Corporation 'must ditch reality TV in its latest reinvention'

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The Independent Online

Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, has signalled a major new direction in programming for the corporation, pledging to ditch reality television and lifestyle shows in favour of comedy and other areas of "excellence". In his first public speech since taking over the position in June, Mr Thompson said the BBC had been forced to reinvent itself every 20 years or so by technological, political and social change.

Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, has signalled a major new direction in programming for the corporation, pledging to ditch reality television and lifestyle shows in favour of comedy and other areas of "excellence". In his first public speech since taking over the position in June, Mr Thompson said the BBC had been forced to reinvent itself every 20 years or so by technological, political and social change.

"Charter renewal is the right time for the outside world to put the BBC under the microscope. It's also the right time for the BBC to take a searching look at every aspect of what it does," Mr Thompson said. "Every couple of decades or so, the BBC has virtually reinvented itself as an institution ­ after the Second World War, in the Sixties, again in the late 1980s and early 1990s."

He compared his new editorial vision with the sea change brought in by his predecessor, John Birt, nearly 20 years ago. Then,Mr Birt announced that news and current affairs was the cornerstone of the organisation.

Mr Thompson described the news and current affairs revolution of the 1980s as "lopsided" and said the BBC was drawing up a list of other areas, including comedy, that should receive "top billing alongside news and its contribution to public value".

The director general promised to overhaul the BBC's programme strategy to weed out shows that do not have a strong public service element.

"In genres where the BBC does not have a paramount mission ­ some of the light factual genres, leisure and lifestyle, format documentary, reality, some forms of general entertainment ­ we have to be very sure that we really are adding something distinctive and original and valuable within each genre," he said in a speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

Mr Thompson singled out the motoring show Top Gear and the recent Jimmy's Farm ­ about a young man trying to make a living as a pig farmer ­ as lifestyle and reality programmes that fulfil these criteria, but added there was "a temptation to give in to the derivative and the tired ­ to move away from public value" in these genres. His comments came two days after Lorraine Heggessey, the BBC1 controller, announced that the long-running property makeover show, Changing Rooms, would be taken off air.

The BBC would shift its focus to areas such as comedy, which play an important role in the cultural life of the nation but which were becoming "increasingly hard" for commercial broadcasters to justify financially, Mr Thompson said.

"With Radio 4 and BBC3, as well as BBC1 and BBC2, the resources and the space to develop and grow new talent, to me the BBC's role in comedy is just as pivotal as its role in news," he said.

"Although comedy is a branch of entertainment, I still think most people would accept it plays a critical part in reflecting our national culture and the way we live."

The former chief executive of Channel 4, who was responsible for Big Brother during his time at the channel, said that commercial broadcasters could not afford to take the same high-minded approach because they needed the income to fund public service programmes such as Operatunity.

"You may decry Big Brother 5. What terrible dumbing down. How seedy. But in a straightforward, profit-and-loss way which you can measure to the nearest pound coin, Big Brother helps pay for Channel 4 News and Operatunity," he said.

EVOLUTION OF THE BBC

THE FIFTIES

Emergence of the first great BBC TV stars, such as David Attenborough, Eamonn Andrews and Jack Warner. Builds reputation for drama with The Quatermass Experiment andNineteen Eighty Four. With the arrival of ITV in 1955, the BBC ups its game withPanorama, Grandstand and Blue Peter.

THE SIXTIES

The arrival of factual shows such as Horizon and Tomorrow's World and more popular programming such as Top of the Pops. Attempts to reflect the changing values of society bring the BBC into conflict with Mary Whitehouse and her Clean Up TV campaign.

THE SEVENTIES

Landmark drama productions such as I, Claudius and Pennies from Heaven (right) contribute to a golden age. The Seventies are also a classic era for comfy sitcoms such as The Good Life, Are You Being Served and Last of the Summer Wine.

THE EIGHTIES

Current affairs dominate with the arrival of Newsnight and Rough Justice, and coverage of the Falklands War and the miners' strike. Launch of EastEnders and Neighbours.

THE NINETIES

The emergence of big costume dramas such as Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch, and natural history blockbusters such as The Human Body and Walking with Dinosaurs.

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