MEDIA: Birt is the brains behind the BBC’s reversal of fortune

During a recent interview with John Birt about how the BBC would transform itself for the digital age, he pointed with pride to what he described as the layer of highly-competent BBC managers developed during his director generalship.

During a recent interview with John Birt about how the BBC would

transform itself for the digital age, he pointed with pride to what he

described as the layer of highly-competent BBC managers developed during

his director generalship.



I made a mental note of this claim, trying to keep a straight face as I

remembered all those solemn briefings about university degrees in BBC

studies. But I recalled his words when RAJAR released its latest radio

audience research last week and sent the cocky commercial sector into a

tailspin.



Quite unexpectedly, after two years of retreat, BBC Radio has turned the

tables and reclaimed more than half the audience: it chalked up a 50.4

per cent share to commercial radio’s 47.6 per cent in the first three

months of this year. I know there have been severe problems with the new

diary ratings system but the findings do not seem to have been a

statistical blip: quite the reverse.



What is interesting is that the advance is not solely due to the rising

popularity of Radio 5 Live or even Chris Evans. The 40, or so, local and

regional stations which have been turned, despite controversy, into

focused speech, news and information services for distinct communities,

also played a key part.



In fact, they have clearly put pressure on the biggest losers, rival

local commercial radio, which saw the greatest single fall of audiences.

This is why there were grim faces among the sector as the news sank in.

If the drift continues, there will have to be a rethink of the pop and

prattle formula. There will also be pressure on the Radio Authority to

licence fewer niche formats.



The BBC’s new-found competitiveness was also high on the agenda of ITV’s

Broadcast Strategy conference last week. Its ratings are also causing

concern. It is a grim fact that its share of audiences between January

and April this year fell to 36 per cent, compared with 37.6 per cent a

year ago, while BBC1, at 32.6 per cent, is slightly up, even before you

add in a very strong performance by BBC2.



ITV has found itself stuck with too many tired entertainment and people

shows and too few good replacements. The question of how to win back

audiences to Saturday night and countering the BBC’s early Sunday night

success with a fourth episode of Coronation Street at 7pm formed part of

its deliberations.



But the bigger point is that the BBC is confounding its own forecasts of

audience decline, which led it to conclude that it could survive with a

share of one third of TV and radio audiences. I put a lot of this down

to people. In recent weeks CNN, Channel 5 Broadcasting and Talk Radio

have attracted key staff from the BBC. The judgement of the market

suggests that John Birt, on this one, is right.



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