The BBC has a “poor people” problem

The broadcaster is obsessed with trying to reach an audience it doesn’t understand

Artillery Row

For the short time I spent trying to get a documentary commissioned at the BBC, there was a post-it note stuck to my laptop with two words: Boots Girl. This was the morsel, the crumb of insight that had been given to us by a current affairs commissioner at BBC3 to signal the new audience the channel was keen to attract.

What did “Boots Girl” mean? Was it a reference to the first job of top reporting talent at the time, Stacey Dooley? Well, yes, but surely it wasn’t to be taken that literally. Boots Girl had to have attributes other than working in a chain pharmacy. Presumably she lived outside of London, had not gone to university. Perhaps she was even curious about the world?

It was no surprise that last week the corporation announced it would aim to produce “lighter” TV content aimed at a “C2DE audience” (marketing speak for “poor people”). This concern has been rumbling away in and around the broadcaster for years. The reaction was obvious, if not understandable. The day after the news, the Guardian ran a voyeuristic review on BBC3’s latest effort, whose set piece saw model Cara Delevigne visiting “the masturbation wing” in an orgasm research lab in Germany. How much lighter can the BBC go?

For nigh on a decade, the BBC has been privately worrying about those who don’t tune in. As Roger Mosey points out in his Spectator piece, this is an increasingly bizarre concern. The channel still reaches up to 80 per cent of the population in any given week and often does far better than its competitors in attracting a “C2DE” audience.

Even in the coverage of the announcement, no one was quite sure who this lost “C2DE” audience really was. The Guardian assumed the focus would be an attempt to reach a younger audience (who generally consume less legacy Media anyway). A closer look at the Ofcom report described the “lower socio economic groups” the BBC wasn’t reaching as “older, unemployed and retired on a state pension”.

Boots Girl was the corporation’s paranoia about its future

Young? Old? Poor? The confusion is no surprise. It was never really clear what Boots Girl wanted either. Sex trafficking in Europe? Too depressing. A documentary on what “populism” is? Too complicated. Of course, Boots Girl didn’t really exist. She was the corporation’s paranoia about its future, anthropomorphised into the palatable image of a young retail worker. Boots Girl may have been “Robert Dyas Man”. A mixture of anxiety over the Brexit referendum result, and the rising non-payment of the licence fee, combined with the increasingly unfounded fear that the channel faced an oblivion of irrelevance in the digital age.

Why does this obsession persist? A common trope of people who work at the BBC, and indeed television at large, is that they are card-carrying members of the “metropolitan liberal elite”. This is partly true, but it ignores a much more interesting psychology: those who work in the industry are obsessed with trying to understand and speak to people who are not like them. This usually means people who voted for Brexit, encounter London when their team is playing away, and think Soho House sounds like a brothel.

Particularly since 2016, this endeavour to understand this section of the country has seen no shortage of content and documentaries. Most have failed. The Mighty Redcar, a well-made documentary set in the Yorkshire coastal town, was regarded during my time in TV as the gold standard in how to reach the parents of Boots Girl. Despite being one of the broadcaster’s first serious forays into Brexitland, the programme virtually ignored anything that might have explained why 66 per cent of the town chose to vote Leave. It shed 200,000 viewers after its first episode.

Looking at the breakdown of data on “C2DEs” in the Ofcom report gives a more specific picture of how the BBC is failing to reach this audience. The difference between the reach for BBC television between the “affluent” and “poor” is nonexistent — a mere percentage point. By contrast with Iplayer, BBC Sounds and the News Homepage (a stronger crystallisation of its worldview), there is half the difference between the two groups, with just a 30 per cent reach for the “DEs” (four per cent for BBC Sounds) This is what is giving the BBC leadership sleepless nights — the failure of its “digital first” strategy to reach this audience.

Attempting to breach this gap on its digital platforms with “lighter content” in drama, sports and entertainment is indeed bizarre. For a BBC management that regards itself incapable of doing the right thing, it is probably considered the safest, if not the only option, to fulfil its elusive goal of truly representing everyone in Britain. This “dumbing down” option has largely been brought about by a culture of self-flagellation amongst its management driven by an ongoing obsession with “representation” and “diversity”. Before this year’s Ofcom report came the Diversity Commission Report — which had nothing to say, given it found the BBC does a very good job of representing “minorities”. This didn’t stop it from fizzling out into a set of Tim Chapmanesque commitments about continuing to have “difficult conversations” and “sharing data” with suppliers.

The BBC has lost its sense of purpose

In turning itself into a giant human resources department with a studio, the BBC has lost its sense of purpose. It is neither bold nor brave enough to represent the variety of voices now found in the country. It’s very hard to see creativity flourish, or indeed true diversity for that matter, when managerial edicts (based on false understandings of how to represent the country) are destined to meddle with whatever idea lands in the commissioners tray. This descent into a pathetic carnival of light entertainment, sport and drama is a sad fate for a broadcaster that still employs some talented people. Ironically, one worldview that does emerge from all of this is an increasingly strange, tick box attempt to appear to please everyone.

A recent BBC Sports promo for its World Cup coverage gave a particularly potent microcosm of this. Fat working class bloke? Yeah, but pop him in a Brazil shirt so he doesn’t look like a member of the EDL. Ethnic minority? Yeah, but have her being mansplained football by the fat bloke so the interaction seems plausible. At times, the corporation’s efforts to represent modern Britain end up so painfully contrived and patronising, it’s as if the BNP were seizing power and making bad satire about multiculturalism.

Reading the Ofcom report, it is interesting to note that the channel does tend to do well with an “older” audience outside of London. The small but loyal demographic of its audience is arguably a more concrete definition of the BBC’s lost audience. Instead of calling it “Boots Girl” or falling back on marketing terms, they might as well come out and write the white paper they really want to produce: how to win back the GB News viewer.

It wouldn’t make for a particularly long document. A better report would be how the broadcaster can use its licence fee mandate to become a platform for enabling a real diversity of voices, opinions and programmes found in the country, rather than a homogenous inconsequential blob of light entertainment with a Guardian-lite newsdesk. To succeed in doing this would evaporate the whole mystique of the culture wars. People shouldn’t have to put themselves through a Dan Wootton monologue to find out what a majority of the country thinks about the scale of immigration since 2016.

If the BBC does want to go down the “light” route, then it will increasingly risk becoming the precise opposite of what its worldview rightly strives for: elitist, patronising, out of touch. Just plain embarrassing. This whole affair has finally made me realise what Boots Girl really wants. Like the rest of us, she probably likes a bit of rubbish now and then, but also relevant journalism and the odd documentary that tries to explain the world. A good joke. Those staples of broadcasting the BBC used to define so well. If Boots Girl or indeed any of us lose sight of wanting that, the BBC should always be there to persuade us otherwise.

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