Analysis: BBC receives record complaints for Prince Philip coverage as viewership dips

Coverage of the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (pictured) dominated airwaves in the UK the past week, as BBC went all out to pay respects to the late monarch who passed on 9 April. This resulted in shows such as EastEnders and MasterChef being replaced with royal tributes, The Guardian reported. Meanwhile, CNN said programming from BBC Four, including coverage of an England women's football game, was pulled to make way for coverage of Prince Philip's death. BBC said in a statement on its website that the Duke of Edinburgh's passing was a significant event that generated a lot of interest both nationally and internationally. It also acknowledged that some viewers were unhappy with the level of coverage given, and the impact this had on the billed TV and radio schedules.

"We do not make such changes without careful consideration and the decisions made reflect the role the BBC plays as the national broadcaster, during moments of national significance," BBC said.

According to figures made available by BBC, it received 109,741 complaints regarding the amount of coverage given to Prince Philip's death. In addition to the complaints, BBC also saw a dip in viewership. Average Friday viewership for BBC One between 7 pm to 8 pm dipped to 2.41 million from 2.56 million the previous week, CNN reported quoting entertainment website Deadline. Meanwhile, BBC Two's viewership dipped from 980,000 to 340,000. Nonetheless, BBC made amendments to its TV and radio schedules for 16 and 17 April to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's funeral on Saturday. 

BBC's spokesperson told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that the complaints were about coverage on its domestic channels in the UK, for which everyone pays a licence fee and on which there is no advertising or sponsorship. The spokesperson clarified that as part of a licence fee funded television schedule, there is no sponsorship at any time for programmes such as MasterChef, or any of the programmes that were rescheduled on BBC UK domestic channels.

"We did not receive audience complaints about our commercially funded international outlets - BBC World News and bbc.com. In fact there was great interest from audiences globally, with four out of the five most read stories on bbc.com on the 9 April being about Prince Philip," the spokesperson said. Meanwhile, paid collaborations in Asia were put on hold for a short while, in line with BBC's protocol for an event such as this, but the broadcaster received no complaints from advertisers.

The cancellation of programmes do not only impact consumers but also brands that have bought ad spots during those specific timings. The world of marketing and advertising is often impacted by unforeseen circumstances. This might put brands in a quandary as to whether they should continue on with the campaigns that are currently running or hold off on them. 

Ranganathan Somanathan, co-founder and curator of RSquared Global Ventures, said there are two ways to look at it: the brand's heritage and how the brand's consumers relate to the news. When a national leader of prominence passes on and the brand is linked to the nation's heritage, it is better for the brand to respect that heritage. "That will help the brand maintain its authenticity and loyalty over a long time," he said.  If the brand is a global one with a footprint beyond the shores of the UK, for example, it is fine for the brand to continue running campaigns to remain engaged with its audiences internationally. However, when it comes to its home turf, it is better to respect the heritage, national ethos, and culture of the country. 

"Not everyone in the country will have the same reverence for the monarchy, but there is still a sizeable number of individuals who are respectful of the monarchy. Hence, it makes sense for the brand to not go over the top," he explained. That said, there is still an opportunity for brands to pay respect and find a meaningful way to engage with the collective consciousness of the country. According to Somanathan, it all boils down to the collective consciousness of the country. "Whether it is relevant for the brand to be part of the consciousness explicitly or inexplicitly is the call one takes," he added.

On the other hand, Vishnu Mohan, chairman of the Vivendi Committee Southeast Asia and India, said there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Whether brands should sit out or redeploy their assets and campaigns depends on what the specific situation is. For example, while it is common for airlines to constantly run global campaigns, they do not necessarily have to halt or redeploy their campaigns when something untoward happens because it might not make sense to its consumers, he explained. "To a specific brand, an economic recession is very different from a PR disaster as well as the death of a renowned individual. These are all very different situations and each one calls for a unique response," Mohan added.

When renowned individuals pass, Mohan explained, there is no historical evidence that the audience will suddenly be less receptive to a brand message because of the news. Nonetheless, in such situations, there will typically be a one to three-day period of heightened coverage that dominates the airwaves, during which it may be worthwhile for brands to consider redeploying their impressions that were originally planned for certain programmes that are not going to air.

"Brands have built a plan around the total number of deliveries that are modelled around certain expectations. In that case, they will readjust themselves in the remaining period either by staying on the same channel or finding a way to redeploy to other possible programmes or media channels," Mohan explained. 

Will your backup plan give you the impact you were trying to achieve?

Regardless of the situation, it is crucial for brands to diversify their engagement platforms with consumers, Somanathan said. He explained that it is pretty easy for brands to cultivate one stream and get addicted to it because it is efficient and effective, resulting in them missing out on opportunities to cultivate other engagement strategies with customers.

"Take COVID-19 for example, everyone was so reliant on an efficient supply chain that they all got hammered when it was disrupted. Using this same analogy for media platforms, one has to be conscious of being held at ransom by one or two platforms. So in this case, if their only go-to-market was BBC, then brands now obviously feel that they are unable to build the momentum," he explained.

According to him, they would have been in a much better place had they diversified and created different environments to build a brand that resonates with consumers.

In an environment where everything is going well for the brand and there is momentum for the business, you need to have or build a strategy for critical moments such as this where one of your most efficient platforms is switched off.

"That is a scenario plan that everyone plans for. Advertising and marketing people tend to be short-term when engaging or cultivating a platform. If you are able to diversify your engagement platform, do plenty of testing and development to create new engagement routes rather than just get addicted to what is efficient and what is available now, that de-risks the brand when a situation like this arises," he added.

However, Mohan said while brands do have a contingency plan in general, they do not create backup plans for specific situations such as this because they are unable to anticipate what would happen. According to him, brands and agencies are well-equipped to be able to readjust, remodify, and quickly adapt to make those changes that offer the same amount of delivery. 

"I do not think [this latest news] has put a major dent in any brands' plans. Probably, the only impact might have been that the grand finale of MasterChef was postponed and some brands might have taken on sponsorship deals for that. But it is still going to happen, so I really do not think it would hamper the brands," Mohan added.

Photo courtesy: The Royal Family's Facebook page