Better Later than never

Obscure bands. Small audiences. No wonder the BBC can't handle cult music shows. But they'd be wrong to mess with Later.

BBC director general Greg Dyke has problems with BBC2. It has, he said at the Edinburgh Television Festival, not yet forged a distinct identity. Yet one programme that has carved out a distinct niche for BBC2 audiences is, I understand, under threat. The future of
Later with Jools Holland, the late-night live music show, has been the subject of internal discussions among the channel hierarchy. Sources say that BBC2 controller Jane Root is unhappy with the low viewing figures (the BBC claims 600,000, though some programmes certainly get an even lower figure than that), and would like the programme to be less pure. She is known to want to mix the music with guest comedians and stars of other BBC shows like
League of Gentlemen and
Goodness Gracious Me.

BBC director general Greg Dyke has problems with BBC2. It has, he said at the Edinburgh Television Festival, not yet forged a distinct identity. Yet one programme that has carved out a distinct niche for BBC2 audiences is, I understand, under threat. The future of Later with Jools Holland, the late-night live music show, has been the subject of internal discussions among the channel hierarchy. Sources say that BBC2 controller Jane Root is unhappy with the low viewing figures (the BBC claims 600,000, though some programmes certainly get an even lower figure than that), and would like the programme to be less pure. She is known to want to mix the music with guest comedians and stars of other BBC shows like League of Gentlemen and Goodness Gracious Me.

Ms Root is known to be enamoured of Hootnannie, the channel's New Year's Eve offering, which has exactly that mix, and has wondered aloud to colleagues why Later could not do that on a regular basis. It could even move into Prime Time. The alternative, as some dissident voices in the corporation have muttered, is to look hard at the ratings figures and the Later audience which is solidly over 35, and axe the show in favour of a more youth-appealing dance music show. Some who have been involved in meetings about the show have heard senior channel figures question why there are so many obscure bands on.

Ms Root would not be the first to have problems with an intelligent late-night music show with low viewing figures. The Old Grey Whistle Test may be a fondly remembered part of broadcasting history; but it did not have the competition of MTV, VH1 and other dedicated music channels. And even the Whistle Test fell foul of the controllers in its day. More recently Channel 4 axed The White Room because its ratings could not justify its regular slot.

But to fiddle with Later would be a bad mistake, particularly when director of television Mark Thompson and others are prepared to say publicly that ratings should not be the sole criterion for BBC programmes. It is the programme's identity as a pure music programme that brings big names on to it, eager to play with new bands. It is the cult nature of its late night slot with "non celeb" chat that is purely about the music that holds an audience that may be small, but is knowledgeable and obsessive, and holds the channel in high regard for breaking new bands and keeping it up to speed with what is happening.

Part of the problem now facing the show is a matter of internal bureaucracy. It no longer comes under music commissioning, but under entertainment. The entertainment head Danielle Lux will have Later competing with her other entertainment shows, and its viewing figures will no doubt give her pause for thought.

But despite its low viewing figures, it only costs around £75,000 per show and since it came on air in 1992, has had a disproportionate influence on musical taste. It has given British TV debuts to the now world-famous Moby, to Macy Gray, Catatonia, Stereophonics, Gomez, Portishead, Coldplay, David Gray and Cornershop.

Bands like Radiohead and Travis make this one of the few shows they will appear on because they are likely to rub shoulders with a new band and Paul McCartney on the same programme and know that they are playing to a sophisticated and knowledgeable audience.

Later was created by the respected and award-winning BBC music producer Marc Cooper. He was away ill yesterday and unavailable for comment. But he is known to be averse to moving the show. And a senior colleague said: "Artists come on to Later because they know it is a music show. That gets Van Morrison to come on with Lonnie Donegan. Once you turn it into a variety show, they won't come on."

Bernard Doherty, publicist for the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, the Brit Awards and the Mobos, said yesterday: " Later doesn't get huge audiences, but the audience that watches are committed lovers of good contemporary music and it would be a tragedy if they took it off. Radio 1 puts a lot of people off now because it has become a dance station."

While sources say that Jools Holland has no objection to a prime-time slot, trying to move or, worse, even axe the show, would certainly cause a row within the BBC, and alienate rock audiences and the music industry.

A BBC spokeswoman said yesterday that a new series of Later returns in October and that series, beginning with a special featuring Moby, will go out at 10.50pm on Saturday nights. She added that there were no plans to move the programme from its current slot.

However, senior sources confirm that the future of Later is under discussion. Far from being axed, it may, of course, be earlier and bigger in a year's time. But in this case that won't necessarily mean better.

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