Something has to give at the BBC and it won't be 'Strictly Come Dancing'

As the corporation tightens its belt and slashes jobs, expect fewer original programmes and a raid of the archives but not the end of its digital channels. Andrew Murray-Watson reports
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The Independent Online

It has been a lousy year for the BBC. First it lost Michael Grade, its director-general, to ITV. Then it discovered that the Government wasn't going to sign off on its extravagant budget plans for the next six years. And earlier this summer it became embroiled in a whole host of viewer-related scandals including fixing phone-ins and competitions. Blue Peter, the most saintly of all TV programmes, was caught up in the furore.

Then just two weeks ago Peter Fincham, controller of BBC1, resigned after the station broadcast a misleading trailer for its documentary The Queen.

Apparently, the great British public no longer has so much trust in the broadcaster and on Wednesday, the BBC Trust, the governing body of the corporation, will sign off on plans to slash the BBC's budget – a move that could see up to 3,000 staffers receive their P45 in the post.

The mood at Corporation House is grim. There is talk of strike action, amid growing noises that editorial controls have slipped significantly from acceptable levels. Deputy heads are set to roll.

On Thursday, Mark Thompson, the beleaguered director-general, will announce to the world the details of his restructuring programme. Of the 2,600 anticipated job cuts, it has been rumoured that 600 could go from BBC News. The BBC Trust has also insisted that the corporation makes 3 per cent efficiency gains every year in the face of the smaller-than-expected rise in the licence fee that has left the broadcaster with a £2bn black hole in its finances over the next five years.

So what will be the results of Thursday's announcement?

First, and perhaps most important, the BBC is taking great pains to persuade the licence fee payer that it is going to focus on its strengths.

Sir Michael Lyons, the chairman of the BBC Trust, says: "We have to be able to deliver perceived value for all licence fee payers... emphasising areas where the BBC can demonstrate its distinctiveness – news, current affairs, drama and comedy.

But, as Sir Michael readily admits, the BBC will be making and commissioning less original programming. It will be scaling back to its core competences. "Output will be focused on what the BBC does best and be distinctive in quality in the things we choose to do."

He adds that every pound from the licence fee payer must be "squeezed" to give maximum value for the BBC's audience. "You have to be able to deliver perceived value for all licence fee payers," he says.

This focus on the BBC's strong points could be interpreted as a message of comfort to the likes of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys that flagship programmes on the BBC's core TV and radio channels will be shielded to some extent from the cuts. What is less certain, however, is the fate of the corporation's newer channels, which don't have many viewers and are only available to those with digital television.

"We have explored this issue carefully," says Sir Michael. "I made clear just after I took this job that nothing would be regarded as beyond question.

"We have had a debate and we have looked at whether we should close one or more [digital] channels.

"BBC3 and 4 were explicitly introduced as part of the migration to digital broadcasting. We don't think that job is finished. They were both intended to be distinctive in terms of the audience they were addressing.

"One of the things we will be saying is that we have to get sharper at making the channels more effectively focused on audiences for which they were intended."

So what does that mean? Well, the bottom line is that the BBC will still be broadcasting the same number of hours of content, but making less original programming. This would seem to indicate that the corporation will be forced to delve into its archive drawer and show more repeats.

"Obviously with less programmes, we will put a stronger premium on quality of scheduling and what is chosen for which channel. That is the job the director-general is very handsomely paid for. What some of us term a repeat is an opportunity for another audience to see something for the first time."

That could mean less original programming being made for BBC3 and 4 and more programmes being shown on multiple BBC channels at different times and on different days of the week – a move known as "narrative repeats".

However, it still looks a compromise action that smacks of "salami slicing" – a phrase used by Mr Thompson earlier this year to describe what he did not want to happen to the BBC's output.

Mr Humphrys has said that he wants BBC3 and 4 shut down entirely, saving an estimated £160m per year, with the savings ploughed into BBC1 and 2 and the corporation's five main radio stations. But such bold action now looks to have been ruled out.

One BBC insider says: "Thompson had originally wanted to make dramatic cuts to unpopular or niche services in order to preserve the BBC's core programming. However, he now looks persuaded of the view that the BBC has to be all things to all people in order to justify its licence fee.

"This view is popular among the upper echelons of BBC management, which is mainly made up of BBC lifers."

Mr Thompson will say on Thursday that the proportion of the BBC's total budget that is spent on news and current affairs will not be reduced. However, reporters will increasingly be asked to work for multiple mediums – such as the BBC's website, radio stations and TV channels.

Mr Thompson does not want to see an online reporter, a radio reporter and a TV reporter all turning up to cover, for example, a high-profile court case.

BBC programme makers will undoubtedly be hit hard, as the corporation increasingly relies on buying in programmes from independent producers.

One BBC source says: "There is definitely an argument that there are now too many people making too few programmes within the BBC's production arm." However, populist programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing will be preserved.

Television Centre, the corporation's iconic London home, will be sold to developers, along with Woodlands, another of its London offices.

But as the BBC closes some old doors, it remains to be seen whether it can open sufficient new ones to regain the trust of its own staff, let alone that of a cynical nation.