BBC 'squeezing out serious shows to chase ratings'

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The Independent Online

The BBC was singled out by Ofcom yesterday and told to stop chasing ratings and making copycat television shows as the media regulator claimed current affairs, the arts and religious programmes were being pushed out of peak viewing hours on terrestrial channels.

The BBC was singled out by Ofcom yesterday and told to stop chasing ratings and making copycat television shows as the media regulator claimed current affairs, the arts and religious programmes were being pushed out of peak viewing hours on terrestrial channels.

Serious and challenging programmes, such as Horizon, Newsnight and the South Bank Show are particularly under threat in multichannel homes where they are seen by fewer than half as many viewers as in households without access to digital television, the watchdog's survey of more than 6,000 people revealed. The Ofcom report also revealed that audiences were turning away from arts and religious programming in favour of news, drama and factual shows.

Viewers said they believe there is too little originality and innovation and are concerned that not enough is done to protect children before the 9pm watershed. In the past five years, the number of viewers watching the five main terrestrial channels has fallen by 9 per cent, and the decline is even more pronounced among 16- to 34-year-olds and ethnic minorities.

Between 1998 and 2002 the amount of money spent by the five main terrestrial broadcasters on arts, religious, children's and education shows fell, while overall spending on programmes rose by 19 per cent.

Ofcom also said that it was sympathetic to ITV's desire to drop low-rating "public service" arts and religious programmes - required to be broadcast by commercial channels under the terms of their franchises.

"If there are boxes that have to be ticked, programming doesn't tend to do very well. It tends to be categorised by viewers as a dull arts programme, or a dull religious programme," Ed Richards, Ofcom's senior partner, said.

In the first stage of a wide-ranging review of public service broadcasting, it warned the BBC against falling standards. "The BBC needs to reaffirm its position as the standard setter ... the BBC governors should take the lead in ensuring the BBC addresses concerns about derivative formats, aggressive scheduling, competition for acquired programming and a balanced schedule in peak viewing hours," Ofcom said.

At present, Ofcom has no formal powers over the BBC board of governors, although the BBC does have to submit an annual statement of programme policy.

It also called for a reappraisal of the way public service broadcasting is funded, including whether the BBC licence fee should be lowered, and whether it should be shared with other broadcasters.

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