Media: Why Will Wyatt thinks big: Maggie Brown meets an old-style corporation man who is leading the hunt for the mass audience
Wednesday 26 January 1994
After disappointments such as Scarlet and Black, Lady Chatterley, The Riff Raff Element and the awful Headhunters (currently dragging down Sunday nights), it is a relief to find that, under the right conditions, and just as the Government is drafting a White Paper on the BBC, the corporation can fire on all its Reithian cylinders.
The long overdue retirement from BBC 1 of embarrassing old warhorses such as Jim'll Fix It and That's Life point to the gradual, but painfully slow, upgrading of entertainment output promised by the Director-General, John Birt, in the BBC's blueprint for the future, Extending Choice. How Do They Do That?, which started last night, a series in which Desmond Lynam reveals the secrets behind great achievements (such as piecing together the suitcase that contained the Lockerbie bomb), is one of the first of a new generation of entertainment programmes rushed on to the screens by David Liddiment, the recently appointed head of entertainment. He was recruited from Granada because of his record in spotting ideas that would be mass hits, such as You've Been Framed.
'Anything as big as Producer Choice is difficult,' says Mr Wyatt. 'It's like learning to drive a car: first you have to do it, become capable and then pass your test. That's the stage we are at. I am confident.'
However, problems remain: staff facing the latest application of pay cuts and performance-related pay are on the edge of revolt; and the financial experts of the Independent Television Commission calculate that the BBC is still making programmes far more expensively than ITV. They say that when it comes to the crunch, ITV gets more bangs for its bucks.
An old-style corporation man, but one of the first to defend Mr Birt during last year's tax-avoidance uproar, 51-year-old Mr Wyatt has survived into the new era, and is now benefiting from its return to basic worries about accessibility - how to satisfy all audiences, not just the 'super-served' up-market ones that naturally love Middlemarch.
Since he took on his present position two-and-a-half years ago, there have been dramatic changes at the top of the television service: he produces a sheet of paper with new members of the top team marked in yellow: 19 out of 32. One of the most important is John Smith, the financial controller, who had to sort out the discovery in 1992 of a pounds 60m overspend by the television service.
Charles Denton, head of the company that made Inspector Morse, has also been brought in from the independent sector, as head of drama, to reverse the BBC's poor record in popular drama. As Mr Wyatt is candid enough to say, the BBC needs more hits. The energetic Mr Denton has completely reorganised the department, to the bafflement of producers: but until the new series start to flow in 1995, his effectiveness will be hard to judge.
One of the key tasks, Mr Wyatt says, is to monitor constantly, to spot gaps and any failure to grasp opportunities: 'to make sure we do the big things, in drama, in documentaries' - projects in the BBC's heartland, such as Life in the Freezer and the forthcoming serialisation of Martin Chuzzlewit.
There is no doubt that the organisation was severely shaken by the public's reaction to last summer's grim diet of repeats, reflected in the plunge below the critical 30 per cent audience share for BBC 1: under the competitive Alan Yentob, Mr Wyatt's firm choice for the job of controller of BBC 1, it is making programmes and plotting its schedules for the summer to ensure this never happens again.
Equally, Mr Wyatt is worried about how to communicate a rather sophisticated message: that ratings aren't everything, and that delivering a wide range of programmes - Timewatch, Thatcher: the Downing Street Years, a new programme on books - is incompatible with crude weekly measurements of audiences.
In fact, last autumn there were signs of a fightback, after a ropey first eight months during which the BBC was too feeble to exploit ITV's switch to new franchise conditions. From September to December, BBC 1's share of the terrestrial audience rose one percentage point on the same period in 1992, from 35.1 per cent, to 36.1 per cent, while ITV's fell back slightly, from 43.6 per cent to 43 per cent (though BBC 2 also fell back, to 9.9 per cent from 10.4 per cent). This is partly thanks to the axe falling on Eldorado, but it is also the result of a few smart scheduling tricks, such as running old but watchable family movies at 7pm on Wednesday nights, and just making better daytime programmes.
As yet there are few new successful programmes in either entertainment or drama to point to a sustained revival, but the glee with which the BBC audience fell upon To Play The King and Absolutely Fabulous shows that there is everything to play for.
Using some of the BBC's mighty resources to go for mass audiences is also very much part of the exhaustive review of programme strategy that Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC Radio, and Mr Yentob are now carrying out.
This spring, Mr Wyatt promises, will see the start of a third episode of EastEnders, to match the thrice-weekly Coronation Street, though he is evasive about its day and time.
Mr Wyatt has started a series of meetings at Television Centre in west London for programme-makers to get together to debate practical production problems. 'This is really a massive group, the biggest and most terrific group of programme people in the world, and I want to make sure they all get as much from each other as possible.'
He is scathing about the possibility of London-based, high-profile production being dismembered and distanced from national institutions and the media industry's centre (Mr Birt ordered a decentralisation study, nearly complete, which may, for example, see Radio 2 move to Birmingham). 'There are real advantages, competitive advantages, in having significant groups of people together to make programmes,' Mr Wyatt argues.
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