The BBC may not be sustainable in its current form, if it fails to regain younger audiences, the communications regulator Ofcom has warned. With less than half of young people aged 16-24 watching BBC television in an average week, it risks losing a generation of potential licence-fee payers.

Nine in ten adults in the United Kingdom use the BBC in some way each week, but in 2018 they spent on average ten minutes less with the BBC each day compared to 12 months previously.

Presenting the second annual report on the BBC, Sharon White, the chief executive of Ofcom said: “The BBC is still a vital, valued part of British culture. But we’re concerned that a new generation is tuning out of its services. So the BBC must set out bolder plans to connect with younger viewers and listeners.”

Writing to Lord Hall, the director general of the BBC, she asked for a clearly articulated plan to address its concerns, to be set out by March and included as part of the annual plan for the following financial year.

In its report, Ofcom warns that if people don’t consider the BBC as a core part of their viewing, then it will be hard to encourage them to pay the licence fee in years to come, and public support for the licence fee could become eroded. “We believe this is a significant risk to the future sustainability of the BBC,” it reported. “The BBC risks a lost generation of viewers unless it can reverse this decline.”

While all public service broadcasters in the United Kingdom have lost audiences across all age groups under the age of 55, the BBC has had a greater rate of decrease than ITV among 16-24 year-old viewers, with the BBC now reaching less than half of 16-24s each week.

In 2018, those aged 16-24 watched an average 17.22 minutes of BBC television a day, compared to 19.90 minutes the previous year, or 38.47 minutes in 2010. Viewing of the main BBC One channel in this group fell to 11.95 minutes a day. Significantly, the average weekly reach among this age group fell to 48%, down from 53% the previous year, and 71% in 2010.

Those aged 25-34 watched an average of 26.95 minutes a day, down from 31.31 minutes the previous year, or 55.32 minutes in 2010. Weekly reach fell to 64% from 68%, and 83% in 2010.

Across all individuals aged over 4, viewing of BBC television channels fell below an average of an hour a day to 59.38 minutes, down from 64.08 minutes the previous year, and 80.27 minutes in 2010. Just over 40 minutes a day of that viewing was to the main BBC One channel. Three quarters of people watch the BBC in a given week, with reach falling to 75% from 77% the previous year and 86% in 2010.

In March 2019 the BBC iPlayer had 7.3 million users, up from 6.5 million the same month the year before. Of those, 914,000 were aged 18-24, barely up on 911,000 the year before. There were 1.64 million aged 25-34, up on 1.27 million the year before.

While the BBC is pushing its iPlayer as the future of television viewing, it is notable that in 2018 it was estimated to account for average viewing of just 3 minutes a day among all individuals aged over 4 and only 2.4 minutes a day among those aged 16-34. In both cases this was less than the previous year, at 3.2 and 2.5 minutes respectively.

Those aged 16-34 are actually more likely to watch BBC programming on commercial subscription video services like Netflix and Amazon than through the BBC iPlayer, although this amounts to just 4.7 minutes a day, up from 2.5 minutes the previous year.

The BBC Sounds app, launched in November 2018 with the aim of attracting a younger audience, giving access to live and on-demand radio as well as podcasts, was used by an estimated 622,000 adults in March 2019, but 85% were aged over 35.

BBC online reach has remained stable in 2018 but the amount of time spent on BBC sites fell by around 30% in a year.

Ofcom’s annual report on the BBC is available from the Ofcom web site. It provides a range of data about usage of the BBC from a variety of sources.