Ten million Britons tuned in to watch Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on Wednesday afternoon. The ratings came during a week in which television news viewing figures reached highs not seen in decades as the nation turns to mainstream media outlets during the coronavirus panic.
The public’s desire for the latest information during prime minister’s daily press conferences are driving enormous audiences to traditional live TV news, reviving a format that had been written off in the social media age.
The importance of providing accurate information to the nation is such that BBC sources told the Guardian there were discussions over whether to classify journalists as core workers – similar to the police and healthcare staff – in order to give the children of BBC staff access to emergency childcare once schools close.
The audience for BBC One’s daily Coronavirus news special peaked at 7.1 million viewers on Wednesday afternoon as the prime minister answered questions from journalists on school closures and plans to restrict movement in London. A further 3 million watched live on the dedicated BBC News channel and Sky News. By comparison, the recent primetime return of the hit BBC drama Call the Midwife reached an average audience of 6 million, while the Brit Awards attracted 4 million viewers.
As more people begin working from home, the figures for television news are expected to keep rising even further, with viewers desperate to hear firsthand the latest information from the daily press conferences that often feature the “three amigos” – the prime minister, the chief medical, officer Chris Whitty, and the scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Traditional television news is particularly popular with older viewers who are more likely to rely on television news for information. ITV and Channel 4 News have also had enormous increases in their audiences as broadcasters take steps to mitigate the risk to staff of reporting on the story.
BBC bosses are also privately delighted with how the corporation is mobilising its resources to keep the nation informed and entertained, following a bruising few years where its news output was repeatedly accused of bias, with a belief that even viewers who distrust the corporation’s political output trust it on health matters.
There is a growing expectation that when the crisis is over the government will find it harder to press ahead with proposals to cut the BBC’s budget and reduce its scope, since the corporation has shown what can happen when thousands of staff are mobilised to keep Britons informed and entertained. The corporation is also preparing to launch daily educational programmes now that schools have closed, along with plans to produce shows that cover exercising at home and cooking with reduced supplies.
One news executive pointed out that while the public service broadcaster is showing what can be done with a universal licence fee, its commercial rival Netflix has no reporters and no role in keeping Britain updated.
Asked whether there is a risk of any BBC channels going off air, the director general, Tony Hall, told the corporation’s new daily Coronavirus podcast: “I really, really hope not. I don’t think that’s going to happen but it is possible that you may have more restricted access to television and radio than the cornucopia you’ve got at the moment. A blank screen, no. But we may have to merge various things because people get ill or have loved ones they need to look after.”
There is also growing scrutiny of how daily press conferences are conducted, given the health risk posed by journalists and key politicians gathering in the same room.
The family of Theo Usherwood, the political editor of radio station LBC and a regular at Westminster events, announced on Thursday that he has been hospitalised. He is believed to have Covid-19 after listeners noticed he had been off air for several weeks. “He is receiving the very best care from our world-leading NHS at a London hospital,” they said.