’It feels as if we’re at a crossroad,’ wrote Alan Yentob, BBC’s
director of television, in the Guardian. He was commenting after a week
in which ITV’s ultra-aggressive scheduling had knocked Auntie pitilessly
around the ring, and responding to an attack, led by Lord (Melvyn)
Bragg, about the BBC’s failure to behave like a proper public service
Well, we are at a crossroad. But the point is that this is an
opportunity to take stock. All very timely, since the director
generalship of the BBC was also formally advertised on Monday.
ITV, freed by the passing of News at Ten, has made a dazzling start in
pure ratings terms. The network’s third series of Who Wants to be a
in a ten-day marathon, augmented by the movie Goldeneye, demolished BBC1
stalwarts such as Casualty and Changing Rooms, in some cases halving
ITV has shown that big ratings are not a thing of the past. You can
aspire to create national events and attract well over 60 per cent of
all people viewing with the right formats.
It’s a cruel demonstration of how most entertainment programmes
massively under-perform, and a salutary lesson for all mainstream media
- decline is not inevitable.
However, note that ITV’s PR stance has been low key. It can’t keep up
this scorching performance. A fourth Millionaire series can’t be
unleashed immediately, and some of its replacement programmes are
When ITV unveiled its new summer schedule this Wednesday it became clear
that new factual programmes are expected to supplement its traditional
reliance on drama. The only certainty is that, by having a clear run for
entertainment in peak time, ITV is on its way to putting back the clock
five years and pushing its prime time audience share back over 40 per
As for the BBC and its quasi-commercial instincts? Bragg doubted whether
a Martian would notice any difference between ITV and BBC. But of course
they would. Advertisers and sponsorship credits mess up the flow of
Key BBC programmes, Watchdog, Tomorrow’s World, Panorama, QED, the Nine
O’Clock News, countless dramas, are all distinctive.
But Bragg is on to something. The BBC’s deliberate strategy to uphold
its share of the market (four episodes of the Simpsons and Star Trek a
week) compromises its mission. The truth is that the 1990s, until this
crossroad, have been deceptively kind to the BBC. ITV was adrift,
Channel Four sleepwalking.
A key task for Sir John Birt’s replacement must be to devise a more
sophisticated way of assessing the BBC’s impact, the value of its
output, beyond crude ratings (though never ruling out an ambition to
make big hits). Public perceptions need to be changed.