Highbrow agenda to be restored to BBC 1

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The Independent Online
THE OUTGOING BBC director-general, Sir John Birt, has demanded a wide-ranging review of BBC 1's schedule in order to enhance its public- service remit and protect his legacy.

The review comes after BBC executives were criticised by their governors in the corporation's annual report yesterday for pushing too many highbrow programmes late into the night and for a lack of distinctiveness during daytime.

The first thing planned for the review, conducted by Alan Yentob, the BBC's director of television, is to find earlier slots for factual, current affairs and arts programmes. Likely beneficiaries include Panorama, which was moved out of the way for Birds of a Feather, Question Time, Omnibus and Film 99. It also wants more "landmark" science series, like The Human Body, which it can air in peak time.

Sir John Birt said yesterday: "It's about holding our nerve on BBC 1, absorbing what ITV has done in moving News at Ten, and the barrage of assault we've had from them airing games shows night after night.

"Other organisations might have been tempted to go for ratings," he added, "but the future for BBC 1 is to have a balanced schedule in peak time."

Daytime programmes need an overhaul, says the annual report. The aftermath of the faked guests on the Vanessa Show has called into the question some of BBC 1's confessional and daytime chat shows, expected to be replaced, long- term.

Mr Yentob said reinvigorating BBC 1's public service commitments need not mean losing viewers. "BBC 1 is a mass audience channel, but of a range and ambition that is distinctive and quality television."

He indicated the BBC could hold viewers if it stopped moving late evening programmes around. "We need to find some consistency. Fans of arts programmes and fans of current affairs need to know where to look for their programmes."

The governors' report also asked the BBC to improve on some of its more populist genres. Entertainment shows on Saturday nights killed off Noel's House Party. As a result the corporation was called upon to stop aping ITV popular dramas. BBC Production, the programme-making division, has already said it is already trying to overhaul its new lightweight dramas Harbour Lights and Sunburn. Both been critically panned.

The governors appealed for the second year for the corporation to improve the standard of its situation comedy output. "The BBC needs to work harder to find the successors to Basil Fawlty and Victor Meldrew," said their report.

In radio the governors acknowledged that Radio 4 had moved quickly to drop failing programmes in its new schedule, but said the network's Parliamentary coverage is likely to be reinstated on Radio 4 FM. Since moving to Radio 4 long wave only, a move which angered MPs, Yesterday in Parliament has seen its ratings collapse markedly.

Sir Christopher Bland, presenting the annual report, defended the process for selecting a successor to Sir John Birt.

"The criticisms have been ludicrous and unfair. The process has been measured, careful, thorough and professional. We plan to announce the name by the end of June, or early July. It will have taken six months, which is acceptable for one of the hardest jobs in Britain."

"The publicity," he added, "has not made things easier on the candidates and that I regret - extremely inaccurate and imprecise things have been written, but then the BBC is not like any other organisation. None of the governors have ever appointed a chief executive in a goldfish bowl like this."

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