Government said to be considering BBC and ITV ‘ratings war ban’ – what does this mean for TV’s top shows?

Reports claim the government is looking at how to avoid scheduling clashes between the BBC and commercial rivals. What would be the consequences?

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Sunday’s front pages are plastered with stories suggesting the government is about to impose much greater restrictions on when the BBC can schedule its favourite shows.

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Prime time and popular shows from Strictly Come Dancing to Poldark could be affected by the proposed changes, which could be put in place after ITV criticised the publicly funded BBC for chasing ratings against a commercial rival.

What exactly is being proposed?

According to reports, culture secretary John Whittingdale is said to be looking at new proposals to prevent the BBC from scheduling shows directly against commercial rivals.

The Sunday Times reports that a government report into the future of the BBC, set to be published this May, will claim that the corporation has been too “aggressive” in its search for ratings, particularly at weekends.

The Sunday Telegraph adds that the culture secretary is considering a “crackdown on competitive scheduling”, while the Mail on Sunday claims that “the BBC will be barred from showing Strictly Come Dancing in a prime Saturday slot”.

However, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport responded to these reports, with a DCMS spokesperson saying that the “Government will be setting out its plan on the BBC Charter in a White Paper in May.”

“The Secretary of State has made it clear on a number of occasions that the government cannot and indeed should not, determine either the content or scheduling of programmes,” the spokesperson added.

So what is the issue?

Last year, ITV reacted strongly to the BBC’s decision to schedule some of Strictly Come Dancing directly against The X Factor. Peter Fincham, ITV’s then-director of programmes, said that the BBC was engaging in “avoidable clash[es]” with its commercial rival, although the BBC denied this.

The X Factor was down on viewers last year, although many have argued that this had little to do with scheduling clashes with Strictly.

It’s not just The X Factor: ITV and the BBC also go head to head for the News at Ten, and Whittingdale has publicly questioned whether it is “sensible” for the two organisations to broadcast their news programmes at the same time. 

As for drama, last year ITV challenged the decision for the BBC to schedule Silent Witness against series two of Broadchurch, while at Christmas Call the Midwife ended up broadcasting at the same time as the final episode of Downton Abbey.

Multiple reports this Sunday suggested that the government’s White Paper would attempt to respond to some of these questions.

However, the BBC has since pointed out that an independent report into so-called ‘competitive scheduling’ commissioned by the government concluded there was “little impact” in BBC and ITV putting dramas on at the same time.

With regards to other types of programmes, the report found that having entertainment programmes on at the same time did not have a “statistically significant” effect on ITV’s audience.

What could happen as a result?

Television regulators could be given extra powers to assess whether there is competitive scheduling taking place, according to The Sunday Times. ITV could complain if they felt their viewing figures were being deliberately harmed.

None of this is yet confirmed. We will have to wait and see what the White Paper says when it is published – the same consultation, incidentally, which failed to consider the views of 6,000 Radio Times readers.

Why is this a problem for the BBC?

There are, and always have been, traditional slots in the schedules that suit particular shows. A post-watershed 9pm time suits racy dramas such as Poldark or Mr Selfridge, while a weekend early evening slot is tailor-made for shiny floor entertainment shows such as Strictly or X Factor.

And while the BBC does not have to rely on pulling in viewers in order to boost advertising revenue like ITV, TV ratings are just as important for the public service broadcaster.

The BBC has to show it can serve the many and varied interests of all its licence fee payers. A show such as Strictly arguably would not have become the family hit it is if it wasn’t allowed to be broadcast at peak times. These mass market shows are made as part of the balance the corporation strikes between ratings hits and more traditional ‘public service broadcasting’, which may not bring in the big numbers but are still key to what the BBC should be.

There is a case for questioning scheduling decisions that do not serve viewers, such as putting two similar crime dramas on in the same midweek slot. However, catch-up TV and recording functions make this far less of a problem now.

There is a further issue. If the BBC loses viewers because it is placed under scheduling restrictions, then you could reasonably question whether its shows are missing the mark and failing to offer value for money. In that situation, arguments against the licence fee model would grow.

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There is also a wider debate surrounding whether government should be concerned with an individual broadcaster’s scheduling decisions. As the DCMS statement above makes plain, “the government cannot and indeed should not determine either the content or scheduling of programmes.”