Survival of the weakest

In its efforts to win the ratings war, its rivals claim the BBC is losing sight of its public-service remit
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The Independent Online

Two weeks into BBC 1's new schedule, British television is at war with itself - and the outbreak of hostilities will come into the open today.

Two weeks into BBC 1's new schedule, British television is at war with itself - and the outbreak of hostilities will come into the open today.

The row, sparked by the BBC's decision to move its news to 10pm and fuelled by scheduling changes that have had both the BBC and ITV claiming dirty tricks, it has now become a battle about the nature of public service broadcasting itself.

At a meeting of the Royal Television Society, Culture Secretary Chris Smith will face furious ITV executives, armed with piles of evidence gathered over the past fortnight and designed to show that the BBC is in breach of its Charter commitment to public service broadcasting.

Chris Smith is sympathetic to ITV's argument. He is clearly incensed at the BBC 1's rushed introduction of its new line-up. In private, he has told TV executives that if the BBC loses news audiences as a result of the move from nine "that seems a clear breach of the purposes laid down in the Charter."

The BBC's defence is weakened by schedules like tonight's. EastEnders at 7.30 is followed by the quiz show The Weakest Link at 8pm and more EastEnders at 8.40. Such a dismal parade is hard to square with the public service commitments in the BBC Charter.

"If BBC 1 looks like a commercial channel in everything but ads," says Conservative Culture spokesman Peter Ainsworth, "you have to ask important questions about why it is being funded by a licence fee at all."

ITV is fanning the flames of the dispute, suggesting that the BBC schedule changes should be subjected to a six month review. Peter Ainsworth supports the idea, and has tabled a parliamentary question asking Mr Smith whether he is considering it. At the same time, he is asking Mr Smith to make it clear whether he considers the BBC to be in breach of the charter.

Today at the RTS meeting, Chris Smith will take questions from television executives, many of whom believe that the BBC's governors have been discredited.

"If the BBC is forced to back down on the BBC 1 schedule, it's a resigning issue for Greg [Dyke]", says an ITV executive. ITV is gathering evidence to support its assertion that the BBC is ditching its commitment to public service broadcasting.

The commercial network points out that news audiences have already fallen in the new 10 o'clock slot - despite the temporary support of the last series of One Foot in the Grave and movies like Men in Black. In the first week, weekday audiences fell to 5.2 million from the 6 million autumn average. Week two was much worse. The average fell to just 4.3 million, and Wednesday hit an astonishing low of 3.7 million.

ITV lobbyists are supplying politicians of all parties with evidence that the Beeb has been disingenous in its presentation of its plans to parliament. BBC chairman Christopher Bland, they point out, told the Culture select committee that "we would only move a news programme if we thought the audience would be greater rather than less for news".

But the real issue is what is happening to the mix of programmes on BBC 1. "A year ago, during these two weeks, there were more than seven hours of public service broadcasting in weekday peak," says the ITV executive. "That included Walking with Dinosaurs, The Major Years, Panorama and Inside Story. This year over the same period there is not a single heavyweight PSB programme on BBC 1 weekday peak."

BBC 1 is still carrying excellent Public Service Programmes - such as Robert Winston's Superhuman - but they are relegated to Sunday night. Panorama has been particularly hurt by its move to a graveyard slot on Sunday. Just over a week ago an edition of Panorama about the US elections managed an audience of just 2.2 million, compared with 3.3 million for a Panorama edition about the 1996 US election - evidence that the move has cost the programme a million viewers.

Since the new schedule began, the greatest damage has been to BBC 2. Following the scheduling changes, BBC 2's audience share fell to 8.3 per cent from its 9.5 per cent average - down 13 per cent. This compares with a 10 per cent loss for Channel 4 and 9 per cent for Channel 5.

"BBC 2 is losing in three ways," says a senior ITV manager. "It is the primary victim of BBC 1's aggressive scheduling, it is being forced to surrender its popular programmes like Have I Got News for You to BBC 1, and it will become a dumping ground for the 'old faithfuls' on BBC 1 which are not attracting ratings."

The BBC's best answer to its critics will be to improve its performance. To find a new Walking with Dinosaurs to run mid-week, to reverse its disastrous performance on popular drama, and to produce such stunning ratings that its news audiences improve dramatically.

All that is fantastically difficult to bring about. But it is not impossible, and new BBC 1 Controller Lorraine Heggessey has been given £100m of extra cash to make it happen.

Politicians and ITV bosses are eager to try to persuade Chris Smith that the Corporation has "materially changed" BBC 1 and has thereby reneged on the Charter. The consequences of that would be dramatic. Governors would, more than likely, be scrapped. Greg Dyke's head might roll. But even if Ms Heggessey succeeds, it is too late to dim the bright light that the row has shone on the issue of the governance and accountability of the BBC.

There are few politicians and commentators left who do not find it decidedly odd that chairman Christopher Bland seems to manage the Beeb with his friend Greg Dyke, introducing the most controversial programme changes in its history - and at the same time is supposed to do a quasi-independent job as the regulator of the Corporation.

Rumours abound that the BBC will try to hoodwink government by "reforming the governors" before government makes any decisions on the issue. "They might create a separate secretariat, hoping it will hang on to some powers," says an insider. "But I'm not sure they'll succeed. Government has become too sceptical of us."