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Changes to BBC Local Radio: Implications for Rugby League

Introduction

The Rugby Football League (RFL) is the governing body for Rugby League in the UK and Ireland, representing the northern hemisphere’s premier Rugby League competitions and tournaments, thousands of community teams, semi-professional clubs, players, volunteers, fans.

As there are apparently two very similar consultations taking place at the same time, we have decided to amalgamate our response into one document to be submitted to both consultations

The RFL response to BBC consultation

1.  Which BBC Local Radio station do you listen to?

There are active Rugby League participants throughout the UK.  This response applies to all, but there is particular focus on output from BBC Radio Cumbria, Manchester, London, Merseyside, Humberside, Leeds, Sheffield, Wales and York.  BBC Local Radio stations in these regions provide significant coverage of Rugby League each week.

2. What do you think about the proposed changes to BBC Local Radio as outlined in the future strategy?


The RFL is deeply concerned with two of the proposed changes which, if adopted, will virtually wipe out local coverage Rugby League and also almost every other sport. By moving to a network programme between 7 and 10 each evening, all Rugby League magazine-type programmes will be affected as they all take place during this time period or adjacent to it. These programmes are amongst the most listened to of all BBC Local Radio output.

Our concerns are:
o These programmes provide outstanding content for the listeners. For example, Radio Manchester’s Rugby League Extra programme  received the Gold Award in the Gillard BBC Local Radio Awards 2011;
o These programmes provide listeners at local level with the opportunity to speak directly to and hold to account, local, regional and national figures within the sport. This represents a unique opportunity for listeners which once removed, will be difficult to replace;
o For this reason, these programmes generate the most listener feedback of all their output (based on information received from BBC Local Radio stations); and

One of the BBC core objectives is to promote and reflect the distinctiveness of regions. There is no better way to achieve this aim than through promoting and reflecting the sporting initiative and prowess of regional and local sport.
The proposal to close down AM programmes will remove from a show’s  producer the ability to broadcast more than one aspect of local sport. There are many regions where there will be different major sporting output taking place simultaneously. For example, Premier League football takes place at the same time as Super League matches. Currently, both be heard using the AM and FM transmitter, but if the proposals are implemented, sports producers will be forced into a choice thus depriving a large group of listeners.
We note the commitment to live sports coverage.  However, there is concern amongst fans of sport that a move toward rationalisation of commentary teams will drastically reduce the opportunity to hear coverage of local and regional sports teams and whilst this may appear to represent an opportunity for cost saving, the importance to a community in following their local team cannot be underestimated, particularly when coverage is delivered through local commentators local knowledge and from local commentary..

3. BBC Local Radio commitments to news

As stated in the question, BBC Local Radio stations should: “provide information on local, national and international matters, and “hold elected and unelected local decision makers to account.”

The importance of news coverage at local level is evidenced by the standard practice of BBC Local Radio news bulletins providing local sports news. This local focus remains distinct from the national – and often international – news of the day.  Sports news therefore allows local radio to easily differentiate from other providers. Continuing to prioritise local sports news, interviews and match reports should be an integral part of the BBC’s Local Radio news strategy.

Sports clubs have significant impact on community cohesion – crossing all political, ethnic, gender, age and socioeconomic divides.  Furthermore, they are often tied to local authorities - financially and otherwise.  Sports clubs are therefore an essential part of the local infrastructure and their officers must also be held to account by fans and local officials.  The local focus of sports news provides that opportunity.

4. BBC Local Radio commitments to encouraging participation in local affairs; including reporting live from local events

Both at home and abroad, the BBC has the strongest reputation as an innovative, authoritative and independent broadcaster.  This applies equally to local coverage as it does to national and international.

BBC Local Radio has a great tradition in provoking local discussion on hot topics. Sport features high on the list of the themes and receives relatively high audience engagement, particularly during post-match coverage and magazine shows through phone-ins, online through social media via letter. Input from listeners depends on the quality of coverage provided by BBC Local Radio at sports events and during the week.  It is testament to BBC Local Radio coverage, presenters, researches and producers that sports fans are as informed, opinionated and articulate and are able to engage actively with local affairs through sport.

The RFL welcomes the BBC’s commitment to provide sport as a focal point for local communities and report on live local events. However, we are concerned that away matches for local teams will not be considered local events and subsequently will not be catered for fully.  Given the increased reliance on such matches, with fewer fans travelling away from home, and the skill required from a commentary team to describe games in an unfamiliar setting, - it is therefore imperative that BBC Local Radio retains the level of coverage for away fixtures without undue financial cost to a BBC Local Radio station..

It is testament to BBC Local Radio sports coverage that sports magazine-type is extremely popular. As well as local commentary, listeners actively seek and engage with expert opinion on their local team through BBC Local Radio. We are concerned about the prospect of shared broadcasting.   Sport is very territorial by nature and tailored programming must be offered to take into account local cultural differences across the UK rather than provide a blanket approach.

5.  BBC Local Radio commitments with regards to serving the needs of and reflecting the local area

All those involved in Rugby League are proud of the effect that the sport has in bringing communities together.  Rugby League has a long and happy relationship with BBC Local Radio.

As an example of how BBC Local Radio serves the needs of and reflects the local area, sports coverage – and particularly a local radio station’s Rugby League coverage – not only champions the local area and provides trusted information on local themes to its listeners, it is more response and engaging than other media.

The importance the RFL places on BBC Local Radio is evidenced by our making available to local radio, and in turn the local communities they serve senior figures within the game, be they players, officials or RFL executives.

6.  Each Local Radio station should report on local sports, including minority sports.

BBC Local Radio and local radio sports coverage is a perfect match. Local radio provides excellent coverage of all sport, including minority sports which bind communities together. The RFL welcomes the prioritisation of sport on local radio but, as mentioned in response to question two, we are deeply concerned that there is a disconnect between the stated desire and the ability to deliver if the proposals to remove coverage at the most critical times such as weekday evenings are enacted.

This is compounded by the proposal to remove dedicated AM transmissions and the threat of reduced local commentaries to the point where it is not possible to see any way in which the proposals can deliver the BBC’s objectives.


7. Is there anything else you want to say about BBC Local Radio?
The RFL and the sport of Rugby League have enjoyed and continue to enjoy a very strong relationship with BBC Local Radio, arguably more than any other sport. We share core values in our service and accountability to our local communities. We are both deeply entrenched within those communities and we both provide local and regional diversity which, when combined, provides a framework that enhances, supports and delivers a stronger national network.

The RFL believes that the current BBC Local Radio output is distinctive and of a very high quality. It serves the various different interest groups within its region in a way that would not be provided for adequately if the current service was reduced or withdrawn.

The RFL believes that it is the role of a licence fee based organisation to deliver content that cannot be delivered by other commercial broadcasters. This is precisely what local radio does and does very well. We are therefore perplexed that this service appears to be under threat from these proposals.

We cannot see any evidence that the proposed future strategic direction for BBC Local Radio will meet the needs of the audience, we believe that the audience will be provided with a watered down replica of current national radio output and that will remove the elements of local involvement and distinctiveness that the BBC Trust seek to demonstrate.

Delivering Quality First

In response to the specific consultation on the proposals included within the “Delivering Quality First” document, the RFL would offer the following comments:

1. Protect the services that deliver the greatest value to large parts of the audience

The RFL is fully aware of the value for money provided by the coverage of live sport and also by the supporting programming. We note, however, that one of the very few specific mentions of sport in the proposal is to propose to “reduce spend on sports rights”. Given the popularity of sport in the UK and the value that this output produces per head, it does not appear to deliver on the objective outlined by the BBC Trust.

The RFL is also deeply concerned about the proposals to cut or share output of BBC Local Radio stations. This is very clearly going to have a seriously detrimental effect on local sports coverage which will all but disappear if programming between 7pm and 10pm moves to some form of network output. In addition, the closing of AM transmitters to avoid duplication will simply cause duplication at a higher level as the output will more than likely reflect the output already broadcast on Radio 5 Live.

1. The RFL believes that there is no substitute for the drama provided by live sports action, whether that be consumed by attending the game, watching on TV or listening to the live commentary
2. The RFL understands that ratings are almost guaranteed and easily predicted, again giving clear evidence of value for money.
3. Sports rights are unique – they give a very predictable audience at a negotiated price

2. Protect the BBC’s five editorial priorities by applying greater savings in those areas which fall outside these areas

The absence of any direct mention for sport in the five editorial priorities is very surprising. We have had to draw some conclusions due to this absence. The RFL fears that by a lack of direct mention in the list of editorial priorities, sports output is put at even greater risk. Is that what the BBC Trust is really proposing? It does not feel like that is what is meant but it could be a conclusion drawn. The RFL would like to see a much clearer statement from the Trust about how it truly sees the future of sport on the BBC.

However, to draw some conclusions, one of the BBC’s five editorial priorities is events of national importance, an area which sports coverage naturally falls into. The Government protects certain events of national importance known as listed events, guaranteeing them on free to air television. The Rugby League Challenge Cup is one of these listed events. The fact that the BBC intends to impose a 15 per cent reduction on its spend on sports rights is concerning and clearly against the stated aim of protecting expenditure on events of national importance. The RFL would like clarity on this point. If there is to be a reduction in rights and the events have to be shown free to air, there is a danger the BBC may be creating an unfair market for the rights. This has a direct impact on grassroots sport as many governing bodies invest significant amounts of TV revenue into their grassroots programmes. The RFL invests significantly in the Champion Schools Programme, which holds one of its finals at Wembley on the day of the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final. The BBC’s investment in the sports rights of UK national governing bodies is, in fact, a direct investment in grassroots sport.

3. Promote distinctiveness and serve all audiences

One of the defining aspects of any region is the quality and character of its sporting activities. We acknowledge that this statement is true and we welcome that local flavour which, in turn, fuels debate and reaction from listeners and viewers. There are few pieces of local output that outweigh local radio Rugby League coverage for the amount and quality of public response that is generated. We are told by colleagues in local radio that the Rugby League coverage attracts the most prolific and passionate responses from the public. We believe that the proposed changes to local radio will directly attack the output of local radio sports coverage and that the effects of that will fall upon the vast majority of sports outside of Premier League football. The inevitable result will be duplication with 5 Live output and the demise of coverage of local sports.

Local radio also has the ability to cover minor sports or lower levels of major sports, which may include some sports for women, the disabled or those activities aimed at minority groups. The proposed cuts will limit the ability to cover these sports at a time when listeners can enjoy them. Whilst live sport is supposedly protected, we are concerned that this may be adversely affected by the desire to reduce production costs. Will output be limited to the most high profile and popular sports? If so how does this lend itself to “distinctiveness?”

This very consultation has highlighted the immense support that exists for the coverage of Rugby League by BBC local radio; this audience will be all but lost by the proposal to network coverage. How can that possibly serve a local audience or promote distinctiveness?

Conclusion 

The RFL recognises the pressure that the BBC is under to deliver savings. We also recognise this must be delivered in the context of providing an increased level of service from absorbing the costs of the World Service and S4C.

Through a long relationship with the BBC at all levels, we feel that not only does BBC Local Radio deliver entirely against the BBC’s core values through its sports coverage, it does so an inefficient and cost-effective matter.  The proposed changes will damage the fabric of BBC Local Radio to such an extent that it will cease to have any relevance to local people. The proposals would remove almost all of the distinctive nature of each region, leaving an almost entirely homogenous sporting output which will match the output from the national networks.

In time, this will inevitably lead to duplication and the total demise of BBC Local Radio. We suggest that the focus for the BBC should be through innovation and, efficiency improvements in other parts of the BBC.  We believe the proposals will damage all sports and we are therefore prepared to support BBC Local Radio in order to rationalise output whilst maintaining the local flavour.