Podium Will Wyatt: The BBC has not betrayed its values

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The Independent Culture
Will Wyatt

From a speech by the chief executive, BBC Broadcast, to the All Party Media Group of MPs at Westminster

NEXT WEEK we shall no longer find News at Ten in the ITV schedule - the biggest indicator yet that ITV and the BBC are not in the same game.

It is a perfectly sound commercial decision for ITV to move news in order to grow their peak-time - their most valuable - audience.

Their network centre's job is to run the most profitable channel possible. It does so by offering a schedule that has many high-quality programmes, but it is a schedule that needs to shove inconvenient genres out of the way if they inhibit revenue.

The BBC will retain its main evening news at nine o'clock. Full stop. We will retain our early evening news at six o'clock so that we offer two news programmes on our main channel in peak time.

The move of News at Ten is the most significant milestone yet in a journey that began in the early Nineties. The bridges between us and ITV have come crashing down. There's now more clear water between us than ever before.

We saw ITV move its Sunday evening religious programme, Highway, out of peak time. We've seen the end of This Week. We saw a narrowing of the range of programmes to be found in the evening schedule.

And whereas once we could have a sensible conversation with ITV about not chasing each other's Saturday evening in order not to confuse viewers, those conversations have ended. When our schedulers sought a discussion to avoid scheduling clashes between Omnibus and The South Bank Show, ITV wasn't interested.

The job of the BBC is a very different one.

In 1995, during a weekend of 50th anniversary celebrations for VE Day, BBC Television broadcast 11 programmes in three days on the subject. ITV showed three. On VJ Day, the BBC broadcast five factual programmes. ITV made no special arrangements.

Last year, on the momentous day of the Good Friday agreement, it was the BBC that opened up the schedule to capture the story. I remember Dennis Murray, our distinguished Ireland correspondent, telling me how proud he was of the BBC as a public service broadcaster, that on a bank-holiday the planned schedule was elbowed aside to give proper space to one of the most important events in Ireland's history.

Ratings are important to the BBC, but they are far from being the only important measure. Our task is to provide value for every household and we need to reach large numbers of people, particularly on BBC 1, in order to do that.

We've done well over the last few years. Increased competition has eaten away at the share of the established broadcasters, but we've pegged our losses at half those of ITV, whose share has fallen 10 points in eight years.

We have done this with a BBC schedule that has been distinctly different from ITV's. Share will continue to fragment and we shall strive to mitigate this, to reach large numbers, but to do so with a schedule that will be increasingly differentiated as ITV changes.

We track that difference by measuring the number of genres that regularly feature in the peak-time schedule.

We shall continue to have Songs of Praise in the early Sunday evening all year round, science in peak time all year round, consumer programmes in peak time all year, current affairs in peak time all year, and the news twice in peak time all year round.

And there will be series such as The Human Body and The Life of Birds on BBC 1 - big investments in time and money in programmes that are designed not to maximise ratings but to offer unique learning experiences to the widest audiences. It is what we do.

I have tried to make clear, in the hurly-burly of modern broadcasting, behind the gossip, the noise around celebrities, the occasional alarums and excursions, that the BBC is not so quietly fulfilling the public service promises of information, entertainment and education, which have been its holy trinity since John Reith took over the British Broadcast Company, as it first was.

We now seek to carry these same values, the same quality, into the digital world. We have begun with News 24; BBC Choice for entertainment and sport aimed at a younger audience; and BBC Parliament; and we shall launch a BBC learning channel in June. We have embraced the Internet, which we believe to be the third medium of broadcasting, with BBC Online, which is the largest and most visited content site in Europe, led, again, by news and education.

So our first steps in the new age are news, entertainment, Parliament and education. I think that the late Lord Reith would have approved.

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