News that doctors were “concerned” about Queen Elizabeth II’s health on Thursday lunchtime threw long-planned U.K. broadcast schedules into disarray almost immediately – and the disruptions will likely continue for weeks.
The statement from Buckingham Palace, issued at 12.30pm local time, was unprecedented and experienced broadcasters immediately realized the situation was serious. U.K. Parliament had been informed about 10 minutes earlier, with Prime Minister Liz Truss and leader of the opposition Keir Starmer discreetly passed notes detailing the situation in the House of Commons.
BBC One was the first network to break programming some 10 minutes after the statement was published. An episode of “Bargain Hunt” – a long-running series which sees two teams competing to cheaply source antiques and flip them for a profit – was interrupted by BBC newsreader Joanna Gosling, who said: “Welcome to viewers on BBC One. We have had news from Buckingham Palace that the Queen is under medical supervision at Balmoral.”
Some of BBC One’s regular schedule was switched to BBC Two (although light current affairs program “The One Show,” was scrapped entirely) while BBC One ran a continuous rolling news program. Initially the change was intended to last until 6pm but in the event, the Queen’s death was announced just after 6.30pm.
Earlier in the afternoon Huw Edwards, who normally hosts the network’s flagship “News at 10” program, led broadcasting duties accompanied by BBC’s royal editor Nicholas Witchell. Both men’s grim demeanour – not to mention Edwards’ black suit and tie – conveyed the seriousness of events. Edwards’ funereal attire was criticized by former ITV anchor Alastair Stewart, who tweeted: “A back tie now is pre-emptive and misjudged. It is because of the BBC’s Sissons memory,” referring to the moment BBC broadcaster Peter Sissons announced the death of the Queen’s mother, also called Queen Elizabeth, while wearing a grey suit and purple tie. He was widely, and in Sissons’ view “unfairly,” criticized at the time.
ITV did not immediately ditch their planned schedule, instead leading with news of the Queen’s ailing health during its regular 1.30pm news broadcast. As the afternoon wore on without any reassurance from Buckingham Palace, however, the network decided to switch to a rolling news broadcast at 5pm. It was set to continue until 7.30PM but that was scrapped following the announcement of the Queen’s death. Instead, there was a special ITV News At Ten followed by an hour-long obituary program.
The actual moment Her Majesty’s death was broadcast to the world, just after 6.30pm, saw programming suspended across almost the entire country both on television and radio. BBC One, ITV and Sky News were already in the middle of their news broadcasts when the official confirmation from Buckingham Palace came through. All BBC radio networks paused their regular programming to broadcast the same announcement and did not resume. BBC Three and Four suspended broadcasting entirely for the rest of the night.
On Channel 4, newsreader Cathy Newman interrupted an episode of popular British soap “Hollyoaks” to tell viewers the Queen had died.
As of Friday lunchtime, BBC One and ITV continue to show a rolling news broadcast (although subsidiary channels such as BBC Two and ITV2 are broadcasting pre-recorded programming, with BBC Two swapping out some pre-scheduled shows with others). Channel 4 has had a semi-regular schedule with interruptions for Channel 4 News Specials. “We have made some changes for today including extended lunchtime and evening news programmes and a special edition of ‘Steph’s Packed Lunch’ and we will review our schedules daily,” said a spokesperson for Channel 4.
Crucially, both ITV and Channel 4 have suspended commercial breaks until further notice.
There will undoubtedly be further interruptions to the schedule for the next few weeks as events including the repatriation of the Queen’s body to London, the King’s anointment and of course the lying in state and funeral are confirmed.
The Queen’s death has also thrown doubt over whether highly anticipated fall shows – including the latest season of Channel 4’s “The Great British Bake-Off” and BBC One’s “Strictly Come Dancing” – will have their launch dates delayed. “Bake-Off” is currently set to premiere on Sept. 13 while “Strictly” is set for Sept. 17. Currently it is thought the funeral will take place on Sept. 19.
Events across the country – many of which are broadcast, such as soccer matches – have also been cancelled this weekend, leaving gaps in the schedules. Among the sporting events so far postponed are the Premier League, Women’s Super League, and all horseracing.
Broadcasting schedules across the world were also impacted by the news, from France to India and beyond.
Deciding how much coverage to dedicate to the Queen’s death is also a tricky topic for network execs, who must balance reflecting the nation’s grief and the historical significance of the moment with modern day Britain, where plenty of people remain anti-monarchy or simply would prefer to watch the regular schedule.
Following Prince Philip’s death in April 2019, the BBC received over 110,000 complaints for replacing that evening’s regular programming with rolling news coverage. The network also dedicated five continuous hours of programming to cover the funeral.
“The funeral of HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was a significant event which generated a lot of interest both nationally and internationally,” a BBC spokesperson said at the time.
“We acknowledge some viewers were unhappy with the level of coverage given, and impact this had on the billed BBC One schedule. 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. We are grateful for all feedback, and we always listen to the response from our audiences.”
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