Here’s something I can’t get my head around.
Two of the biggest and most technically complicated television events the BBC would ever have to broadcast — the King’s Coronation and the Eurovision Song Contest — are both taking place back-to-back over an eight-day period this May.
The King’s Coronation will involve considerable outside broadcast resources to cover events at Westminster Abbey, a procession through the heart of London and an appearance by the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The Coronation will conclude on BBC One and BBC Radio 2 with a concert for the King and Queen Consort at Windsor Palace, featuring stars from across the contemporary arts. And, in a similar vein to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Concert in 2022, events will conclude with a laser and drone show.
Then, just two days later, the Eurovision Song Contest kicks off in Liverpool. Two semi-finals, broadcast on BBC One for the very first time, will conclude with the Grand Final that Saturday. Over 160 million viewers are expected to tune in. Even though the event is a collaboration with Ukraine, which is unable to host the contest because of its war with Russia, the host broadcaster will be the BBC. And even though the BBC has held the contest eight times, Eurovision has grown substantially in the last 25 years. The only two televisual events I can think of that are on a similar scale to this globally are an Olympics Opening Ceremony and the Super Bowl.
And wilder still, the BBC did not know that they would be airing the King’s Coronation and hosting the Eurovision Song Contest seven months ago. It will also be airing BBC local elections the week before, and the BAFTA Television Awards the day after.
At a first glance, it can feel that the events could not have come at a more inconvenient time for the BBC. A two-year license fee freeze imposed by former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has resulted in cuts and low morale. The BBC News Channel and World News are being merged into a new offering, resulting in redundancies in not only off-screen roles, but familiar on-screen names too. Ten BBC World Service language services are being cut, local radio shows are being axed, whilst channels such as BBC Four are being marked to move online. The BBC’s Chairman Richard Sharp is embroiled in a scandal over his role as a go-between for a loan for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And then there’s the exodus of talent, from Emily Maitlis to BBC Radio 2’s Ken Bruce, happily walking over to commercial competitors.
You would therefore think that streaming service rivals would be invincible — yet they are having a difficult year, too. The cost-of-living crisis has contributed to a fall of two million subscriptions to streaming services in the U.K., according to Kantar research. Disney+, after rapid growth, is experiencing a fall in subscribers for the very first time. Netflix, after a wobbly 2022, is set to clamp down on the number of households sharing the same account. The future is not so destined to be streaming, after all.
Traditional television broadcasters such as the BBC have proven to be surprisingly resilient in the streaming age. Netflix and others can create a global hit within hours and are armed with billions of dollars in content budgets. Yet thanks to decades of habitual watching and national reach, traditional broadcasters are able to do something that streamers cannot. They can grip an entire nation at the same time, such as the 7.5 million people who tuned in to the suspenseful finale of Sally Wainwright’s “Happy Valley” just last week.
And whilst streamers are dabbling in live events, such as Amazon Prime Video showing live sports and Netflix planning live television specials, their global scope has meant that they are not as invested in live national programming as national broadcasters are. And yet, live television is one of the best things about television. It is what drew me and many others to it in the first place. The feeling of knowing that millions of people are connecting, debating, berating and celebrating the exact same thing as you at the same time.
The Coronation and the Eurovision Song Contest are therefore two huge opportunities for the BBC to highlight its unique and central role that it plays in our lives. And yet, despite the huge complexity of broadcasts such as these, the BBC will likely choose to not make that much of a fuss about the feat of putting on either. It is so hardwired with a national modesty, probably a result of the national psyche, that it’ll carry on without a fuss.
But right now, it needs to show us their workings, and speak louder about their efforts. The upcoming decisions surrounding the license fee and its future funding will have far-reaching consequences for the future of the broadcaster. The BBC’s reliance on using viewers to point out its feats also risks being drowned out by parts of the British press with an agenda to criticize the org for lapses and errors. And its worst enemy? Apathy.
It might feel not-very-British, but the BBC needs to be boastful. If the BBC doesn’t brag more about what it does for us, we’ll only notice what role it’s had in our lives after it has gone.