Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

Time we said goodbye to the all-powerful commissioners
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The Independent Online

It will be interesting to see whether the appointment of Peter Fincham as the new controller of BBC1 leads to a significant change in the way the channel is commissioned. Coming from non-programme-making origins - he was originally an agent who created an independent production company with some of his clients - he could be just the right person to begin to relax the tyranny of the commissioner, a tyranny which has grown exponentially in television in recent years.

It will be interesting to see whether the appointment of Peter Fincham as the new controller of BBC1 leads to a significant change in the way the channel is commissioned. Coming from non-programme-making origins - he was originally an agent who created an independent production company with some of his clients - he could be just the right person to begin to relax the tyranny of the commissioner, a tyranny which has grown exponentially in television in recent years.

Until 20-odd years ago there was no such thing as commissioners in British television; channel controllers were largely schedulers who had the job of creating a channel schedule out of a whole range of programmes being delivered to them by in-house production departments. In those days the power of what was made and broadcast largely belonged to the heads of those departments who were also responsible for making sure the programmes were well produced.

This began to change in 1982 with the arrival of Channel 4 when it was decided the channel would have no in-house production staff and all its programmes would be commissioned either from the ITV companies or independent producers. This led to the appointment of people called "commissioning editors".

The original commissioning system on Channel 4 worked well because it was wonderfully eclectic, with the channel's first chief executive Jeremy Isaacs insisting that commissioners choose the programmes they wanted and the schedulers had to live with it. It made scheduling difficult but the programme mix was interesting. The commissioned producers were also allowed to get on and make programmes with little interference from the channel, but over the years that gradually changed with control becoming more and more centralised. It culminated in Tim Gardam's period as director of programmes when he was all powerful and would demand to make decisions about even the smallest detail.

ITV was the next to go over to a centrally commissioned system. Until 1993 the five "major" ITV companies - Granada, Yorkshire, Central, LWT and Thames - each decided what they would make for the network. There were, for instance, five people who could commission drama for ITV; they were the heads of drama at the ITV companies and they were also responsible for producing the drama, or supervising it if it came from an independent company. The results of that system were pretty good and many of ITV's best and most popular dramas such as A Touch of Frost, Heartbeat, Inspector Morse, Poirot, Cracker, Minder and The Bill were all a product of it.

But all that was changed when the Independent Television Commission decided that, after the 1991 franchise round, there should be an ITV network centre which was given the network budget and would commission all network programmes. Instead of five drama commissioners there would only be one. The same applied in entertainment, factual programmes and current affairs. ITV's fall in audience share since then has been dramatic.

When Channel Five was set up a system of commissioning editors was a given, and finally the BBC went the same way in the late 1990s when John Birt introduced the production-broadcasting split into the corporation. Knowing it would be unpopular he developed it in secret with his favourite management consultants McKinsey and sprung it on an unsuspecting BBC. Overnight the all-powerful BBC production department heads lost their powers to say yes or no to a new programme. Instead they had to sell their ideas and programmes to the channel controllers and their newly created commissioners.

In my time as director-general I changed the system back in some areas - children's and sport are just two areas where the heads of department can today commission and be responsible for 75 per cent of production - but I still regret not being more radical.

Of course, what made all this necessary was the coming of the 25 per cent independent production quota and - for ITV in particular - the need to demonstrate that there was fair and open competition for programme supply. But I would argue that what we have ended up with is all-powerful commissioners who, quite often, are less talented than the producers or production companies they are bossing around.

People who used to be mere mortals are talked of in hallowed terms by producers once they become commissioners, and even more so if they are channel controllers. Their every word is listened to as if it is coming from on high. Of course, their power is based on the fact that they control the money and can say yes or no to the producer's idea but it has created an unhealthy, sycophantic, even infantile system.

This is where Peter Fincham comes in. Instead of reading every script, deciding who the stars of a new drama should be, and demanding to see umpteen rough cuts - as many controllers and commissioners now do - he could instead trust the programme-makers to make a decent programme. If they don't he would reject their next idea. He could begin to reverse the trend that has made channel controllers and commissioners all powerful and hand some of that power back to the producers. But then it takes a pretty special turkey to vote for Christmas.

We'll never know what not to wear

Having been accused of being both a biter and would-be strangler in his early career, maybe it's time for BBC director-general Mark Thompson to clear the decks of potential scandals and share with the world his most embarrassing secret: the tape of when he was made over by Trinny and Susannah.

The makeover was the idea of Jane Root, the then controller of BBC2, and was planned as a leaving present for Mark when he left the BBC to become chief executive of Channel 4. For some reason he agreed to the idea and allowed the fearsome women from What Not to Wear to suggest how his overall look could be improved. A tape was made and shown to a select few inside BBC Television, but then it disappeared and wasn't available when it was needed to be shown at Mark's leaving party. Today no one is quite sure where the tape is. But being mauled by Trinny and Susannah clearly changed Mark's attitude to his appearance. Although he hasn't taken to buying fashionable clothes, he has grown that rather distinctive ginger beard.

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