Internet and Media Responses To The BBC Closing The Cult Site

 by Martin Belam, 13 July 2005

The Guardian yesterday covered the 'furore' surrounding the closing of the BBC's Cult TV site - Fans up in arms as BBC axes cult website

The BBC has been hit by an unprecedented backlash from viewers over the closure of its cult TV website.

About 750 people have so far complained about the decision to close, which features news and reviews about TV shows including Doctor Who, 24, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

It is one of a number of BBC websites being shut down in a £6m cost-cutting plan, and follows criticism from commercial rivals that the corporation's internet activities had strayed too far from its public service remit. The money will be reinvested in BBC sites with more "distinctive" content.

(I notice that when reporting this story The Guardian was a little shy about pointing out that as a member of BIPA it is one of those 'commercial rivals' that made the criticism)

The article pulls a couple of great quotes from the reaction to the announcement of the closure on the site:

'700,000 hits a month, the second most popular BBC site, a revival in cult television... it's crazy'


'I don't get this - they're removing the cult website as it's too similar to the commercial sector,' wrote Iain Purdie.

'Perhaps... but none of them are as good, or as comprehensive as the BBC's. On top of that, I'm paying for the BBC site out of my licence fee. If we're going to get rid of things for being 'too similar' to commercial offerings, can we also please scrap EastEnders as it's just Coronation Street set in London?'

750 complaints may not sound like a lot. However you have to put it in comparison to other media that have generated a newsworthy level of complaints - it is nearly half the complaints generated by the Brass Eye paedophilia special, or by the recent KFC advertisement that became the most complained about television advert in the history of UK TV. A pretty immense number for simply announcing the closure of a website.

Now one of the specific issues with closing the Cult site is that it provokes one of the audiences most likely to be able to effectively campaign on the web about it. I'm of course not stereotyping all users of as 'spoddy-internet-savvy-obsessive-nerds', but speaking as an avid user of the site myself, if the cap fits....

Aside from the threads on Points of View, and the 'Have Your Say'-style comments on Cult itself, there has been an article on The Register which uses a quote to very carefully and clearly explain how to go about making a complaint to the BBC, and a thread on Slashdot publishing the email address of a BBC member of staff the poster held responsible for the decision.

What I do think is interesting is that the increasing digital take up in Britain is beginning to put the BBC in a situation where these kind of campaigns are becoming a trend.

The number of complaints the BBC received about screening 'Jerry Springer: The Opera' was swelled by a viral email campaign and the modern ease of contacting the BBC to complain - no more stamp purchase necessary in the age of email.

Those against the way the BBC redesigned the weather forecasts also used new media tools to contact us, and to demonstrate alternative ways of displaying the weather from other sites and broadcasters. Even now the debate rumbles on online - with one poster using the Points Of View messageboard to re-publish their personal correspondence over the issue with Andrew Lane, the Weather Centre manager.

The users of the BBC's 'Get Writing' site even used the BBC's own 'Action Network' site to campaign against the site's closure, and in the end the BBC let them use some of the old 'Get Writing' assets on the 'proudly independent, self-moderating' non-BBC successor site - More Writing.

With some changes, like the special homepages we did for Doctor Who or Live8, we are being careful to put in and resource specific feedback routes to canvass the opinion of the audience. The positive side is that we get a better understanding of how to serve our audience. The downside to this is that it all costs money.

Ease of communication increases the volume of communication, and I'm aware that is problem that all businesses face. It is especially the case though with one where the shareholders of the business are every single Licence Fee payer in the UK. As I've said before, a fixed income is a fixed income. It may be a massive fixed income, but we are still working to a fixed income, and all the money spent on answering user feedback isn't getting directly to the screen (or in my area, the monitor).

As I look at this trend of increasing new media activity fuelling the amount of contact the BBC has with the audience, and facilitating campaigns on specific contentious issues, I worry that the aim of reducing the BBC's overheads to 10% of the budget is going to get waylaid by us failing to budget the necessary time and the money to deal with an ever increasing level of response Licence Fee payers expect in a digitally connected world.

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