TELEVISION / Never mind the quality, count the ratings: Mark Lawson on how would-be Controllers of BBC 1 might measure up to the Birtian vision

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On Monday, John Birt, the BBC's new Director-General, flamboyantly reshuffled the Corporation's layers of bureaucracy. One job which he left unfilled is that of Controller of BBC 1, vacant since the departure of Jonathan Powell to ITV newcomer Carlton. Mr Birt's caution over this decision is well advised. Although offering a salary of around pounds 90,000 a year, a chauffeur-driven car - and regular programme-buying trips to other English-speaking television cultures, many of them sunny - Controller of BBC 1 is now the medium's poisoned sweetie. The difficulty of the decisions awaiting Mr Powell's replacement is underlined in an examination paper, set by Mr Birt for all applicants, which the Independent has obtained. I have tried to provide some model answers.

1) PROGRAMMES. John Birt has stated that the BBC should in future restrict itself to 'distinctive' programmes of a 'high quality', unavailable elsewhere. In the light of this, indicate whether you would wish, as Controller, to keep in the BBC 1 schedules the following shows: a) Noel's House Party?

It would be easy for an applicant to assume that this has no place in an austere Birtian vision of the BBC. After all, the programme depends on the fundamental structural pun that the show comes from Noel Edmonds's 'country seat' of 'Crinkley Bottom', a props department hardboard castle. Its climax is the 'Gunge Tank', in which gallons of viscous goo are dumped on one of two celebrities, the victim decided by a viewer phone-in. I, however, would hope that the Director-General - who, let us remember, introduced Blind Date and Surprise Surprise to LWT as well as Weekend World - would allow a more generous view. Edmonds's series is, I think, 'high quality'. High-quality populism, admittedly, but this is a mainstream channel. Its triviality is meticulous and inventive. If David Lynch had introduced NTV - in which a viewer's television set suddenly transmits the scene of them in their living room on to the BBC network - Michael Ignatieff would be writing articles about it. Finally, Edmonds is a BBC find, his style developing through radio to Saturday morning TV to peak-time.

b) Neighbours?

This one, I would suggest, is a trick question, although I am not sure, with respect, if the Director-General realises it. Objectively, an imported Australian soap opera shown twice-daily is neither 'distinctive' - except, perhaps, in the sense that in few other modern shows does the scenery so visibly tremble - nor 'high-quality'. Let me suggest, however, three reasons for keeping the show, and its present time- slot. 1) A popular BBC 1 show at 5.35pm, opposite the ITV News, reduces the viewers of the rival bulletin, and provides a larger 'inherited audience' for the BBC evening news that follows at 6pm. 2) Neighbours has 17 million viewers. If you dump it, ITV (or, even worse, BSkyB) will buy it, adding to their own market-share any of the 17 million who do not gratefully see the light of your high-mindedness. 3) Even beyond that practical consideration, a serious aesthetic case can be made that every schedule needs its mental down-time, like a sorbet between courses of a meal. Alan Yentob's BBC 2 well understands this. In short, consider the possibility that all Birtism and no Neighbours makes Jack buy a satellite dish.

c) Eldorado? No way, Jose. A supposedly populist programme with an elitist audience level (currently around 7 million). None of the above defences of Neighbours can be applied here. It seems to me that the Director-General's vision for the future of the BBC would look cosmetic and risible if Eldorado remained in the schedules. But you should also take the programme's failure as evidence of the importance of having a BBC 1 Controller who understands scheduling - Michael Grade placed EastEnders on two nights with no established rival soap; Jonathan Powell floated Eldorado on evenings log-jammed by Brookside and Coronation Street. With the competing demands of real life and video-shops, few viewers can run more than two soap addictions.

d) Grace and Favour? It is in the area of comedy that the new Controller faces his or her toughest judgements. The literary education of most of those in control at the BBC - and, indeed, of most television critics - makes assessment of broad populist comedy almost beyond their empathetic skills. It has tended to be a case of holding your nose and running what you think the masses want. Even so, differentiations can be made. John Sullivan (Only Fools and Horses, Dear John etc), Marks and Gran (Birds of a Feather) and David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave) are clearly 'distinctive' (that Birt word) talents in the technique of writing gags and creating characters for mass audiences. All of these shows refuse the easy Terry and June marital comedy route. However, to commission a second series of Grace and Favour - a bored and boring attempt to resite the cast of Seventies hit Are You Being Served? as the staff of a country hotel - was either cynical or witless. Its propagation of a limp-wristed gay stereotype (in the John Inman role) and of dumb sexual smut should be discontinued by a new Controller. Get out your chopper, Mr Birt, as they would doubtless put it.

2) People like to moan that there are 'too many repeats' on the BBC. What would be your attitude to this complaint?

Another trick question. It is true that people popularly express such resentment, but ratings make clear that they, in fact, love repeats of good or celebrated shows: multiple reruns of Porridge and Dad's Army have made a crucial contribution to the BBC's recent market-share. Note also that one of the most popular satellite channels is UK Gold, a seamless string of repeats. I would encourage the BBC to find a way of running, for a subscription, repeats through the night, for viewers to video. All other arts are proud of their history. Would the Royal Opera House say, 'It's all Mozart repeats this season'?

3) John Birt has said that it is likely that the BBC's share of the audience will gradually decrease over the next few years, perhaps to 30 per cent, because of increased competition and his removal of the BBC from certain markets through his 'distinctive' and 'high quality' criteria. Is this a good idea?

Well, given that I am not actually applying for this job, I have to admit to severe doubts about this strategy. It seems to me that the only reliable justification for the licence fee - an imposition grudged by the Government, which is deliberately encouraging the public to feel the same - is that it provides an overall service competitive with that of ITV and the satellite channels. The more that the BBC begins to seem merely an option - the one for highbrows - the weaker the obligation to hold a licence will become.

4) Finally, what qualifications should a BBC 1 Controller have?

As I have tried to suggest in the above answers, this is television's bum job. BBC 1's uneasy status has been as a sort of ITV-with-brains. But it is essentially a down-market beast, which the new Director-General seems to be attempting to tether to the frail stake of seriousness. An old BBC hand puts it well: 'The problem with BBC 1 is that, traditionally, the Controller couldn't bear to watch the programmes.' The Birt vision might make the Corporation proud of the channel, but what are the implications if it makes viewers shy of it? You could try Janet Street-Porter, but my hunch is that she is less down-market than she seems. Then again, Alan Yentob might be less up-market than he appears. His record at BBC 2 - raised ratings, higher profile, strong station identity - might make him an interesting gamble either to switch to BBC 1 or to manage both channels, thus ending the historical rivalry between two channels theoretically on the same side.

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