Britons switched off their televisions Friday in record numbers, apparently frustrated with the blanket coverage of the death of Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth and the longest serving royal consort in British history.
The BBC, the country’s taxpayer-funded public broadcaster, was flooded with so many complaints that it set up a dedicated complaints form on its website, where viewers recorded their irritation with the postponement of their favorite shows, including the soap drama “EastEnders,” “Gardeners’ World,” and the final episode of a popular TV cooking competition.
“There’s only so much of the BBC being unctuous about royalty that a chap can bear,” best-selling historian Tom Holland tweeted.
The noted author of books on ancient Roman and Greek history was not alone in his irritation of pre-recorded tributes to Philip and documentaries on the royal family.
Former BBC presenter Simon McCoy queried the scale of the coverage, tweeting, “I know this is a huge event. But surely the public deserves a choice of programming.”
Former government minister Chris Mullin called the “North Korea-style” coverage a “big mistake.”
The BBC said its decision to simulcast across multiple channels for 24 hours was taken to mark Philip’s “life of extraordinary public service.” The prince, a former naval officer who served with distinction in World War II, is widely credited with having helped to modernize and guide the royal household.
But the British public switched off — particularly notable as the country last week was gripped by poor weather and largely under a pandemic lockdown. Audience figures have shocked television executives, with all broadcasters, in addition to the BBC, recording plummeting ratings.
BBC Two saw a 64% drop in its audience compared to the previous Friday. BBC One’s viewership fell by 6% from the previous week, and ITV, the main commercial terrestrial competitor, suffered a 60% drop in its normal audience for a Friday.
Commentators noted that 40 years ago, the televised wedding of Prince Charles and then-Lady Diana Spencer attracted 30 million British viewers, while a much-vaunted BBC documentary last Friday on Philip’s life, presented by popular journalist Andrew Marr, managed to attract just 2 million viewers.
At midday Friday, as Buckingham Palace released the news that Philip had died peacefully in his sleep at Windsor Castle, BBC television networks halted programming and faded the screens to black with the caption, “News Report,” before announcing the prince’s death.
Moments before, the royal household followed tradition and posted the news outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, where hundreds quickly began laying floral tributes to the prince. Philip had a preexisting heart condition and had undergone heart surgery at a London hospital a few weeks ago.
Opinion is divided on why there was a great television switch-off. Some observers suggest it is a sign of decreasing public affection for the royal family, which has been buffeted by scandals in recent years. Others suggest a generational divide, with older Britons identifying with a prince who came of age after World War I and saw military service in World War II.
Some commentators and politicians blamed the excess media coverage. Others say the reporting was cloying, a claim rejected by former Conservative government minister Alastair Burt, who said he thought the BBC, in particular, had managed to get the pitch of its coverage perfect.
“The BBC has caught the mood well, and its public has responded,” Burt wrote Monday for the online magazine The Article.
He praised the BBC for collecting from ordinary Britons stories and anecdotes about Philip, who died two months short of his 100th birthday.
“The response from so many members of the public has also left me somewhat awed,” Burt said. “Occasionally, those who have had the privilege to represent the British people — in my case for 33 years — can still be surprised by them. The anecdotes and memories of chance encounters with Prince Philip have been, by turns, humorous, poignant and sometimes damn moving,” he said.
It created “a touching mosaic of today’s United Kingdom,” he added.
Nonetheless, the plummeting audiences suggest that many Britons found the "mosaic" less than compelling. One social media user noted, “Wall to wall coverage on every single channel is annoying and unnecessary. There is other important news. And some people might appreciate some other TV. I'd bet Prince Philip would not have approved of such a fuss!”
Philip was noted as a stoical and rather irascible character who preferred a no-nonsense approach to most things. A hatred of fuss, according to royal commentators, prompted him to reject the idea of marking his departure with a grand state funeral — a rite of passage he is due.
In keeping with his wishes, he will have a simple royal ceremonial funeral on Saturday, which will be reduced in ceremony and attendees because of coronavirus restrictions.