Grade orders review of BBC1 shows

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A review of BBC1 was ordered by the BBC's governors yesterday, in an acknowledgement that viewers have become increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of the flagship channel's output.

A review of BBC1 was ordered by the BBC's governors yesterday, in an acknowledgement that viewers have become increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of the flagship channel's output.

In the organisation's annual report, the governors chose to highlight findings that audiences increasingly thought that BBC programmes were not as good as they were.

"We are ... concerned about a decline in perceptions of the quality of BBC output over recent years, with people marginally less inclined to agree with the statement that 'the BBC maintains high standards of quality'," they wrote, adding that viewers and listeners had become less likely to agree with the claim that the BBC "sets the standard for programme making in the UK".

They expressed particular concerns about BBC1, which they said had experienced problems in finding the right balance in its entertainment programming. They have asked a team of advisers to undertake an independent study to assess whether or not the channel has the "best balance of output" in peak time.

The review will look at the difficulties that Lorraine Heggessey, the BBC1 controller, has faced in commissioning programmes which have a "distinctiveness" borne out of "innovation and risk-taking" but at the same time "meet the needs of a mainstream audience".

The annual report stated: "Finding successful original formats for Saturday nights remains a particular challenge."

At a press conference at the House of Commons yesterday, Mark Thompson, the BBC's new director general, BBC1 strongly defended BBC1, expressing surprise it was under fire.

"It genuinely does not show that there's any acute anxiety about BBC1," Mr Thompson said of the report. "On the contrary, the governors say that the objectives that they set for BBC1, BBC2, BBC3, BBC4 ... they can see progress towards many of them."

Mr Thompson chose to highlight the appeal of Bruce Forsyth's show Strictly Come Dancing as an example of how BBC1 was addressing difficulties in retaining audiences on Saturday evenings. "It's a programme you can all sit down and watch together," he said. "It was a bit of a clarion call and showed a bit of a breakthrough on Saturday nights."

The annual report also highlighted failings in the BBC's journalism during the Iraq war, most notably its inaccurate reporting of the fall of Basra, early in the conflict. "There were times when military sources (forecasting the imminent fall of Basra, for example) were not treated with enough scepticism," said the governors.

They also expressed the view that other news organisations had deployed technology that "provided more vivid television coverage" and acknowledged that some of the BBC's special current affairs programmes "did not make the expected impact".

This year's annual report marked a new beginning for the BBC. It was compiled independently of the organisation's management, as a result of changes introduced in the wake of the Hutton inquiry.

Michael Grade, the new BBC chairman, said: "Traditionally the annual report and accounts has been as much about marketing the BBC as holding it to account - and as much about management's view of its own performance as about the governors' view of management's performance. This annual report is different." But the report was largely supportive of the work that the BBC has done in the past year and at the press conference, Mr Grade was defensive in response to criticisms of the organisation, but he did say he believed there was no place on the board for individuals who brought their political views to the job.

"The symbolism of my appointment was that political people with clear and very open political allegiances in the top jobs of the BBC - those days are over," he said. "I would like to see politics kept out of the boardroom of the BBC."

Earlier, under questioning from the House of Commons Culture Select Committee, Mr Grade said the corporation was considering selling its commercially-funded international news and information channel BBC World, which made a loss of £16.5m last year.

Mr Grade said: "We have to worry about these losses and reach a decision sooner rather than later ... it's very, very high on the agenda."


Brucie still a winner but Saturday night has lost its magic

What will happen to our Saturday night telly when Brucie finally hangs up his dancing shoes?

For a generation and more, The Generation Game was the defining Saturday moment, with audiences of 21 million settling down to watch Bruce Forsyth hand over prizes that could have come from the Argos catalogue. "Nice to see you, to see you nice," the BBC executives of the time might have said. But during the past decade, the appetite for Saturday night television has almost disappeared.

Changing family structures and the rise of other entertainments have turned what was once the prime slot in the weekly schedule into a graveyard.

Attempts to give platforms to new Saturday night stars have floundered, not helped by the tabloid stories that have dogged the likes of Michael Barrymore and Matthew Kelly.

By last August, the situation had become so bad that Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol UK, told channel controllers that people now preferred to watch their own DVDs, play computer games or go to the cinema, rather than spend the evening with relatives. "No programme will again attract a regular audience of 12 million on a Saturday," Mr Bazalgette wrote. "Saturday is the one night of the week when most of us now seek bespoke entertainment. We don't want a shared experience; we want to design our own."

So the industry plans to go back to basics. The EastEnders actor, Shane Ritchie, has led calls for a return of the Seventies revue Summertime Special. ITV poached the veteran interviewer, Michael Parkinson, from BBC1. And BBC1 called back Brucie. The 76-year-old's Strictly Come Dancing pulled in nine million viewers, the biggest Saturday night success since the launch of the National Lottery nine years ago.

Ian Burrell