Belfast Telegraph

Spending on new BBC NI shows at its lowest in six years, says report

By Adrian Rutherford

BBC Northern Ireland's spend on new content has fallen to its lowest level for six years, a report reveals today.

Expenditure on programming dropped to £22.1m in 2017, the smallest outlay since 2012. The broadcaster's news output and the number of hours of original content has also declined, according to industry regulator Ofcom.

It follows a UK-wide trend, with spending on new, UK-made TV shows by public service broadcasters at a record low.

The figures emerge in Ofcom's Media Nations: Northern Ireland 2018 report, which looks at trends in the television, radio and audio sectors.

It also reveals major changes in how Northern Ireland people watch TV.

Broadcast viewing is down by almost an hour per day since 2010, with viewers more inclined to watch content online.

One of the report's main findings is a decline in spending on original content.

In 2017, the BBC and UTV spent a combined £28.6m on first-run, UK-made programmes for viewers in Northern Ireland, an 11% real-terms decrease year-on-year. This drop was driven by the BBC, which reduced its annual programming spend by 14%, with UTV's spend down by 1%.

Ofcom's report states the BBC's real-terms spend was down by £3.5m (13.6%) year on year to £22.1m, the lowest figure since 2012.

UTV's spend on first-run UK originations declined by 0.9% in real terms to £6.4m.

There was a 7.4% fall in the number of first-run UK-originated hours shown across BBC NI in 2017.

News output at BBC NI fell by 8.8% to 331 hours and was at its lowest level since 2006, although the BBC cited the absence of Stormont as a major factor.

Across the UK, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 spent a combined £2.5bn on original UK-made programmes in 2017.

This is £1bn (28%) less than the 2004 peak of £3.4bn.

A spokesperson for BBC NI said: "The apparent decrease in spend on BBC programming in Northern Ireland is due to changes in the way overheads are allocated to in-house content. Our underlying direct programme spend, net of overheads, was stable year on year.

"In 2017 the BBC announced additional investment of £11m into Northern Ireland content over a three-year period."

On its news coverage, he noted that BBC Newsline's programme during Storm Ophelia last October was the second most-watched show of 2017.

"The 8.8% decrease in hours of news output in 2017 is largely down to the fact that the BBC has been unable to broadcast its regular Stormont Today programme since early 2017 due to the absence of a sitting Assembly at Stormont," he added.

"The year 2016 was a particularly heavy one for non-news and non-current affairs content and the 184 hours broadcast in 2017 far exceeded those broadcast in 2014 and 2015."

A UTV spokesperson said: "UTV continues to invest in, and is committed to, producing high quality news, current affairs and non-news programmes for its viewers."

The other main finding from today's report is a shift in viewing habits, with fewer people watching TV in the traditional sense.

In 2017, viewers in Northern Ireland spent a daily average of three hours and 18 minutes watching broadcast television on the TV set, falling below the UK average for the first time.

This is 17 minutes less per day than in 2016 - the biggest year-on-year decline in TV viewing of all the UK nations - and is down 52 minutes since 2010.

The decline is steeper among children and viewers aged 16 to 34 in Northern Ireland, whose broadcast television viewing on the TV set has declined rapidly in recent years.

Although people here are watching less broadcast television, they are spending more time watching other things on their TV set.

Daily viewing of non-broadcast content, such as YouTube and subscription on-demand services including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, increased by six minutes in 2017, to 37 minutes.

More than half of adults in Northern Ireland (55%) now claim to use online streaming services. Among these, Netflix was the most popular (29%), followed by the BBC iPlayer (22%) and YouTube (14%).

Jonathan Rose, director of Ofcom Northern Ireland, said: "Today's research shows that the way people in Northern Ireland watch TV is changing rapidly.

"Viewers are spending less time watching 'traditional' broadcast TV, particularly younger audiences whose viewing time has halved. Instead, they are increasingly turning to online streaming services, attracted by their exclusive programmes and vast libraries of classic shows."

Mr Rose said broadcasters in Northern Ireland must face "head-on" the challenges posed by both online competitors and the changing way people are watching television.

The report found 39% of homes here have a satellite dish.

Some 93% of adults listen to the radio every week. A total of 52 radio stations were broadcasting in DAB (digital audio broadcasting) format. Ownership of DAB sets is increasing (up from 38% to 50%) but remains lower than other UK regions.

The report also found 69% of regular viewers of public service viewers were satisfied with its coverage last year.

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