The BBC has cut its original arts programming by half in the past decade, as the corporation fills its schedule with repeats and focuses on “high impact” entertainment.
In 2010, the BBC broadcast 305 hours of original shows about the arts. By 2020, that figure had fallen to 154 hours, according to new figures published by Ofcom.
History programming dropped by more than a quarter, from 814 hours to 595. Comedy saw an even greater decline, from 225 hours in 2010 to 102 hours last year. Music programmes fell most sharply, from 239 hours to 93 hours. And in 2020, there were only 437 hours of original children’s shows, down from 705 hours in 2010.
In these genres – all categorised by Ofcom as “at risk” – 89 per cent of programmes shown on the BBC’s television channels were repeats.
Ofcom warned that this percentage could increase even further following the corporation’s move to turn BBC Four into a repeats channel.
Focus on ‘high-impact content’
The figures appeared in Ofcom’s annual review of the BBC. The regulator noted that the strategy of Tim Davie, the director-general, is to focus on “high-impact content” – meaning shows that can bring the nation together in high numbers. This is unlikely to include arts and history documentaries.
The BBC said “at risk” genres make up 54 per cent of BBC television hours, more than its competitors.
Publication of the report comes a week after the BBC’s arts commissioning editor said the corporation must make “TV that people want to watch”, rather than “esoteric arts chat”.
Mark Bell said his job was to “find things that will play at 8pm and appeal to all sorts of broader audiences”.
A decade ago, the BBC broadcast arts programmes such as The Culture Show. BBC Four was also the home of original documentaries.
BBC Two's Between the Covers book show
Credit: Nick Millward
BBC Two’s current arts programming includes Between the Covers, a book show hosted by Sara Cox in which comedians and actors discuss their favourite reads.
Concern over BBC’s impartiality
Elsewhere in the report, Ofcom said that audiences “consistently rate the BBC less favourably for impartiality” than they do on any other measure.
Ofcom said the corporation has a good record of complying with impartiality rules – but many viewers and listeners do not believe that to be the case.
The report said: “Some audiences tended to base their perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality on what they think about the BBC more generally.
“For example, in our qualitative research, we heard that views were influenced by the BBC brand, its funding mechanism and its portrayal in the wider media.”
The research found that only 55 per cent of BBC television news viewers rate it very highly. For listeners to BBC radio news and users of the BBC website, that figure was 61 per cent and 65 per cent respectively.
Ofcom was also critical of the BBC’s lack of transparency over its complaint process.
The corporation publishes details of upheld or resolved decisions in the complaints process, but does not give details of complaints that it has rejected.
Ofcom said: “Given the importance of the BBC to many people in the UK, we have consistently called for the BBC to be more transparent. For instance, in how it explains its decision to the public.”
A BBC spokesman said: “We are pleased Ofcom recognises the BBC continues to deliver on its remit through its popularity with audiences, offering a wide range of programming, investing heavily in the UK creative sector and providing trusted news.
“The report is clear that more people consider the BBC to be impartial than any other broadcaster.”