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BBC local news is vital – and never more than during a pandemic

BBC local news is vital – and never more than during a pandemic
3 min read

The biggest show on TV isn’t what you might expect. Regional TV news doesn’t get talked about on Twitter as much as Love Island, but it beats it in terms of viewers. Good Morning Britain grabs headlines, at least it did before its best-known presenter left. But regional news is watched by far more people than GMB, with or without Piers Morgan.

The regional news bulletins at 6:30pm on BBC One collectively have long been the most watched news programme on TV. But throughout the pandemic, the 6:30pm regional news slot regularly attracted more viewers than any programme on any channel. 

With TV audiences fragmenting, and traditional telly habits changing, the ratings for the likes of Look North have proved not just resilient but remarkably robust. Combined figures for the 6:30pm slot average out at well over four million viewers; often passing five million at the height of the pandemic. Outside of sport, very few shows can beat us.     

Offering trusted news in a familiar, accessible manner, the regional news bulletins have kept viewers informed about everything from local lockdowns, regional Covid rates, and those uplifting stories about communities coming together. 

Covid has been a global event but its impact is felt close to home; it’s a story of local restrictions, hospital pressures, school closures, neighbours looking out for one another. At a time of national crisis, viewers have turned to the likes of Spotlight, Points West, and South Today for an explanation of what is happening where they live. The truth is the BBC’s regional services have never mattered more to audiences. 

This might be news to some but it certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed in Westminster. Privately, senior figures in all parties tell us how much they value getting their spokespeople on regional bulletins. There are few better ways of reaching voters. 

Not that politicians can expect an easy ride; the BBC’s regional journalists are experts at holding the powerful to account and come with a local knowledge that can catch out an unprepared national politician. 

Away from the 6:30pm bulletin, the BBC broadcasts the only weekly regional political programme on TV in England, with 11 regional versions of our political show aired each Sunday. We have 12 political editors working on regional TV and a further 43 political reporters working across England on local radio. And in the other Nations, we offer extensive coverage of the national parliaments as well as Westminster. In short, we’ve got politics covered. 

The pandemic, with people confined to their homes for much of the last 18 months, has been a boom for streaming services. And the global giants such as Amazon, Netflix, and Disney do many things brilliantly but they don’t, and won’t, make North West Tonight. 

We’re proud of our local and regional services and proud of the role they have played helping the country cope in these trying times. And regional TV news isn’t our only service that’s seen growth through COVID. Almost 20 million users access our local online news services each week – up almost a third. And more than five million people have got in touch with their local BBC radio stations across England as part of our “Make A Difference” campaign, which has provided free laptops for children being home-schooled, given the elderly free digital radios, and helped hundreds of people find work through a jobs scheme. 

My job now is to make sure the strength and relevance of the BBC’s local and regional services is sustained and grown. Last year we took some difficult decisions to make savings as part of a wider effort to meet the BBC’s financial challenge. Now though our attention is turning to what we can do to secure the ongoing success of our regional TV services, build the impact of our local radio service and ensure our local online content delivers a valuable daily service to millions.  Because, now more than ever, local matters.

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