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BBC ordered to review plans for BBC Parliament

The BBC has been ordered to lay out a new strategy for BBC Parliament, following concerns that the channel could become an online-only service.

A report by the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee voiced concerns that the BBC's Director-General Lord Tony Hall could not rule out a transition of BBC Parliament to an online-only service, but welcomed a BBC statement confirming a review of the originally proposed cuts to programming on the channel.

Although the BBC ruled out an online transition for BBC Parliament within the next year, no assurances were given beyond that period.

In the summer, the BBC announced that it would cut daily and weekly summaries of proceedings in Parliament as part of its axe of all bespoke programming on the channel. It also proposed to make the channel a part-time service. Since then, the BBC has signalled a U-turn on the proposed cuts to content.

But, according to the Committee, the BBC’s "unwillingness" to commit to safeguarding the broadcast channel beyond the coming year "is troubling". It noted that more than 60% of BBC Parliament’s viewers are over 55, and said it was "deeply concerned that any move towards an online channel would cause a significant number of people to be disconnected from access to Parliament." It accused the BBC of having "little detailed information about the channel".

As a result, the BBC has been ordered to establish a working group containing representatives from Parliament. The group has been instructed to provide more detailed information on the viewing figures and projected saving scenarios. The Committee has ordered the work to be completed by the end of the calendar year, giving the working group just two months.

Cuts to BBC Parliament have been driven by a need for BBC News to save £80 million. The Committee's report noted that Parliament provides BBC Parliament and all other media with broadcast coverage from all chambers and committees, paying for cameras, microphones and operational staff. The BBC tends to lead subsequent coverage, both editorially and financially. Once a decision has been made by the BBC (for example, to cover a select committee session), UK and international media tend to follow, and the fee charged by Parliament is shared among all interested parties. Over the past year, the Committee reported, only one other media organisation (Bloomberg) on one occasion paid for coverage of a select committee.

The threat to move BBC Parliament online comes after the BBC downgraded its previous online parliamentary service Democracy Live. Launched in 2009, it promised to offer "live and on-demand video coverage of the UK's national political institutions and the European Parliament, backed by innovative search technology to allow people to follow political debates and developments around the areas and issues that matter to them most." It was quietly wound down, with the remnants now found on the main BBC Parliament website.

a516digital editor Mike Manning

The last BBC service to go online-only also faced cuts before the axe from linear TV services. BBC Three's last two years on linear TV were dominated by ever increasing repeats of the same programmes and films and a transfer of some traditional BBC Three content to other services (e.g. Family Guy's trial on BBC Two before being poached by ITV2 & Don't Tell the Bride to BBC One, before being transferred to Sky 1 and then E4). It appears the BBC hadn't ruled out the option for BBC Parliament to follow the same process of cuts to programming before moving what was left of the service online.

However, BBC management appears to be justifying keeping options for an online transition open, after all, it expects the BBC to move to an all-IP future beyond the current Charter period, whereby all content will be delivered in an online environment instead of via traditional TV platforms. However, there is a big difference between maintaining a service which looks and feels like a regular TV channel via IP-based platforms and deconstructing a channel, replacing it with clips, on-demand content and part-time live streams, gradually becoming embedded in the overall look, feel and branding of the BBC website - look at the remnants of BBC Three or BBC Sport's extra content on iPlayer, connected red button and website for examples.