'Elitist' BBC admits it must go downmarket: Yentob says high income groups 'served too well' as main TV channel's ratings fall and Tully condemns 'Big Brother' management

Click to follow
THE BBC admitted yesterday that it is too elitist and has to go downmarket to attract mass audiences.

Against a background of falling audiences, a dramatic loss of viewers to ITV and upheaval inside the BBC over its future direction, senior corporation executives acknowledged that they had to appeal to a wider


Alan Yentob, Controller of BBC 1, who has led a re-evaluation of television programmes, told the Radio Academy Festival in Birmingham: 'The BBC clearly looks after the ABC1 audience (the high income groups) but there is a sense from our research that we perhaps look after them too well.

'We do believe that we need to talk to the whole audience and address them all in different parts of the schedule. That other audience is not so well served.'

The debate about the BBC's ethos and how it should respond to competition from the independent sector has become critical because the most recent viewership figures show BBC 1 winning 28.9 per cent - the channel's lowest figure since 1985 - while ITV's Channel 3 scored 41.4 per cent.

Paradoxically, ITV announced that it intends to move upmarket, apparently in response to advertisers' demands that they wanted to reach a younger and wealthier audience.

The announcement came as the BBC's management style was publicly criticised at the festival by one of its veteran correspondents, Mark Tully, 57, who has spent many years covering India.

He delivered a measured but emotional denunciation of John Birt, the Director-General. He described a corporation racked with fear and sycophancy, run by 'Big Brother' Mr Birt.

The speech was received with wide enthusiasm. BBC executives rejected Mr Tully's arguments but were careful not to criticise his sincerity or integrity.

The BBC's decision to reach out to the mass market is a tacit admission that too many resources have been devoted to strengthening news and current affairs, with the result that other parts of the output have been neglected and many licence payers find little they want to watch. The new thinking was revealed by Mr Yentob and Liz Forgan, the Managing Director of Radio, who were asked in January by Mr Birt to conduct a wide-ranging review of whether the corporation's programmes meet consumers' needs. The review will not be completed until the end of the year.

Mr Yentob said the BBC's own research showed that it 'can sometimes appear remote from people's lives. There is a strong feeling that we are not managing accurately to reflect regional differences.

'They talk about the tone of voice in which we address our audience. Are we sometimes too distant? Does the voice of authority militate against warmth?'

Mr Yentob said he was especially concerned with how to make news and current affairs, which he called 'one of the glories of the BBC', more acceptable to young people who do not live in the South-east and who are 'not the ABC1 audience'.

He said he was looking at many possibilities, including an early evening current affairs programme on BBC 1, similar to the old Nationwide and Tonight.

Mr Yentob conceded that the BBC had let ITV take the lead in popular drama. There were also complaints that the BBC did not screen popular entertainment at a time when people wanted to watch it. He was working on both those concerns.

'We need to make popular programmes which are distinctive and distinctive programmes which are popular with a substantial audience.'

Asked how he reconciled the new emphasis on entertainment with the recent decision to move Jim Moir from his post as Head of Light Entertainment, Mr Yentob said there was no reason to believe that Mr Moir's successor would have any less of a feel for popular taste.

He said that Radios 1 and 2 emerged well out of the research but Radios 3 and 4 'which characterise the middle-class BBC' need to be looked at. Ms Forgan added: 'Classic FM has a lot to teach Radio 3 about how to make listeners feel welcome to it.'

Later in the day, a BBC governor, Shahwar Sadeque, said that if the governors had taken more trouble to consult public opinion they would not have allowed Mr Birt to proceed with the plan, now in temporary suspension, to remove Radio 4 from long wave and replace it with a rolling news network.

'Fear rules,' page 3

David Hatch, page 19

BBC under Birt, page 19

Leading article, page 21

(Photograph omitted)