The announcement of Prince Philip‘s death on Friday set in motion a long-rehearsed change to programming across British television, and prepared tributes to mark his long life.
Daytime programs were interrupted for a special news bulletin, but the wall-to-wall coverage has left some viewers complaining, particularly on the publicly-funded BBC.
“This is the BBC from London,” a news presenter announced, as she read out a statement from Buckingham Palace about the death of Queen Elizabeth II‘s husband of 73 years.
The presenter, who had swiftly changed into a black jacket, appeared visibly moved before a photo of the Duke of Edinburgh, in full military uniform was shown, and the national anthem played.
The corporation scrapped its entire schedule on its main BBC One and BBC Two television channels as well as its Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live channels on Friday to broadcast programs about the life of the royal patriarch.
The final of Masterchef, scheduled to be broadcast at 8:30 pm, was also canceled to the despair of fans of the popular cooking show.
‘Deserve a choice’
But while many saw the coverage as appropriate for a man of 99, who has been such a central part of British life for most people, the BBC said it had set up an online form for unhappy viewers.
“We’re receiving complaints about too much TV coverage of the death of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh,” the page on the BBC website reads.
“Please enter your email address below to register a complaint about this — we’ll then send you the BBC‘s response as soon as it is available.”
Simon McCoy, who recently retired as a BBC News presenter and who has been dismissive of royal coverage in the past, questioned the blanket coverage across different channels.
“BBC1 and BBC2 showing the same thing. And presumably the (24-hour) News Channel too. Why? I know this is a huge event. But surely the public deserve a choice of programming?” he tweeted.
The editorial plan for major royal deaths has been developed and rehearsed over decades since the time when there were only three terrestrial television channels.
But at the heart of the criticism is whether it is still suitable to a digital era — and a time of less automatic deference to the monarch and her family.
Jean Seaton, a professor of media history at the University of Westminster, told AFP Britain’s public broadcaster was in an invidious position.
“If they (the BBC) had done the opposite, another group of people would have criticized them,” she said.
“The BBC brought us to a halt around something which is genuinely a significant moment in the nation’s life.”
Commercial Channel 4 has also come under fire for largely keeping to its schedule, with the exception of airing some documentaries about the duke’s life.
Executives defended the programming, saying it “has a duty to offer an alternative to others”.
Seaton, who has written a history of the BBC, said the broadcaster was a “national British institution”.
“It shares some features with the monarchy in a sense that it has a duty to the entire British public,” she added.
“That doesn’t mean it has to give everybody everything they want all of the time, but it has a duty both to represent and serve the British public.”
The corporation — often criticized for being overstaffed and slow to react — is currently going through a pivotal period as it looks to save millions while modernizing.
It has also faced repeated attacks from across the political spectrum over its coverage of Britain’s Brexit debate, as well as its licence fee funding model that all television set owners have to pay.
The compulsory annual fee has caused anger among some viewers at a time when audience tastes are changing, and platforms such as Netflix gain popularity.
BBC director-general Tim Davie warned in September 2020 he would not hesitate to take measures, up to and including possible dismissal, against employees that breached impartiality rules.
He also pledged to promote greater diversity within the public broadcasting group.