TV and radio industry and called on broadcasters to broaden the geographic and social make-up of their workforce.
Its analysis showed that TV and radio employees are around twice as likely to have grown up in a professional home compared to the UK population (58% for TV and 61 for radio versus 33%), and twice as likely to have been privately-educated (13% and 16% compared to 7%).
Ofcom also pointed out that most broadcasters’ workforces are still mostly based in London even though four-fifths of the UK population lives elsewhere. Channel 4 began its move into a new Leeds headquarters in late 2019.
Vikki Cook, Ofcom’s director of broadcasting policy, said: “We’re calling on major broadcasters to look beyond London and attract the best talent from a range of areas and backgrounds, so the programmes they make feel relevant to every part of society.”