Birds of a Feather knock Panorama off its perch

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The BBC is courting controversy by moving its flagship current affairs programme Panorama permanently to a later time to make way for a ratings-boosting situation comedy.

From 2 June, Panorama will move to 10pm on Monday nights while its current 9.30 slot is replaced by a new series of Birds of a Feather.

The BBC denied that the move signals a downgrading in its commitment to current affairs and but it does admit that it has been losing the battle for ratings on a Monday nights. It claims the move should boost Panorama's ratings as well as the whole channel's evening's audience.

Mark Thompson, acting controller of BBC 1, said: "We want to strengthen and broaden BBC 1's Monday-night line-up. Panorama has a well-earned reputation for powerful and highly relevant journalism. Both it and the Nine O'clock News should benefit from these changes."

Panorama, which has been running for 44 years, has been in its present 9.30 slot for 12 years. Its average viewing figures last year were 4.3 million. The BBC claims that Panorama already gets 1 million extra viewers from ITV for the last ten minutes of Panorama when News at Ten starts.

News at Ten itself has been at the centre of a controversy about the importance of current affairs in an increasingly competitive broadcasting environment.

John Major, the then prime minister, intervened in 1993 to prevent ITV from moving News at Ten to an earlier slot. ITV still wants to move the programme so that it can run the more highly rating movies without being interrupted by the news.

ITV now drops its documentary strand World in Action during summer months and has virtually committed the programme to a ratings graveyard by putting it up against EastEnders at 8pm rather than in a later, more valuable, slot.

Situation comedies are increasingly moving into more "serious" time slots after 9pm. Men Behaving Badly succeeded in this slot while factual programmes like Inside Story, Crimewatch UK and QED have been moved to 10pm over recent years.

"Other factual programmes have done well when they have moved to this time," said Steve Hewlett, editor of Panorama."

The programme has already tried to boost its ratings by moving away from long studio discussions and the so-called Birtian analysis, to more human stories. One report last year attracted headlines by presenting research that working mothers were harming their children's education by not staying at home.