Blue Peter: Is the BBC deserting a sinking ship?

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For decades it was untouchable, but now Blue Peter finds itself shunted into the digital periphery. Jonathan Brown and Liam O'Brien ask if it can survive

It has entertained and informed generations of children on a Reithian diet of homespun craft skills, adventure and studio pets but Blue Peter yesterday signalled its retreat from the terrestrial airwaves it has dominated for 53 years.

The BBC has announced that, from January, the flagship show will be cut to just a single edition per week, with the first screening going out on digital channel CBBC on Thursday, before being repeated on BBC1 the following day. It would be repeated again on CBBC at the weekend, marking one of the most profound changes to a programme which at its peak attracted up to nine million viewers.

A BBC spokesman insisted the amount of airtime and budget devoted to Blue Peter remained exactly the same and that it would no longer take its traditional summer break. "It will still have a regular slot – now all year round – but we'll have flexibility to introduce additional specials that will go into more depth on events and activities," he said.

During the 1960s and 70s Blue Peter was broadcast live twice a week. Presenters John Noakes, Peter Purves, Valerie Singleton and Lesley Judd were among the most recognisable faces of the mass broadcasting age.

The show gave rise to catchphrases such as: "Here's one I made earlier," and sent children scurrying in search of egg cartons, washing-up liquid bottles and the infamous "sticky back plastic".

A demonstration of the show's ability to galvanise the latent creative abilities of the nation's children came in 1993 when it produced its most popular how-to guide ever. Anthea Turner's demonstration of the construction of a replica Thunderbirds Tracy's Island (which cost £34.99 in the shops) using papier-maché and toilet paper tubes, garnered 100,000 factsheet requests.

In later years, the roll call of presenters rotated more rapidly, although it still helped launch the careers of Ms Turner, The One Show's Matt Baker, Yvette Fielding and Konni Huq.

By the 1990s the show was being televised three times a week and by the millennium it had spawned spin-offs including Blue Peter Unleashed and Blue Peter Flies the World alongside twice-weekly broadcasts.

However, its popularity has waned with the explosion in the number of digital channels and the advance of the internet.

At its lowest ebb Blue Peter was attracting just 100,000 viewers and it was bumped from its traditional 5pm slot to accommodate Weakest Link in 2008.

But while some feared it might not survive the corporation's northern migration to Salford Quays this year, the BBC insisted it remained fully committed to the brand.

Next month there will be a "Stargazing Live" special next followed by a nine-part series featuring presenter Helen Skelton's trip to the South Pole.

There will also be a series of special shows following the 2012 Olympic torch relay on its journey around Britain.

Blue Peter: Memorable Moments

1969

Lulu the baby elephant from Chessington Zoo proved unable to control herself during her celebrated visit to the studios. The sight of her hapless keeper holding on for dear life as he was dragged through freshly laid piles of muck and puddles of pee by the over-excited pachyderm remains one of the funniest moments in live TV.

1977

As well as giving the world the catchphrase "get down Shep" John Noakes invented the role of Blue Peter action man. Among his many exploits, which included setting a world skydiving record, was his nerve-jangling ascent of Nelson's Column without a harness.

1981

Few challenges come tougher than Peter Duncan's gruelling debut run in the inaugural London Marathon. The former actor who went on to become chief Scout and fronting his own series Duncan Dares completed the 26mile course in an impressive three hours and 10 minutes

1983

A day of deep distress for presenters and viewers alike when vandals tipped oil into the Blue Peter garden pond, smashing a sun dial and trampling plants. In an improbable confession some years later Spurs star Les Ferdinand admitted helping the vandals "over the wall" but denied causing any damage.

1998

Previous revelations of Peter Duncan's appearance in an adult film and Janet Ellis's unmarried motherhood paled to nothing compared with Richard Bacon's admission that he had experimented with cocaine. The presenter was forced to apologise and quit the show after being exposed by the News of the World.

2010

Ageing critics who said modern day Blue Peter adventures were not as exciting as in their day were firmly put in their place when Helen Skelton completed a 2,000-mile kayak trip along the Amazon for Sport Relief becoming the first women to achieve the feat.

TV History: Presenters' stories

Yvette Fielding (1987-1992)

I've got so many memories of Blue Peter. For an 18-year-old like me it was a dream come true. It's a real shame it's only going to be on once a week, but it's still got that old fashioned stigma attached to it and it still has that 'goody two-shoes' feel. Over time the audience has disappeared. By still having the dog and cat, it's repeating what worked in the 80s and 90s. If I was a producer, I'd whip that show into shape! My children watch it and say it's boring. When they get back from school, they do their homework and ask to go on the computer. That's what kids want to watch now. There are so many online channels – music channels, kids channels. It's their world. There's no Saturday television for kids any more – what happened to Tiswas and SMTV? They've replaced it all with cookery. It's a flipping disgrace. I used to love sitting there with a bowl of cereal and understanding the innuendo that goes over the kids' heads.

Peter Purves (1967-1978)

"In the winter we would get 8.5m viewers and in the summer this would go down to 5.5m when children were out playing in the light nights. There were only three channels then and there was not a lot of choice. The programme was a huge success because of the way it was put together. The editor, Biddy Baxter, was very, very firm; quite autocratic – she did run a very tight ship and she knew exactly what it should be and she was right. As soon as the different channels proliferated, the audience had the opportunity not to watch – there were cartoons and MTV. There are too many memories to talk about, but as a collection it would be the foreign trips. I went to about 27 different countries with them and that was at a time when people didn't really do a lot of travel. Just as we had surrogate pets for the nation with Petra and Shep, we were also surrogate travellers. Children are more sophisticated now – there is no question of that. Blue Peter was quite mundane in its approach. That was what was needed then. It was appropriate. It has been going for 53 years so this is inevitable. I was quite surprised it survived the recent move to Salford Quays."

Anthea Turner (1992-1994)

Moving the show to CBBC is the first nail in the coffin, isn't it? They're absolutely trying to kill it off. I'd be very sad to see in go. In fact there'd be generations of Blue Peter viewers who'd be just as sad. Lots of people used to watch it when I presented – six or seven million – probably as there was nothing else on. It's still a good programme with good presenters, but we have to acknowledge the world has changed; we've got more choice, but it's taken away a lot of good programmes. Ask yourself, when you come home, do you watch a documentary or just put some crap on the television? My stepchildren would come home from school and I'd go: 'Shall we watch Blue Peter?' and they'd say 'no, we want to see Hannah Montana'. On the last day of the show being broadcast from the television centre, I snuck into the Blue Peter garden with Diane Louise Jordan and Janet Ellis and I burst into tears. It was uncared for. It was such a sad place to be. I saw a trellis I put up when I was a presenter and now it was all overgrown, with litter on the floor.

Apparently parts of it were being dug up and taken to a rooftop in Salford, but it's just not the same.

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