Raymond Snoddy on Broadcasting

Back the BBC to hang on to its viewers in the multi-channel age
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The Independent Online

It's not often you look to senior BBC executives for even a trace of common sense. Too often thinking is dominated by a grandiose plan, produced with or without the assistance of management consultants. And there is an orthodox view of the future, usually tied up with the institutional survival of the corporation.

These days much of it is to do with iPods, podcasts, IPTV, on-demand television, specialist genre channels aimed at narrowly defined age groups, combined with repeated exhortations to keep hitting the red interactive button.

And then along comes Peter Fincham, the controller of BBC1 and the man behind programmes like Jane Eyre, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? and Robin Hood, with a few ideas that confound conventional wisdom.

The trick for the future, according to Fincham, is programmes that are "bigger, deeper and more demanding, that ask more of the viewer". Nothing wrong per se with Changing Rooms, but what we are talking about here is the difference between such programmes and Who Do You Think You Are?, which takes the viewer that bit further by stimulating a nationwide interest in genealogy.

His next offerings will include The State Within, a political thriller set in the UK's Washington embassy, and dramatisations of Little Dorrit and The Passion forEaster 2008.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, attention spans for serious material, he believes, are actually going up. The BBC executive is also particularly pleased that the corporation has managed to re-invent the concept of family viewing, at least on Saturdays, with the likes of Dr Who and Strictly Come Dancing.

Such a thing was thought impossible - television sets in different rooms, not to mention computers and electronic games consoles, meant the family audience was fractured for ever. But Fincham, who has spent most of his career in independent production, goes further and has come up with the most revolutionary doctrine of all.

Fincham believes that people will continue to want "mixed genre" channels like BBC1 and BBC2, and indeed ITV1, as far as the eye can see.

"This stuff matters and it's for the future too and not just the past," says Fincham, who is convinced his mixed-genre strategy will survive the plan to move all of the UK over to multi-channel digital television by 2012.

Some believe moving everyone to digital will change everything and usher in a new world where the audience will start constructing their own schedules from all over the place and that the main traditional channels will begin to look like sad relics compared with their former selves. But there is no reason in logic why it should be so.

More than 70 per cent of the UK population already has access to multi-channel television - anything from 30 to 400 channels - and many of them have had such access for years. Yet most of the time the five main channels command the majority share of viewing. Choice is good but for some unaccountable reason a lot of people still seem to like original, first-run production with high production values made especially for them and prefer it, most of the time, to specialised re-tread channels.

It is not entirely clear why this situation should change utterly when the final 30 per cent of the population who have ignored, in the case of subscription television, 15 years of intense marketing pressure, are finally dragooned into moving to digital by government fiat. Almost by definition they are more likely than most to prefer the traditional channels, whatever devices they are carried on.

All the evidence does indeed suggest that the main growth in the run-up to the end of analogue broadcasts will come from Freeview, the digital terrestrial service. And audience figures show that those with Freeview are more likely than Sky subscribers to spend more time with the traditional channels, particularly the BBC offerings.

There is no guarantee that Fincham's optimism about the future of mixed channels will be proved right. Consumer behaviour is changing rapidly - particularly among the young - and new digital devices come down the road almost on a weekly basic. A year ago, who would have forecast that a service of video clips, some of startling banality, would attract 65,000 new clips a day and turn into a business worth $1.6bn (£849m)?

Television executives often bemoan the fact that their children seem to watch hardly any conventional television at all, still less engage with Strictly Come Dancing or even Little Dorrit.

For now, however, the Fincham vision that mixed-genre, original television is not entirely dead seems a perfectly decent working hypothesis - but there are funding implications for the BBC.

ITV may not be in terminal decline but there is no question that the rise of interactive advertising could increasingly bite into its advertising revenues.

In other countries the outlook for commercial television is just as difficult. Last week's announcement that NBC plans to axe 7,000 jobs and cut spending on both news and prime-time programming is an eloquent insight into where we could be heading. Most alarmingly, NBC says it will no longer be showing expensive dramas and comedies at 8pm. Instead there will be cheaper game-shows.

Against such a background, a properly funded BBC becomes so much more important.

It is time for the Government to stop the game-playing and agree a licence fee generous enough to ensure that original, mixed-genre television services of high quality survive for the next decade.

Ray Snoddy presents the BBC's feedback show 'Newswatch'