BBC defies demands to shift 'Panorama' to weekday slot

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The Independent Online

The BBC has defied calls to move Panorama from its late- night slot on Sunday, despite a report warning that the broadcaster's current affairs programmes are failing to appeal to a mainstream audience.

The BBC has defied calls to move Panorama from its late- night slot on Sunday, despite a report warning that the broadcaster's current affairs programmes are failing to appeal to a mainstream audience.

Instead, BBC1 promised to raise its current affairs output by nearly 30 per cent in an attempt to woo back mainstream viewers and to increase the number of investigations shown at 9pm on weekdays.

A report into the BBC's current affairs output commissioned by the board of governors called for greater "clarity" about the role of Panorama, which sparked an outcry in 2000 when it was moved from 10.05pm on Monday nights to 10.15pm on Sundays. Average viewing figures for the programmes fell from 3.5 million to 2.6 million.

The report added that while the majority of viewers believe they should watch current affairs programmes, they don't really want to. BBC1's current affairs show Real Story, with Fiona Bruce, also came under fire for failing to attract the same level of public awareness as its ITV1 counterpart Tonight with Trevor McDonald.

"Many weeks, ITV1... now shows double the amount of current affairs in peak time than BBC1... we suggest that this is an unsustainable position," the governors said.

BBC management responded by announcing an extra £3m investment to increase primetime current affairs output by 28 per cent to 48.5 hours per week. The funding will come from the budget cuts being implemented across the BBC.

Audience research commissioned by the governors showed that Panorama's Sunday night time slot is a turn-off for viewers who want to relax at the end of the weekend.

But the governors concluded that giving Panorama a regular weekday slot in prime time would prove even more detrimental, because other channels would schedule competitively against it, leading to plummeting viewing figures, which could lead to it being axed.

The BBC's director of television, Jana Bennett, said: " Panorama is one of the most authoritative and respected parts of the BBC1 schedule and will remain so. Our decision, after long consideration, to leave it in its regular Sunday night slot is designed to secure its award-winning, hard-hitting journalism and to support the programme-makers in pursuing the agenda they believe in."

She announced an increase in the number of annual Sunday night Panoramas from 28 to 30 and a doubling of Panorama midweek specials to eight.

In a side-swipe at ITV's Tonight, Ms Bennett added that BBC1's extra investment in current affairs would not be spent on "Trevor-lite" subjects.

In March, the channel will show documentaries on prisons, detention centres for asylum-seekers and on insurance companies, she said. Under the proposals, Real Story will move from a magazine format to focus on single issues and increase from 28 to 32 episodes a year.

But the BBC has a long way to go to appeal to more mainstream viewers, according to the governors, who concluded that current affairs programmes are "not perceived to be very appealing or enjoyable". People already feel over-informed and want to watch television for enjoyment, not to be presented with "more bad news", the report said.

Young adults, digital television viewers and the less well-off are particularly disillusioned, with only 48 per cent of 16- to 44-year-olds tuning in to current affairs programmes, compared to 71 per cent of over-45s.

The report said there was some evidence that current affairs was "ghettoised" in the late 1990s by the former director general John Birt, who moved popular shows such as Watchdog to other departments.

An ITV spokesman insisted that Tonight had a broad agenda, ranging from an exposé of toxins in breast milk to a plot to recruit British citizens into "terror camps" in Pakistan. "These issues by anyone's standards couldn't be considered 'lite'," the spokesman said.

DOCUMENTARY'S DRAMAS

HIGHS

Diana, Princess of Wales

In 1995, 22.8 million people watched Martin Bashir interviewing Diana, Princess of Wales, talking candidly about her life and marriage.

Seroxat

Three Panorama investigations into evidence that the anti-depressant drug Seroxat can cause young people to become suicidal prompted regulators to move to ban the prescription of the drug to under-18s.

Hutton

A Panorama special on the events leading to the Hutton inquiry by the programme's veteran reporter John Ware was described by Melvyn Bragg as "astonishingly bold" although it was only watched by 2.9 million viewers.

LOWS

Difficult birth

When Panorama was launched in November 1953 as the "magazine of informed comment on the contemporary scene" it was criticised internally for lacking visual impact and being too verbal.

Iran

In 1973, Panorama caused the BBC's Iran correspondent to be thrown out of the country after the Shah discovered the programme was planning to report that he was spending oil money on weapons.

Specials

Panorama midweek specials in 2004 failed to bring in a more mainstream audience. An investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib prison attracted just 1.6 million viewers.

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