Ofcom report 'may mean BBC NI slashes regional output in half'

Under new plans from regulator Ofcom, local programming by the BBC in Northern Ireland could potentially be cut in half which media analysts fear "will impact the regional media for the next decade"
Gary McDonald Business Editor

PLANS published by regulator Ofcom for a new and modernised BBC operating licence “risk slashing local programming in Northern Ireland by half and potentially wiping out the region’s independent sector”, it has been claimed.

Among various changes due to come into force on April 1, the new licence will for the first time put requirements on BBC iPlayer, BBC sounds and the BBC website.

Media insiders believe the changes could potentially remove much local portrayal from the channel and “will impact the Northern Ireland regional media for the next decade”.

And the fear is that if local programming is ultimately to be slashed, there will be a significant impact on jobs at BBC NI, which employs a total of around 600 staff.

The BBC has already announced cost-saving measures which include the axing of Radio Foyle’s morning news programme and a significant headcount reduction in the newsroom in the north west.

Ofcom, in a hugely detailed 174-page report, says that with UK households paying a combined £3.8 billion in licence fees in 2022, it remains critical that the broadcaster serves all audiences and continues to provide a wide range of high-quality content.

The licence retains strict regulatory safeguards to maintain high-quality news and current affairs, to preserve the distinctiveness of the BBC’s radio services, and to protect original UK programmes.

Ofcom says quotas also ensure that the BBC commissions a minimum amount of content outside London and in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But one regional media executive told The Irish News that he believes the quotas fundamentally allow the BBC to drop around 50 per cent of programming for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and replace a very small proportion of them with programming made in the nations for a UK-wide audience.

Ofcom says the nations’ quotas will be retained, but this is only partially correct. 

Nations quotas for network production are retained, but the quota for in-region/opt-out has not, and there is now a quota for opt-out services for the whole of the UK, not for each nation.

The BBC wants to reduce the annual quota from 557 hours in peak to 200, and in off-peak it will come down from 179 hours to 150. That’s a total of 386 lost hours – more than an hour every day.

But the majority of these hours are in the nations like Northern Ireland, and not the English regions, so the impact is disproportionate.

In a 14-page response to the Ofcom report, its Northern Ireland advisory committee said the reality is that the BBC currently hugely over-delivers against these quotas – so if they go from the current level to the new permitted level, it’s a more than 60 per cent reduction.

This new level is now lower than the quota for the ITV regions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

So with the licences being up for renewal, it gives ITV/STV/UTV a strong argument to reduce their commitment, meaning ever more eroding regional production bases.

In a separate response submission, Voice of Viewer and Listener says: “We strongly oppose the proposal to remove quotas for non-news programming for the nations and regions that apply to the BBC’s opt-out services. 

“We also oppose the proposal to remove quotas for non-news, non-current affairs on the opt-out services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

The senior media executive who spoke to The Irish News on guarantee of anonymity (he has worked in regional production for most of his career) said: “This is without a doubt the most worrying change in regional television ever implemented by a broadcast regulator.

“While the financial difficulties facing the BBC are well known, the programming that will be lost is the very programming that keeps the BBC and its audience close.

“It features their towns, their villages and their neighbours. It’s also relatively low cost, high impact programmes.

“Ofcom and the BBC have agreed to this change with minimal consultation – and that consultation has been with the industry rather than the audience.

“This could be the start of the end of truly regional indie producers and those really special local programmes that only work in the regions where they are made.”

He added: “The BBC now wants programming that can be used on the iPlayer nationwide, and as we have seen with the decisions regarding local radio, the nations and the region’s programmes are of little interest or importance to the BBC’s most senior management.”