Media: Why the BBC should stop chasing ratings

News at Ten's demise means that the BBC must aim for quality, not viewing figures.
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The Independent Culture
FIVE YEARS ago I asked a senior BBC executive "who or what has the greatest influence on television ratings in Britain?" His reply "The Prime Minister, of course." There followed a fascinating exposition of how John Major's refusal to allow the death of News at Ten had saved the BBC up to 10 points of their audience share.

He added, "If News at Ten ever does go, the BBC, as presently constituted, is in trouble - and will need to rethink its core purpose."

As we now know from the sharpest drop of ratings on BBC1 for a generation, he was right. But if the BBC realised what would happen in advance, why did they take so little action?

The answer is deviously complex, and while old hands like me remain a little sceptical, I cannot fault their logic. The word "ratings" is about to be dispatched into BBC history. From now on, the BBC will seek to compete in a different way.

Traditionally, the BBC believed it must appeal to a mass audience in order to justify the mandatory licence fee. Over the last decade or so, we have seen them retreat from a target of 50 per cent of all viewing, towards a comfort zone of 40 per cent. Now that will be shaved further, down to a third, or within a few years, perhaps just 30 per cent. That is not their fault, just the inevitable outcome of having to respond to a hyper-competitive television market-place on a fixed income.

But within the last year, the BBC has come to realise that every expensive but soulless Hollywood blockbuster on ITV, is also an opportunity for them to appear "a bit special".

The word watershed has two meanings in this context. In TV land it has always meant that moment after 9pm when respectable children should be in bed, and controllers can show naked breasts or contemplate the word fuck.

It was in order to be able to play adult films in the heart of its schedule that ITV shed itself of News at Ten. But the ramifications go far deeper than ITV increasing its share at the expense of BBC1.

The broader meaning of the word watershed came with the overnights figures of Monday 8 March when ITV took a 48 per cent share of prime time to BBC 1's 25 per cent. BBC TV realised it must separate itself in spirit from commercial television. From that moment on, the BBC would have to stop competing head to head for audiences, and go for the nation's heart and soul.

The Nine o'clock News is the key to understanding what's going to happen. In terms of ratings, it's a scheduling disaster when faced with the new ITV line-up. Research shows that viewers want their evening's entertainment to build up after news, not have news in the middle. This is kindergarten programme planning, and the clever schedulers at the BBC know this. So why is the Nine o'clock News still there, and with a virtually unknown presenter about to join? Is it a mistake of gigantic proportions?

The answer is - probably - no. In fact it is part of a carefully worked out strategy to manage an inevitable decline in audience share, while increasing its sense of being indispensable.

And the canny old BBC understands this does not mean they can settle into some kind of elitist backwater, and need not be popular. When they have special programmes, they still need people to watch them.

But it does mean they must get real, and not compete slavishly in the bums-on-seats market without caring who's bum is on what seat, and why.

For instance: ITV has the bucks to pay for a first-run Bond, which decimated BBC1. Fine. Lots of us like Bond, but leave it to ITV. Police Camera Action and Families at War are great mindless pulp, and precisely what commercial television should produce. But a public service broadcaster, protected by statute? I don't think so.

In order to compete full blast for the popular audience, late evening news on both channels would have to go, and so far there's no evidence to suggest the BBC is losing its public service nerve to be commercial in the face of the ferociously competitive schedule on ITV.

The internal battle will continue to rage between the purists who want their BBC tucked into the nation's soul, and the populists who believe that survival for the licence fee means a 40 per cent plus share of viewing - but it looks like the purists are winning.

This means the BBC will no longer attempt to be all things to all people; instead, it will be important things to all people - and if those things are different and distinctive, that more than justifies the licence fee.

Different and distinctive, haven't we heard those words elsewhere? The world of broadcast television is nothing if not an eco-system. Faced with an onslaught from ITV, as the BBC becomes "different and distinctive", the pressure will tell on Channel 4, who are themselves statutory charged with that responsibility, caught in a vice between a semi-popular but different BBC1, and a different kind of niche BBC2.

And worse, the BBC may by then have re-captured Channel 4's deepest thinker, however much Michael Jackson protests he does not want to be Director General. As I wrote earlier, the ramifications of moving News at Ten are devious and complex.

Of course the traditionalists will say that for once in his life John Major was right and ITV should have stayed as it was, but I do not agree. I welcome the requirement for the BBC to redefine its role, to work out anew what it should give us for our licence fees.

Soon we will hear a great deal about the BBC being different - in fact it's already underway. The BBC's chief executive of broadcasting, Will Wyatt put down a marker when speaking to the House of Commons All Party Media Group:

Just last week he told them, "The differences between what we do as a public service broadcaster and what the rest of broadcasting does, has grown, and will grow further."

Which why, as the last two weeks overnights landed like turds on the Television Centre carpet, Auntie did not reach for the smelling salts. The figures had been expected, and a long term strategy to protect the licence fee was already in place.