With many people confined to their homes by coronavirus measures, some will see it as an opportunity to explore large libraries of online video programmes. Yet it is at times of crisis that the value of public service broadcasting comes to the fore. While drama offers a distraction, direct address television provides companionship. The BBC is doubling down on its mission to inform, educate and entertain.
Lord Hall, the director general of the BBC, said “the BBC will be using all of its resources — channels, stations and output — to help keep the nation informed, educated and entertained.”
The BBC says it will do everything it can to maintain Breakfast and the One, Six and Ten news bulletins. It will also maintain the Newsround bulletin for younger viewers and delay the planned closure of the Red Button text news and information service. There will be a daily Coronavirus podcast and a weekly Coronavirus special in prime time on Wednesdays. Question Time will move to an earlier slot on Thursdays, with call-in audiences and remote guests.
With schools closed, the BBC is planning a daily educational programme for different key stages or year groups, as well as a block of programming to support the GCSE and A Level curriculum, available through the Red Button and on demand on BBC iPlayer. There will be more educational programming on iPlayer and two daily educational podcasts for BBC sounds.
In terms of entertainment, the BBC will be boosting box sets and launching a new iPlayer experience for children. However, production on all BBC Studios continuing dramas will be postponed until further notice. That means EastEnders will be cut from four episodes a week to two. The show is shot around six weeks in advance, so this will allow it to stay on air for up to three months. There will be no production on the medical dramas Casualty, Holby City or Doctors. Production of the radio 4 drama serial The Archers has also been suspended.
The BBC board has also decided to delay the removal of free television licences for some people aged over 75 until August, recognising that it would be inappropriate and unpopular to introduce this change at a difficult time for older viewers.
The BBC can be at its best at times of crisis and the coronavirus pandemic will focus on its mission to inform, educate and entertain the nation.
The importance of direct address television, with people talking directly to viewers, should not be underestimated when many viewers will be otherwise socially isolated.
Over 7 million people watched the daily Coronovairus news special on BBC One on Wednesday, as the prime minister announced school closures. A further 3 million watched on the BBBC News channel and on Sky News.
With more people working from home, viewing figures for television news are expected to rise.
While many people will be taking the opportunity to spend more time with Netflix, Amazon and soon Disney, the role of public service broadcasting in providing information, education and entertainment to bring together the country at a time of crisis will come to the fore.
This will be a key opportunity for the BBC to demonstrate its public value, however that may be funded in the future.