Greg Dyke on television
Yet again, the BBC has failed to solve its 'Panorama' problem
Monday 04 October 2004
Over the years, there has been more nonsense written about
Panorama than just about any other single programme on British television. The latest is a plan from inside BBC current affairs to "populise"
Panorama, so that it can be moved from late Sunday nights and played in a peak-time slot. Not only is it a terrible idea, it's also bound to fail.
Over the years, there has been more nonsense written about Panorama than just about any other single programme on British television. The latest is a plan from inside BBC current affairs to "populise" Panorama, so that it can be moved from late Sunday nights and played in a peak-time slot. Not only is it a terrible idea, it's also bound to fail.
Panorama is the last current affairs series on British television which comes from that long tradition of investigative journalism which once included Granada's World in Action and Thames Television's This Week. It's the last because, sadly, the British public is no longer enthralled by this sort of journalism.
But it's a style of journalism which matters a great deal in a democracy, and, in recent years, Panorama, with a talented editor in Mike Robinson, has won award after award and rightly so.
There was a period, back in the mists of time, when television was only a three-channel world and Panorama played on BBC1 at the same time as World in Action was on ITV. Both went out at peak time, and both got fair audiences; but the Des O'Connor Show on BBC2 beat them. Then Michael Grade, probably the most competitive controller of BBC1 ever (ironic, given his new status as chairman of the BBC) moved Panorama to 9.30pm and started scheduling competitively between eight and nine.
A few years later, another BBC1 controller, Peter Salmon, moved Panorama to 10pm on a Monday to shift it away from competing with ITV drama - which had started half an hour earlier - and give it a chance against the softer slot of the old News at Ten on ITV.
Then, in 2000, the BBC's new director of television Mark Thompson, supported by me, decided to take over the 10pm slot for the BBC's nightly news; a successful move by any standards. But it did leave a dilemma: where to play Panorama. The choices were later still on a Monday, to move it to 9pm on BBC2 or into the slot it now occupies at 10.15pm on a Sunday.
Mark and I favoured the BBC2 slot but, in the end, the BBC governors decided it should stay on BBC1, so it moved, instead, to Sunday evening.
Now there is a proposal to move it back to peak time. The trouble is that the slot being considered is 8.30pm on a Monday. Not only would this mean reducing the length of Panorama from 40 to 30 minutes, but its competition would be Coronation Street on ITV, meaning it would probably get a smaller audience than its gets on a Sunday night.
So, to give it any chance of competing with the Street, the proposal is to change the last remaining regular investigative show on British television and make it more populist. The plan is to use sexy presenters and cover more accessible subjects.
But why move it at all? Well, the BBC has been embarrassed by Ofcom figures showing that ITV plays more peak-time current affairs; figures which completely ignore the fact that ITV's current affairs is entirely made up of two editions a week of the populist Tonight with Trevor McDonald, that both get small audiences because they are scheduled against EastEnders and that the programme seldom takes on investigative journalism Panorama-style.
The problem with the proposal is that nothing would have been gained: audiences would almost certainly be smaller and many of the difficult subjects Panorama addresses would be forgotten. A better idea would be to leave Panorama where it is, continue to invest in it so it can do good investigative stories and for the BBC to start another populist current affairs strand in the early evening. But, of course, that wouldn't look as good for charter renewal.
Ofcom's big idea could fly
Every so often, an idea is put forward which, from the moment it is proposed, everyone in the television industry believes is a complete no-hoper. Ofcom's plan for a new £300m fund for public service programming looks a bit like that.
While a clever idea, most people in broadcasting suspect it has virtually no chance of flying, but they are not going to say that for fear of offending the television regulator.
They shouldn't be quite so certain. Back in the late 1980s, the proposal from the Peacock Committee that the ITV franchises should be auctioned was greeted with hoots of laughter by the industry until the Thatcher government did it. Subsequently, the ITV auction turned out to be a farce, but that's besides the point.
I suppose the only difference was that the auction proposal was planned to bring more money into the Treasury, while the Ofcom plan is likely to do the opposite.
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