BBC: Barren, Banal and Confused

The Corporation will this week address the increasingly rapid drain of star talent and top executives to commercial television. Not a moment too soon
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The Independent Online
NEXT WEDNESDAY a group of 20 of the BBC's top programme executives will meet in the dingy basement room B200 at Television Centre to analyse the week's television output. The discussion is likely to be dominated by one question, the BBC's talent drain, according to a participant, who said: "In one week, we have lost Harry Enfield and Blackadder to Sky. Both of them were snatched from right under the BBC's nose."

Also on the television review board's agenda is the coverage of the eclipse. This, said the BBC insider, raises an even bigger question about the desertion of talent from the Corporation. "The eclipse coverage was miserable - and that was nothing to do with the rain. In the old days, it would have been an authoritative affair, with the BBC fulfilling its role of bringing people together for a national, big event. Wednesday's debacle was more like Blue Peter meets Top of the Pops."

The eclipse programme relied heavily on fresh-faced children's television presenter Jamie Theakston and interpretations of medieval eclipse myths by what appeared to be a sixth-form drama society. It is hard to imagine that even the self-congratulatory programme bosses at the television review board will argue that the Corporation had, on this occasion, realised its core purpose "to nurture and cherish the rich diversity of the UK's heritage identity and cultural life; bringing people together for moments of celebration [and] common experience".

Instead, the eclipse show is sure to provoke further accusations that the BBC has dumbed down. It is also, according to insiders, the ultimate example of a BBC depleted of many of the successful, often high-brow, executives who have deserted the Beeb in favour of commercial television.

In mid-July, for example, the Corporation lost one of its most senior women, Jana Bennett, a former head of science who had become deputy chief executive of BBC Production. An ex-editor of Horizon, she was responsible for landmark series such as The Human Body and Walking with Dinosaurs. "It was right for Jana to leave," said a friend, "she was beaten to the Controller BBC2 job by Jane Root, and the BBC did not offer her any sufficiently exciting alternatives."

A common view in the BBC is that the Corporation should not be losing people of the quality of Ms Bennett, who has a high reputation in the industry, and will now become a senior vice-president at Discovery Communications in the US.

A week later, the BBC lost another top female executive, the head of arts programming, Kim Evans, who is to become executive director of arts at the Arts Council. "Kim is truly devoted to the arts, but has been unable to resist continual pressure to downgrade arts programming on the BBC," said a BBC producer. "While she ran the department, Arena was cut from 20 to seven weeks a year, and Omnibus from 25 to 14."

Others complain that in the wake of Ms Evans's departure, Ms Root has been unable to come up with any vision of the future of arts programming on the BBC. "There's a real fear that the arts will be taken even less seriously than in the past," said a former BBC programme-maker. "Internal BBC research shows that people want arts programmes as little as they want politics." Yet provision of high-quality arts programming, from the Proms to opera, is a central part of the BBC's remit.

In mainstream factual programmes there has been a significant exodus. Tim Gardam, a former editor of Newsnight and Panorama, and one of the most talented current affairs executives in television, left for Channel 5 a few years ago, and is now director of programmes at Channel 4. Steve Hewlett, a very highly regarded editor of Inside Story and Panorama, left when he failed to win the job of Controller of BBC1, and is now director of programmes at Carlton.

The list is extensive. Stephen Lambert, the groundbreaking editor of Modern Times, who applied art-house values to documentary-making, left a year ago. A pioneer of docusoaps at the BBC, overseeing The Cruise, Pleasure Beach and Vets in Practice, he is now developing a new documentary strand, Real Life, for ITV. Jeremy Mills, who was responsible for Airport, Hotel and Paddington Green, has also left to become a director of Lion Television. Instead of working for the BBC, he now negotiates with it. He recently won the contract to produce the Beeb's most expensive documentary ever, Castaway 2000, which will follow the fates of hundreds of volunteers abandoned on a chilly windswept Scottish island, left to create a new community.

In sports, executive Brian Barwick left the BBC 18 months ago, and as head of sport for ITV is responsible for luring away presenters Des Lynam and Ally McCoist.

"The BBC has underestimated the significance of some of the people it has lost," said a BBC defector. "It is increasingly at a disadvantage against the commercial sector - it does not offer share options and financial incentives. Its attraction, which still exists to a large degree, is that the BBC has status, and you should be proud to work there. The problem is that, in the past, working for the BBC was being on the winning team, it does not always feel like that any more."

Agents handling on-screen artists have a slightly different explanation of the BBC's newfound ability to lose its stars. "The BBC really needs someone in charge of handling talent, who has time to have a dialogue with artists," said one agent. "If an artist works for an independent production house, they will be phoned and future plans will be under constant discussion. But with the BBC, it is so big, so diverse and communication so bad that an artist is often the last person to know if their series has been recommissioned." Channel controllers spend more time talking to schedulers and worrying about audience research than talking to top agents and the talent they represent.

The problem, say many television executives, should be addressed at the highest levels in the BBC. But that is not easy when the Director-General is about to leave the Corporation, and the new man, Greg Dyke, is not yet in place. At the next stage down, Will Wyatt, the chief executive of BBC Broadcast, retires at the end of the year. "There are so many priorities in Greg Dyke's in-tray that the meaning of priority is devalued," said a defector. "But he should definitely put the talent-drain problem to the top of the pile."

EXECUTIVE EXODUS: CAN THE CORPORATION AFFORD TO LOSE THIS AMOUNT OF TALENT?

WILL WYATT

Chief executive of BBC Broadcast, and, in effect, the deputy Director- General of the BBC. Crucial when John Birt took over as Director- General, standing by him on Newsnight during Birt's Armanigate scandal. Well liked and a sensational manager - he has survived endless political Corporation upheavals. Would have been an excellent Director-General, had he not been on the point of retirement when the job came up this year.

JANA BENNETT

BBC high-flyer. As head of science, pioneered a move towards popular factual programming with the introduction of Animal Hospital, but has a highbrow background as editor of Horizon. Rising to chief executive of BBC Production, narrowly lost the race to be Controller BBC2. Now off to Washington as a senior vice-president of Discovery Communications.

KIM EVANS

Fought the good fight for the arts in her six years as head of BBC arts - but was faced with ever-increasing demand for more popular programming. "Airtime has to be fought for," she said last year, "so we need great storytellers making films that will grab people and keep hold of them." Presided over ever-diminishing numbers of editions of Omnibus and Arena. Now joining the Arts Council as executive director of arts.

BRIAN BARWICK

Poached from the BBC 18 months ago to become ITV's head of sport, where he pulled off the coup of the year by luring Des Lynam to ITV, then adding Ally McCoist to his team. Straight-talking and a good negotiator, he has now also become the director of programmes for the new ITV 2 digital channel - which will be heavily influenced by football.

STEVE HEWLETT

A BBC talent who was wisely brought into Panorama from Inside Story in order to improve the "story-telling" qualities of the old current affairs war horse. Left the BBC when he was beaten to the post of Controller BBC1 by Peter Salmon, and joined Channel 4 as head of factual programmes. Has now gone on to greater things at Carlton, where he is director of programmes.

STEPHEN LAMBERT

Became a star at the BBC as the series editor of Modern Times, and specialised in the high art "documentary as cinema" genre. Was responsible for Death on Request, a BBC documentary featuring an assisted suicide. Also pioneered the docusoap, overseeing The Cruise, Pleasure Beach, Vets in Practice and Clampers. Says the ultimate docusoap would "get inside No 10". Now at RDF television making prime-time programmes for ITV.

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