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Current affairs journalism and quality drama on television have suffered a "rapid decline", wounded by the drive for ratings, cost-cutting and centralised decision-making, says a major independent study.

Current affairs journalism and quality drama on television have suffered a "rapid decline", wounded by the drive for ratings, cost-cutting and centralised decision-making, says a major independent study.

Coverage of political, foreign and economic current affairs is in a "critical condition", and virtually confined to the BBC, while ITV leans on police and crime stories to drive up ratings, according to the report by academics at the University of Westminster.

It reserves particular criticism for Granada's new current affairs programme Tonight with Trevor McDonald which, its says, is typical of a predominant new softer style.

"The subject matter and the presentational style - the way it is filmed, written and presented - is lighter and demands less viewer concentration than more challenging and complex current affairs," the report says. An interview by Martin Bashir with a "gold-digging wife", for example, was "a rather different approach to current affairs", epitomising journalism "that is personalised and centres fundamentally on individual experiences".

One producer told the study: "[ITV has] scrapped World in Action, The Big Story and 3D, and replaced them with something that might offer you a little of Kosovo, but wrapped around in miracle cures and sick kids and pseudo celebs. You've got a chocolate mousse of most of the ingredients, and now and then you'll stick in a few meatier chunks to keep the discerning audience happy."

Even at the BBC, the report says, there is pressure to produce "softer" stories and achieve higher ratings. A Panorama producer told the study: "The encouragement is that we become more tabloid, that we are domestic, that we are human interest. There's a definite message that current affairs is boring, that documentaries are interesting, docu-soaps are what people watch, where you minimise the journalism."

The report, commissioned by the Campaign for Quality Television and released today, says only BBC2 is doing substantial foreign affairs coverage. Outside news programmes, ITV has very little and Channel 4 practically none.

Police and crime programmes on television have more than trebled in 10 years. ITV's crime programmes have doubled, and Channel 4's have increased five-fold. Single dramas have halved over 20 years, and soap operas have multiplied fivefold. In drama, says the report, a "demand for peak-time ratings has led to a reliance on predictable drama hits with recognised stars, and a move from experimentation, new ideas, new talent or different techniques."

Much of the blame is put on ever-tighter budgets for programme makers, and reliance on focus groups for material that will bring high ratings. The report concludes: "There is a distinct feeling we are seeing the progressive 'Disneyfication' of British television culture where the bright, safe, glossy and formulaic guaranteed ratings successes are displacing more challenging, stimulating and enlightening approaches to programme making."

Terrestrial channels say the report is being selective. "What about The Lakes, A Respectable Trade, The Cops, This Life and Warriors?" said a BBC drama spokesman. "There is a huge investment in development and new talent at the BBC." There had been economies, but: "They are about getting maximum value for the licence-payer," he said.

A BBC news and current affairs spokesman said: "In the past year, programmes on BBC1 have included four specials on Kosovo, a Northern Ireland investigation, an exposé of Formula One, genocide in Rwanda and a European election special. At the moment, there is The Major Years, run over three weeks."

David Lloyd, Channel 4's head of news, current affairs and business, was outraged by some of the report and said Channel 4 was the only one to schedule its flagship current affairs programme - Dispatches - in the heart of peak time.

"Channel 4 is committed to a broad range of current affairs, specifically including politics and current affairs," he said.

Extracting two months "at random" and comparing them with decades earlier was "flawed" methodology, and researchers had missed Channel 4 current affairs programmes Bye Bye Blues about the fall of the Conservatives and A Parcel Of Rogues about Scottish nationalism, he said.

"Sweeping conclusions based on such research cannot be taken seriously."

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