The queen’s death left the BBC with a difficult act of balancing. It has to act as a national broadcaster and honor the Queen while making sure it doesn’t overwhelm the audience so much that it turns off completely.
A combined TV audience of around 16 million people were tuning in across the BBC, ITV and Sky News at 6.30pm on Thursday evening when the news of the Queen’s death was officially announced.
Millions more watched the same shows via online streams, with the BBC’s iPlayer and Sounds apps struggling to keep up with demand. Many people are also likely to have learned the news from push notifications on their phones.
The challenge facing British broadcasters is that the media has changed fundamentally since the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and the Queen Mother. Back then, there were only a few television channels and it was easy to impose the same mood across the nation. Now, with endless streaming options and catchup services, it’s easy for viewers to turn to Netflix or TikTok if they get tired of TV news updates and blaring music on radio stations.
There remains a deep paranoia at the BBC that it is judged to be insufficiently respectful of the monarch, as symbolized by the fixation on the color of the tie worn by Peter Sissons to announce the Queen Mother’s death. However, it can be difficult to judge the tone and scope of coverage. The wall-to-wall coverage of Prince Philip’s death last year became the subject of the most complaints in the BBC’s history.
Different audiences around the world also have different expectations. BBC News Africa had to urges his audience to be more “respectful” after posting a tweet celebrating the Queen’s “long association” with the continent. The account was flooded with posts highlighting the negative impact of British colonialism, prompting BBC Africa to manually hide some responses.
For now, BBC One has given itself over entirely to rolling news about the accession of King Charles III and the start of the official period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, with debate continuing over how long this should continue. . Many popular shows such as EastEnders have moved to BBC Two. The Last Night of the Proms, scheduled for Saturday night, has been cancelled. Many of the company’s radio channels broadcast dark playlists with reduced conversation between songs, while Radio 1 breakfast presenter Greg James focuses on the universal idea of loss.
ITV has also continued its rolling coverage of the new monarch without commercial breaks, although its lucrative commercial status means it is more inclined to return to a regular schedule. It also suffers in comparison with the BBC, which – regardless of the quality of coverage – tends to attract the majority of TV audiences for major national events. It has already postponed the National Television Awards that were due to take place next Thursday.
Sky Sports News has been bought by Sky News, meaning people tuning in for updates on Graham Potter’s appointment as Chelsea manager were greeted with coverage of the Queen.
Channel 4 appears to have decided to embrace the role of providing counter-programming, saying it exists to offer viewers an alternative that is “particularly important at times like this”, showing programs such as Gogglebox.
All the online news sites have extremely high traffic, while print newspapers, some filled with articles written over decades, have sold out across the UK as people pick up souvenir copies.
But at the BBC, it may have been the Daily Mail’s endorsement that was greeted with a sigh of relief by director-general Tim Davie and new BBC News boss Deborah Turness. The newspaper praised the company’s “simple but captivating coverage” of the announcement. But even if the coverage of the Queen’s death was correct, the challenge may be to ensure that coverage strikes the right balance in the 10 days until her state funeral.