A Closer Look – Ofcom’s Study on Working-Class Audiences and BBC Programming

In research published on Thursday 30th November, Ofcom has looked at into the viewing habits and preferences of working-class audiences in the UK, offering insights into their relationship with the BBC. The term “working class” in the context of Ofcom’s report is defined in relation to socio-economic groups. Specifically, Ofcom’s research has focused on people in lower socio-economic groups, which they note account for almost a quarter of the UK population. This social grouping was the primary focus for a set of in-depth review to understand the levels of satisfaction with the BBC working-class people have, and what the media consumption habits of working-class people are.

The research was commissioned by Ofcom to assess the BBC’s performance with working-class audiences involved several key components:

  • In-Depth Review and New Research: Ofcom carried out a review to understand the lower satisfaction levels among audiences in socio-economic groups D and E, often referred to as lower socio-economic or working-class groups. This review included conducting new research with these specific audience groups.
  • Methodology: The approach involved in-depth interviews and focus groups across the UK, which Ofcom state allowed for a ‘detailed’ and ‘nuanced’ understanding of the opinions and preferences of this specific demographic. Additionally, further analysis was conducted on the extensive information and data already collected in relation to the BBC.
  • Engagement with Stakeholders: Ofcom actively engaged with industry and academic stakeholders. This included meetings with the BBC’s strategy, policy, research, and commissioning teams, as well as organisations representing the audience groups in question. Such engagement likely provided a broader perspective and additional insights into the challenges and potential solutions.
  • Findings and Recommendations: The research findings indicated that working-class audiences felt the BBC’s programming was too dry and serious compared to other services, with many turning to social media and podcasts for content that more authentically related to their real-life experiences. The participants also expressed a preference for streaming services, citing their hyper-personalised content libraries. Additionally, there was a perception of little representation of “normal, working-class lives” on the BBC, with portrayals often seen as stereotypical or tokenistic. The study recommended that the BBC take greater risks in producing new content and make audiences more aware of the variety of programmes available.

Ofcom has an obligation to understand and address the specific media consumption needs and preferences of all audiences in the UK, and has recognised that the working-class audience has been less well served by changes in strategy as the BBC moves to be a ‘digital first’ organisation. The study’s insights and recommendations provide useful guidance for the BBC and other broadcasters and media providers as they seek to better serve and connect with this significant portion of its audience.

Ofcom categorises working-class audiences as those in socio-economic groups D and E, a segment comprising roughly a quarter of the UK population. This group is generally older, and may include unemployed individuals, those with disabilities, or retirees with only a state pension. Ofcom conducted a survey focusing on the BBC’s performance with working-class audiences. The findings revealed several significant insights, indicating that working-class audiences have a:

  • Desire for Riskier Content: Working-class audiences expressed a desire for the BBC to take more risks when producing new programmes. This suggestion is seen as a way for the BBC to better reconnect with viewers and listeners from lower-income backgrounds.
  • Perception of Being Overly Politically Correct: The survey found a notable perception among working-class audiences that the BBC is too politically correct. This viewpoint is reflected in the overall sentiment of these audiences towards the BBC.
  • Watching Habits and Importance of the BBC: Working-class audiences were reported to watch more television on average compared to middle-class viewers – approximately 3 hours and 44 minutes a day. Despite any criticisms, the BBC remains a significant part of their media consumption, accounting for about 26% of their viewing time.
  • Comparative Positive Opinion: The survey highlighted a concern regarding the positive opinion of the BBC among working-class and lower-income households. Only 55% of this social group have a positive opinion of the BBC, compared to 67% among middle-class professionals.

These insights suggest that while the BBC is a key component in the media habits of working-class audiences, there is a clear need for the broadcaster to adapt its content and approach to better align with the preferences and perceptions of these audiences. The call for riskier and less politically correct content indicates a desire for more diverse and possibly more relatable programming for working-class viewers.

The study found that working-class audiences watch an average of three hours and forty-four minutes of television daily, more than middle-class viewers. However, the BBC accounts for only about twenty-six per cent of this viewing time, indicating a gap between what is watched and what the BBC offers.

The research suggested that many working-class viewers perceive the BBC’s programming as overly serious. Participants often found content that they felt more closely mirrored their experiences on other platforms, like social media and podcasts. Many felt that the BBC’s representation of working-class lives, often resorts to stereotypes, and did not reflect the reality of the community experiences of people from working-class backgrounds.

With the rise in the appeal of streaming services, working-class audiences are drawn to the personalised content and convenience of streaming options if they have affordable access. These platforms, along with social media, are perceived as offering more engaging and varied content.

The BBC retains a continued connection between working-class audiences and its output, but this is largely found in significant events and certain popular programmes, though there is a sense that the broadcaster could diversify beyond its established programmes. The expectation is that the BBC can take more risks in content production, and to actively promote its variety of programmes. The study suggests that the BBC’s strong association with classic programming might lead newer content to be overlooked.

Ofcom recommends that the BBC reassess its content strategy to better meet the preferences of working-class audiences. The BBC has begun commissioning content aimed at these audiences and is advised to monitor its effectiveness. The findings from Ofcom’s research highlight the importance of the BBC considering its approach to programming and representation. With changing media habits, the broadcaster has an opportunity to adapt and offer content that resonates more broadly across different segments of the population. This review of Ofcom’s study provides a straightforward overview of the current state of the BBC’s relationship with its working-class audience. Understanding these dynamics is essential for the BBC to remain relevant and responsive to all its viewers.

The operational and management processes of the BBC currently maintain a significant distance from working-class individuals. The process of commissioning content is largely detached from local community input and does not undergo a consent-based approval mechanism. This is largely due to the prevailing view within the BBC that the editorial process is a ‘privilege’ exclusive to the managers and producers of its programmes and content. Consequently, this approach potentially overlooks the diverse perspectives and needs of working-class audiences, impacting the relevance and inclusivity of the BBC’s offerings.

For the BBC to serve working-class audiences more effectively and for Ofcom to regulate this content appropriately, it is crucial to involve working-class individuals directly in the governance, management, and production of content. Merely being recipients is not enough. The current structure of the BBC, centred around centralised executive management, may hinder its ability to genuinely connect with this demographic. Adopting community engagement and development processes, where working-class audiences, along with other groups, are brought in as co-creators and co-producers, could transform the BBC’s output. This approach would enrich the content and ensure it resonates more authentically with a wider range of viewers, fostering a more inclusive and representative media landscape.

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